Ever since ancient times, man has looked to the stars for guidance and inspiration. Stars played a role in religious and spiritual ceremonies, early astronomers grouped the stars into constellations and the constellations were named. Travellers on land and sea would use the stars for navigation. Vast, sparkling night-time skies have inspired writers, artists and poets and yet in modern times, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see the Milky Way from our heavily light-polluted urban areas.
The best places to study the constellations is through the age-old way used by our ancestors – in a dark place, on a clear dark night, beneath the dome of the sky.
This is not, however, always possible for city dwellers. Another dome mimicking the skies above can be found in planetariums and one of the best places to find out more about the night-time sky is to visit a planetarium. This is a theatre where scenes of stars and planets can be seen on a large dome-shaped projection scene. Stars and other celestial bodies can be made to move as they would in the skies to stimulate their motions in the heavens.
Not every town and city has a planetarium in which case mobile domes can be set up in schools and colleges. Space Encounters Mobile Planetarium for instance, has been providing a travelling planetarium service since 2002, their presentation offering an accurate representation of 3000 star points presented at an appropriate level for the age of their audience.
There are many free web-based resources for the urban astronomer who is keen to discover more about the planets, constellations, galaxies and comets that light up our nightime skies. From the Wynyard Woodland Park Planetarium and Observatory site, it is possible to download information packs, charts, guides, activities and work sheets.
Celestia provides free space simulation software that lets you explore the universe in three dimensions. This software runs on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux and it comes with a large catalogue of stars, galaxies, planets, asteroids, comets and more.
Google Sky brings millions of stars and galaxies directly into your home while the urban stargazer might explore the universe through observing images from NASA’s Hubble space Telescope or browsing through a series of short videos of Hubble’s activities to create their own home-theatre planetarium.
Astronomy Societies provide up-to-date information and help bring like-minded people together. The Index of British Astronomy Societies provides a list of societies in Great Britain. While a more comprehensive index gives information about Astronomy Societies, Centres and groups throughout the world.
For those who want to go more deeply into the study, there are on-line astronomy courses available such as Astronomy by Distance Learning which offers ten course options including Stars, Planetary Geology, Galaxies and Exploring the Universe.
On a clear night, urban dwellers might catch a glimpse of the stars and galaxies as the ancients used to see them. The more the light on earth, the more difficult it is to see through the light pollution and the night sky no longer looks pitch black. There is growing concern about light pollution but never before has there been so many resources (through the internet, books, magazines, planetariums and mobile planet theatres) for the urban stargazer to enjoy.