Welcome

I've been an astronomer for over forty years and this site is intended to document many of my public access projects. These include my lecture series for WEA (www.wea.org.uk) and the on-line lecture series produced in collaboration with the Royal Astronomical Society (www.ras.ac.uk).

I also maintain a small blog - see below - which is updated once or twice a week.

News

15-Nov-19 : WEA / RAS200 Astronomy Course resumes

  • The WEA /RAS 200 On-line Astronomy Course kicked off again last night and, as promised, I've uploaded a Glossary of Terms so that the learners can read up on what I'm talking about.

28-Oct-19 : WEA Astronomy Course 2020

  • The WEA NE Astronomy Course will resume in January 2020 at a new venue, as yet to be confirmed.
  • The emphasis of the course will be on Beginner's Astronomy. We'll get back to basics and study subjects including but not limited to : the solar system, comets, the constellations, exo-planets, telescopes and so much more.
  • Please come back later when we're able to confirm details.

28-Oct-19 : WEA / RAS 200 Astronomy Course

  • My RAS 200 / WEA on-line astronomy course resumes on November 14th 2019 at 7 pm.
  • To access the course, you'll need to download and install the Zoom video broadcast tool. To learn how to do that, follow this link: https://wea.instructure.com/courses/645
  • In these sessions, we will explore the past, present and future of astronomy, talking about the objects in the night sky, our exploration of the heavens, and the events that will impact on our understanding of the Universe. We will also discuss the best type of equipment that will enable students to learn about science and to observe the night sky for themselves.
  • You can enrol online here: https://www.wea.org.uk/beginners-astronomy

21-Oct-19 : Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society

  • I am delighted to announce that I have been elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
  • You can learn more about the society online here: http://ras.ac.uk

The Blog

Brace yourself...

15-Nov-19 : Off to a smashing start

My on-line astronomy class produced for the WEA and supported by the Royal Astronomical Society resumed last night and what a cracking night it was.

A huge increase in the numbers meant that our advertising worked wonders. I felt that the whole session went very well despite some fairly awful problems with my voice. I'm having some difficulty shaking a throat infection so I sounded a little croaky at times.

As promised, I've added a Glossary of Terms so that learners can read up in advance on some of the terms that get tossed around rather casually by yours truly. The document I uploaded is a modified and updated of an early glossary, produced around 1993 and containing a number of defintions which related to my apprenticeship at The Sinden Optical Company in the early 80's. I enjoyed re-reading them and decided to leave them alone so that another generation can read and enjoy.


11-Nov-19 : Is that a smudge on my lens?

It’s a cold dark night in November. You’re outside with a small group of enthusiastic amateur astronomers and you’re keen to get them hooked. You want to feed their new addiction.

There are a handful of objects in the night sky that are guaranteed to make a nascent astronomer really sit back and take notice. In no particular order these are: The Moon, The Andromeda Galaxy, The Pleiades, Jupiter/Saturn and … one other. Please forgive the deliberate tease. I want you to keep reading.

The Moon is an easy win but it isn’t always visible and when it is, its light can be a bit of a nuisance in that it blots out many of the fainter objects. However, seeing the Moon for the first time through a telescope, for real, and not just on a screen or in a book but actually for real, as photons screaming at you through the void of space… that’s pretty hard to beat.

Similarly, Jupiter and the Andromeda Galaxy. They’re hard to top. Jupiter and it’s bigger Moons. The Galileo Moons. “Fireflies” was how Big G described them.

And we’re seeing Andromeda as it was two million years ago because that’s how long those photons have been in transit. That’s a real mind bender. Think about it. You’re a photon and you’ve just spent two million years traversing the inky blackness of space, enduring the lonely isolation, surviving the chasm that separates two sibling Galaxies… and your light is stopped in the last pico second of your two million year journey when it gets trapped behind a cloud or bounces off the windscreen of a 1978 Morris Marina. Makes you want to stay in bed somedays.

However, being positive...

The Pleiades too, outlined below. Thousands of stars born from the same nebula, all spreading out across the vastness of space, bound together by gravity.

But there’s one object that, for my money, really makes the imagination soar. One glimpse and you’re suddenly transported somewhere else, and it isn’t on this world.

That object is the Orion Nebula.

Orion the Hunter is one of the easiest constellations to find. At the moment, it’s rising in the east just before 11 pm and it’s a huge rectangle with three amazing “Belt” Stars.

Now, look just below those three belt stars. You should see a small off-white smudge, which looks utterly unremarkable. This is the Orion Nebula.

And you might be tempted to think “Oh, that’s just a blemish on my lens” or “I need to see the Optician again. There’s something in my eye...” but..

Take a second look. Grab a telescope or a pair of binoculars and have another go. What can you make out? A couple of bright stars and a blurred patch of gas. Not very impressive, is it?

Now, step back from the edge a little and have a long, hard think about that small grey-white smudge. How far away is it? Well, we think we know how far away it is and the result might just surprise you. It’s around one thousand three hundred light years away. This means it takes the light from the Orion Nebula over thirteen hundred years travelling through space before it reaches the back of your eye.

And if the Orion Nebula is that far away then how big is that structure physically? And what’s it like to find yourself floating in the midst of that bubble of gas?

For an observer on Earth, the nebula is roughly the size of the full Moon - about half a degree across the sky. But remember this - that small white smudge is just those areas of the nebula that we can see with the naked eye. As you might imagine, the nebula is actually much, much bigger, and that becomes apparent as soon as you look through even a modest telescope.

A pair of binoculars will show you the central region and maybe the four bright stars - The Trapezium - at the heart of the nebula. A bigger telescope, say a six inch reflector, will show you some of the extended clouds and structures.

With an even bigger telescope and your eyes fully dark-adapted, you should be able to see curving arcs of gas spreading across the entire region. I’ve included one of my renderings of the nebula to give you an idea of what you can see with, say, a ten inch Maksutov Telescope.

Now for the best bit. If this doesn’t blow your mind then... maybe you need to think about another hobby or interest. I hear stamp collecting is a lot of fun.

Way back in 2006, NASA pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at the Orion Nebula and, over 106 orbits, they assembled one of the most detailed astronomical images ever. This image is available to look at for free over on the nebula’s Wiki page. The composite image is roughly 18000 pixels wide by 18000 pixels high so it’s a big image. If you want to view it, make sure you have lots of disk space, a powerful computer and a fast connection.

And I would urge you to do just that. Download the image in a browser and then use the Zoom button. See what you can find.

I’ll give you some hints. You’ll see expanding bubbles of gas, bright stars, curving arcs of the most amazing structures and truly beautiful objects called proplyds, which are expanding discs of photo-planetary systems. Yes, stars and planets actually forming before your very eyes.

So what is the Orion Nebula? We think it's the remnants of a series of huge supernovae explosions, which happened when a group of stars left over from the formation of the early universe reached the end of their lives and exploded in sequence in roughly the same region of space about three billion years ago. The Orion Nebula is the debris from that explosion and has been expanding through space ever since. We can't visually see all of the debris from those explosions because some of it is obscured by dust between us and the Nebula itself but our instruments tell us it's there. And it's remarkable.

For me, this all about the romance of astronomy. To imagine that all of this took place in the night sky before there were humans walking the Earth, before life had even crawled out of the oceans. There’s a real, solid, tangible connection between us, in the present, and an enormous cataclysm which took place a long time ago in our own galaxy.

Studying this nebula as it is now gives us picture of our origins in space and time, and what might become of our region of space in years to come when the Sun starts to wain and humans have long since migrated across the galaxy and perhaps gone on to form new Earths.


08-Nov-19 : Space Zone @ Centre for Life, Newcastle

I was looking forward to this exhibition. I really was. However, I can't and won't pretend that it wasn't a massive disappointment. It was. And expensive too. For the first time in a very long time, I came away from a museum with the feeling that I didn't get anything like good value for money.

First off, at twelve pounds per adult, the entry fee is steep.

Secondly, the Space Zone exihibition space feels incredibly sparce or maybe it just felt like that because there was nobody else there. Just a handful of CfL staffers looking bored.

Most of the exhibits are computer screens. Some of the screens are purely informational whilst others feature one or two interesting puzzles. We both enjoyed the satellite challenge and the 3D house of the future interactive was very good although, in the end, it had the feel of a NASA sales pitch. However, whilst the screen detailing the workings of our GPS system was initially informative, the voice-over quickly became loud and obtrusive, and ultimately just plain annoying. Like Mona Lisa's eyes, the commentary follows you around the exhibition and there's no escaping its nagging tones.

We'd been in the building less than five minutes when we were pounced on by the first of a series of researchers asking questions about how they could make the Centre better. We asked for a bit more time before adding our comments.

Mission Control was quite impressive. In particular we liked the main high definition display showing scenes from a recent Space walk even though it was on a relatively short loop. I enjoyed some of the puzzles and some of the role playing games. Flight Director was quite taxing mentally, as was the lunar lander simulation. However, the Space Debris Catcher didn't work and one or two of the purely informational screens contained some glaring errors as well as a couple of spelling mistakes. Quality Control?

The majority of the display boards littered around the floor were static and contained little more than career advice for teens. The biggest disappointment was the mockup of the interior of the International Space Station. It had a real Blue Peter feel to it, and that isn't a compliment. I can't help but feel that the majority of visitors would find Fenwick's Christmas windows more interesting.

Sadly, the space reserved for the Planets Informational was off-limits because the main exhibit (another screen) was in pieces on the floor. The same applied to the Mars Rover exhibition. The display was working but the software was stuck.

At this point, we were pounced on by another researcher who wanted to know how they could make the exhibition better. I declined to say anything. I wasn't very happy and I didn't have anything positive to say.

Finally, we took refuge in the Planetarium, which thankfully didn't disappoint. Tales of a Time Traveller was well thought out and well delivered even if it too contained a couple of factual errors. However, aside from the operator, we were the only people present and the whole facility had the feel of a rather sweaty ghost ship.

When I compare and contrast this exhibition with Amazing Space over at The Word in South Shields, the much bigger Great North Museum and the even bigger Discovery Museum, I came away feeling monumentally disappointed. All of the forgoing spaces are free to enter and The Word seemed to cram in an awful lot more in a fraction of the space, no pun intended.

The Space Zone exhibition is for teens. There's nothing here for pre-schoolers and nothing here for adults. It's just a career drive for the local Universities who are, surprise, surprise, the main sponsors.

Alas, the Centre for Life seems to be... lacking a lot these days. Other visitors have echoed my complaints and, sad to say, I don't think I'll be going back any time soon.

Worse, now that they've cancelled Maker Faire and have taken to propping up their earnings with an Ice Rink and various novelty shows in Times Square, I'm left wondering how much life is left in Life.


05-Nov-19 : Twelve things which annoy astronomers

... well, maybe this astronomer...

  • 1. Clouds
  • 2. Rain
  • 3. People who confuse astronomy and astrology
  • 4. People who insist that Uranus is pronounced Your-anus.
  • 5. Christening an object OUMUAMUA
  • 6. Dropping your telescope’s counterweight on your foot
  • 7. Did I mention rain?
  • 8. People who think it matters that Pluto isn’t a proper planet anymore
  • 9. Dropping your favourite eyepiece in a cow pat
  • 10. People who insist that the light on the horizon is the vanguard of an alien armada when it's actually the 2245 flight from Bergen
  • 11. Confidently informing the astronomical community that you've found an alien megastructure around Tabby's star
  • 12. Did I mention clouds?

  • 01-Nov-19 : Los Angeles, November 2019

    Way back in the mists of time, Summer 1982 to be specific, I was dragged (screaming) to a Star Trek convention in my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne. I enjoyed myself, after a fashion, although the highlight of the weekend was not the tall, statuesque lady bedecked as a member of the Vulcan High Command or the near-naked Andorian lady who, it transpired, wasn't ignoring my feeble attempts at a conversation but was actually Italian and didn't speak very much English at all.

    No, the genuine highlight of the weekend was a trailer for a soon-to-be-released film, which had somehow sneaked in under the radar of all things Star Trek. This film was not Star Trek. This film was different. It was an adventure but, we were told, it was a thinking person's adventure. Though shot throughout in full colour, it was classic film noir. This was something different.

    And, right from the opening images, it looked amazing, utterly amazing. This was due, in part, to the futuristic stylings of the legendary Sid Mead, but also because it had grown from the imagination of Whitley Bay alumni made-good, namely Ridley Scott, later Sir Ridley Scott.

    The film, of course, was Blade Runner.

    If you haven't seen Blade Runner or one of its numerous edits at some point in the last thirty seven years then you must have been living near the Tanhauser Gates. (Did you see what I did there?) Okay, so if you haven't seen the movie then here's a brief synopsis.

    In the near future, (today to be specific!) humans share the planet with their genetically engineered slaves, termed Replicants. Replicants are artificial people - better, stronger and fitter than their human counterparts, and certainly as intelligent as the human engineers who designed them. Sounds brilliant. Cheap labour. However, there's a catch. Replicants are basically humans in disguise and so they're subject to the same needs and drives as real humans, which makes them a threat to their creators. Hence, they're deliberately limited. They have a four year life span. After that, pop. They're gone. They've also been exiled from Earth on pain of Death. Any replicant who trespasses will be hunted down and killed by the eponymous Blade Runners.

    In the movie, six Replicants return to earth in the hope of trying to locate their maker, Eldon Tyrell. Their goal? More life. They want to bypass the four year limit and to do that, they need to seek out their God, their Creator, who can remake them anew. Blade Runner Harrison Ford is assigned to track the renegade Raplicants down and he does...

    But hang on? Why is this film in a blog about astronomy? Well, this blog isn't specificially about Astronomy. After all, it's my blog and I make the rules.

    Okay, it's here because the date is special. Yesterday, October 31st 2019, was the last day that we could possibly say that Blade Runner was set in the future because Blade Runner is set in November 2019.

    Blade Runner is the present. Blade Runner is now. Blade Runner is today.

    Except that it isn't. Earth is still largely habitable and we don't have flying cars. Not yet, anyway. Or Replicants. Or a raging Environmental Metdown. But what about in five years time? What about sometime in the next say... thirty seven years?

    Boston Dynamics have a stand-alone robot that can do gymnastics. Where will they be in five years? We have TV programmes with AI news readers, and you absolutely can't tell whether you're watching a human or a data file. And designs for flying cars are all over the Engineering Press at the moment. How long before the first flying car hits the marketplace, and how long before the Government formulates the appropriate legislation to make sure these things don't fall out of the skies whenever they need an MOT?

    The Environmental Meltdown depicted in Blade Runner hasn't happened yet but I'm not massively optimistic in this regard. I think we're putting way too much faith in our ability to come up with a scientific solution to the crisis and we're not addressing the real driving force behind the planet's destruction - that we're pumping staggering amounts of waste energy into our atmosphere.

    Okay, so where's the astronomy? Well, the film talks a lot about off world colonies and the need for labour on the colonised worlds. Aside from the rather awful notion that we've simply dumped our humanity out of the window and decided that Slavery is somehow okay because the AI we made is just a machine in a new skin, this implies that we've managed to jump to other star systems. But how? This would mean we'd somehow mastered Faster-than-Light Drives, and we're still scrabbling around in the dark where they're concerned. And where are those colonies? Which planet? Neither issue is addrressed in the film (which pehaps is a saving grace, come to think of it...)

    Replicant Roy Batty's closing speech is notable in that it mentions "C-Beams glittering off the Tanhauser Gates" and "Attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion", although likewise, they are not expanded upon either in the original film nor the underrated sequel.

    Blade Runner is both wildly pessimistic about our future on this small blue rock but, conversely, it's also wildly over-optimistic. Maybe there's hope yet.

    I'm still left with one question... Just where did the last thirty seven years go?

    30-Oct-19 : Amazing Space, The Word, South Shields

    A trip to out into the wilds yesterday, South Shields to be specific, to view the Amazing Space exhibition at The Word .

    The sun is shining and the wind is coming off the land so it’s not freezing cold as we glide down The Leas towards the beach and the distant funfair... However, I make the mistake of parking too far from our destination - why? I don’t know - and I will soon realise that whilst it’s downhill all the way into the Town Centre, this is going to be a difficult and time consuming walk back, and you can bet your first dollar bill that my travelling companion, Christopher, is going to be in full-on whinge mode by then. Such is life.

    The Exhibition Space is quite small - we were here a couple of years ago for the Ridley Scott Exhibition - but the curators do manage to cram in quite a lot into a tiny area.

    The theme is, as you might imagine, space, and forms part of the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landings. Good for them. I note that several of the local institutions, specifically those who actually HANDLED Moon Rock samples on behalf of NASA way back in 1970, did not actually do ANYTHING special or noteworthy to mark the event. You know, might have been nice guys, to to perhaps remember some of the fellows who did some amazing work.

    There’s some good science here, and the wall decorations are both rich and informative. There’s a lot to take in - a short film about life as an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, some props from Star Trek (which are reproductions rather than originals) and some very colourful graphics. Science Fiction is predominant though, which might not be to your taste but does serve to show that Science and Science Fiction are closely linked, even if they are uneasy bedfellows. What science there is... is good.

    All of the graphics are excellent - especially the representation of the scale of the Universe (the bits that we know about anyway). Impressive.

    Chris was captivated for the first twenty minutes but he fell asleep as soon as we came across the panel dedicated to Kubrick’s seminal “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Hey ho. Can't have everything...

    We left after an hour or so, convinced that we would return later in greater numbers. It’s worth a visit. Nothing you haven’t seen before but well presented and, as I said, a lot to see in a small space.

    Yes, the walk back to the car was difficult and Christopher did go into full-on whinge mode but... we had fun. Next time, park closer.

    More information here

    29-Oct-19 : Adventures in space and time...

    This is Christopher James Hughes. He's six months old.

    27-Oct-19 : You know it's winter when...

    You know that Winter has well and truly arrived when you spot the Pleiades rising in the east shortly before midnight.

    Strangely, the Pleiades always seems to bring on something close to a state of nirvana for certain die-hard amateur astronomers, myself included. Winter means cold nights, ground frosts and stout underwear, the sort of underwear that needs to be three inches thick just to stop your legs sticking to the telescope's tripod. And observings. Lots and lots of 'scope time.

    In addition, there's something wonderfully anarchic about observing the sky when everyone else is tucked up in bed and dreaming of... something other than astronomy. Sliding under the duvet after a long night hunting for an obscure Messier Objects feels incredibly rebellious.


    First steps...

    The Pleiades, also known as The Seven Sisters, is an easy 'object', even for the novice astronomer. They're a collecton of stars grouped closelytogether in the sky, not far from the constellation Taurus. They're easily visible to the naked eye - even in quite light-polluted areas. Of course, how many Pleiades you can see depends very much upon how dark your sky is and, as I've recently discovered, how much of the sky you can still see without spectacles.


    When I was fifteen and just starting out in astronomy, I could easily make out around ten to sixteen members of the Pleaides cluster. These days, now that I have astigmatism in both eyes, I can make out maybe seven in good conditions. However, from my front garden, which is marginally less light-polluted than Wembley Stadium, all I can really see is a smudge.

    Matters improve dramatically when I pick up a pair of binoculars - assumining I can find my binoculars, which is not always easy in a house when you have a six month old son who is just starting to pick things up. Heavy objects, like binoculars, have to be moved out of harm's way lest he drop them on his head, and that means I can never find the darned things...


    Anyway, in low power binoculars, the Pleiades are an absolute gem. They're actually better in a low power telescope than in a high power instrument because you can fit all of the major stars into the same field of fiew.

    Straight away, you should see that there are six stars of roughly the same brightness. There's also a seventh Pleiad, which is not quite as bright as the others and seems to have faded somewhat. In historical times, this star was the same brightness as the others in the cluster - hence the term The Seven Sisters - which causes us to ask the question 'Why has it faded?' and, truthfully, we don't have a good answer. Curiously, the legend of a lost seventh Pleiad is universal - European, African, Asian, Indonesian, Native American & Aboriginal Australian populations all have legends relating to the 7th brightest Pleiades star – Pleione.


    Want to see more? Go to a really dark site with a really good telescope and you might just be able to see a faint, whispy cloud around each of the stars. It takes time and patience but it's worth it. This is the Maia Nebula, and we think that this is what's left of the birthplace of the Pleaides Cluster. Actually, this region of space is filled with this special kind of nebulae, termed a Reflection Nebula. It gets that name because it shines by reflected light. There's another reflection nebula nearby, the Merope Nebula, although it too is only really visible with a big telescope.

    The thing about the Pleiades is that there's a lot of them... Estimates vary but there's certainly more than three thousand of them spread over roughly thirteen light years. They're all coupled together - what astronomers called Gravitationally bound - and, from analysis of their chemical make-up, they seem to share a common origin.


    Please excuse the brevity of this blog entry. Rather than try to cram a huge number of amazing facts into just one blog entry, I decided to keep it brief. However, why not do some research for yourself? See how far you can get. Then go have a look at this remarkable little group of stars and be prepared to be amazed.


    One parting thought... Here's something for you to ponder whilst everyone else is asleep.


    Do you wonder what it's like to live on a planet close up to the Pleiades. What are the skies like at night? What might a typical sunset look like on such a planet? Is it ever truly dark? I wonder what the summers are like? Are the winters harsh? Is there someone up there looking down at me and thinking 'I wish I had nice, dark skies...'


    Something to think about, eh?

    25-Oct-19 How did you get into astronomy?

    Every term, I kick off my classes with an invitation. I ask members of the class to tell the rest of the group how and why they got into astronomy. I always try to make this a friendly and non-threatening experience. It's an important exercise for a numbers of reasons. Firstly, it gives members an opportunity to introduce themselves to the group and perhaps share their experiences and their histories. Secondly, it's an opportunity for me to discover more about my learners, an activity which has sometimes turned up some incredible memories. One gentleman talked about his experiences whilst working down at the South Pole. Another talked about his life in the RAF. And so on. Thirdly, it's about building confidence. If someone is afraid to voice their opinion then, as a group, we need to make sure that this person is able to talk and ask questions freely, without fear or intimidation. Finally, the exercise is both useful in trying to establish a group dynamic and as a way of looking for signs of bullying, which I won't tolerate in any of my classes.

    And yet, strange as it may seem, I've never gone through this exercise myself.

    So here goes...

    I was probably about fourteen or fifteen years old and a pupil at Rutherford Comprehensive in Newcastle upon Tyne when I was bitten by the astronomy bug. Properly bitten that is. Properly bitten as in hopelessly smitten. For as long as I can remember, I've always had more than a passing interest in space and space exploration, an interest which had its roots in my passion for science fiction. That interest was certainly much in evidence well before the days of the Apollo missions although those lunar meanderings seemed to be the catalyst for the Great Adventure which was to come.

    Rutherford was founded by the formidable The Rev. Dr John Hunter Rutherford and the school's motto Nec Sorte, Nec Fato, loosely translates as Not by chance nor by fate, seems to be particularly relevant in this instance because...

    I found two of my fellow schoolboys kicking a small book down the corridor. When challenged, said schoolboys responded with a series of expletives which I will not repeat herein because such shipyard language is best left in the shipyards or perhaps in 10, Downing Street, where it is more appropriate. The boys ran away, leaving the little book behind them, and presumably moved on to another soft target, perhaps a Geography teacher, the Classics Master or something else inanimate. Such was life at a Comprehensive School in the 1970's.

    I picked up the book and slipped it into my pocket, intent on returning the shabby volume to the school library later that day. However, the book was in a pretty poor state - the spine was ripped and the cover was torn - and I knew that if I returned the book to the library then it would almost certainly be tossed in a bin because it was too expensive and too time consuming to repair it. So I put it back in my pocket and there it stayed.

    The book was a pocket edition of Patrick Moore's Observer's Book of Astronomy.

    Later that night, I opened the book...

    Nec sorte, Nec Fato.

    ... and I was hooked. In an instant. That's all it took.

    I knew some of the images at first sight. Any fan of Star Trek would recognise the Horsehead Nebula because that image was displayed regularly atop Mr. Spock's science station. I was in familiar territory.

    However, there was more. I already knew some of the constellations. Orion was easy. So was the Ursa Major/Great Bear but here were others that I didn't know, specifically Lyra, Cygnus, Taurus, Gemini. I wondered if I could find them. So I did.

    And as chance would have it, all of the major bright planets (with the exception of Venus) were on display in the sky over my head at that exact moment. You couldn't have wanted a better time to get into in Astronomy.

    Jupiter was the first object I studied in any great detail. The largest planet in our solar system had become a regular travelling companion as I walked home from school on those long, dark Winter nights. It would follow me from the school gates all the way through Fenham, down Brighton Grove and, eventually, right up to my front door in Spital Tongues, Newcastle. Later in the evening, when the house was quiet and everyone else was in bed, I would take out my binoculars and peek under its petticoats, so to speak. I was rarely disappointed. Jupiter knows how to tease an astronomer.

    With the naked eye, Jupiter is a small yellowish dot. Through my father's binoculars, it appeared as a small disc surrounded by three or four tiny dots, the so-called Galilean Moons because they were first observed by the renaissance astronomer, Galileo Galilei.

    Spotting those Moons - Io, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede - was a bit of a revelation. I thought that you needed a huge, expensive telescope to do proper astronomy. However you don't. You can do it with just a pair of humble binoculars. These binoculars weren't new and they certainly weren't state of the art. They'd originally been bought as a birthday present for my father but they'd been left, largely unused and unloved, in their box for over a decade, until... the time was right.

    Mars was the next object I discovered. With the unaided eye, Mars looked like a bright red circle perched high in the constellation Gemini. I couldn't make out any detail on its surface and neither could I see its two Moons, Phobos and Deimos, but on Sir Patrick's recommendation, I began recording the position of Mars against the background stars over a period of weeks and then months. What I found was intriguing. Mars didn't move across the sky in a straight line. Instead, there was a kink in its path, a small loop, which I later discovered can only be explained properly by the difference in time it takes for the Earth and Mars to circle the Sun.

    I found Saturn lurking in the constellation Leo, not far from the bright star Regulus. I knew Regulus from Star Trek so, again, I was in familiar territory, and sweeping around this region of the sky was just... inspiring...

    Saturn's rings were not easy to see at first, even in binoculars. Saturn looked like a smaller version of Jupiter only with little lobes on either side, barely visible. I couldn't see any detail although I thought I spotted Saturn's largest Moon, Titan, on several occasions.

    Recognising a new hobby in the making, my mother bought me an early birthday present, a small 40mm Tasco refractor, and.. there they were. The rings. And what was that bright dot to the right of Saturn? Yes, that was Titan.

    Let's not forget the Moon, my first love. I knew some of the Moon's features from my days obsessing over the Apollo Missions. However, Neil and Buzz's epic walk on the surface of our nearest neighbour had become a rapidly fading memory to many and was anybody really interested in the Moon anymore? I know I was. I began sketching the Moon's features even though it's surface had been thoroughly photographed by Russian and American probes for years.

    The thing about the Moon is... Whilst its surface is geologically inactive and hasn't changed in millennia, it's appearance changes as the Sun's position in the sky changes. Every time you look at the Moon, the shadows are slightly longer, or shorter, or darker and you can see far more detail on every occasion. That, in itself, is very rewarding.

    After that, I began observing whenever there was a clear night and, looking back, there were an awful lot of clear nights. Maybe I'm remembering it with rose-tinted glasses but I did seem to spend far too many long hours hiding away in my makeshift observatory - a skylight in the garage roof - when perhaps I should have been doing homework.

    So that was the start.

    I still have that that Observer's Book of Astronomy. It's travelled a bit over the years. I took it with me to America, and my partner spent nearly a year in Norway with this little book, studying the northern constellations from close to the Arctic Circle. And that same book is sitting next to me on my desk as I write this entry. I intend to pass it on to my six month old son, Christopher, just as soon as he has stopped chewing books.

    I wonder where he will take it.