Shots in the dark

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Dramatic photographs and a high-tech telescope are part of a project taking primary pupils on a trip through the night sky. Valerie Hall reports

On a dark, dreary November afternoon, a colourful display at Commonswood Primary School, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, is attracting the sort of "oohs" and "aahs'' you'd expect to hear on the fifth of November. But this is not bonfire night and there are no fireworks - these gasps are triggered by a slideshow and talk on the heavens by Hertfordshire University astronomer Steve Ford.

The show is part of Stars for Schools, a project partly funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. Mr Ford, the project's co-ordinator, is standing beside a powerful computer-controlled telescope, ready for the evening session when - clear skies permitting - pupils, teachers and parents will observe the night sky.

Meanwhile, he gives tailored half-hour talks to Years 3 and 4, then to Years 5 and 6. Against a Skylab photograph of the sun, he explains its importance. Moving on to solar eclipses, he says the next one will be seen in Cornwall on August 11, 1999.

A slide of the crescent moon, pocked with craters and mountains, is followed by one of the second man to walk on it, astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Then a blue and green Earth surrounded by swirling clouds is followed by luminous orange Mars, "gone rusty because it no longer has water". Next, we see Jupiter encircled by "stretched-out weather systems" caused by its short day - it revolves completely in nine hours. A telescope's-eye view reveals the two famous brown bands and three of its moons.

Most spectacular is a space probe photograph of Saturn, with a circle of "rubble", the remains of a ring gravity pulled apart about 100,000 years ago.

Next up are constellations, Mr Ford points out stars in all their colours, their hues depending on their temperature.

Amazed gasps greet telescope images of the Orion and Eagle nebulae. "These pink bubbles were created from giant dustclouds," Mr Ford explains. "We know stars are being created within them." Lastly, the Milky Way: "Our galaxy has 100,000 million stars - there could be that many galaxies in the universe. "

Afterwards children's questions range from the sublime (How do we know black holes exist when we can't see them?) to the ridiculous (Are the stars named after chocolate bars?).

Mr Ford answers them all, thrown only momentarily when asked about worms in space. "Ah, you mean wormholes," he realises, "one of Professor Stephen Hawking's theories that even I find hard to understand."

At the end of the session, several pupils gather round to ask if he believes in aliens ("yes") and whether we can contact them. "That would be pointless, " he says, "as a message would take several light years to get there and several more to come back."

This summer Mr Ford hopes to introduce follow-up, one or two-day training courses for science co-ordinators as "the questions don't stop after I've gone".

The project branched out from the university's work in secondary schools. Primary staff expressed interest at a national Science Week event last March, a PPARC grant paid for a further telescope, and half-day sessions were set up.

Steve Ford also hopes to introduce one-day visits to include making telescopes and nocturnals (devices to tell the time at night), run sessions in secondary schools and set up a resource centre. He would like to see other universities introduce similar schemes, with schools clubbing together to cover costs.

Half-day sessions costing Pounds 65 plus mileage are available in Hertfordshire, surrounding counties and north London. The evening session is free. For details write to University of Hertfordshire Observatory, Bayfordbury, Hertford SG13 8LD. Or e-mail:

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