Lyrid Meteor Shower over Portsmouth via Shutterstock

A week of free, online astronomy events from Monday 25 to Sunday 31 January

  • 13 January 2021
  • 8 min read

Join us this January for our first ever virtual Pompey Stargazing event!

Covid-19 means we can’t hold events in-person in 2021. Instead, we invite you to join us online for a series of talks, events and activities for members of the public.

You can put your questions to expert cosmologists from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth, learn about exciting new telescopes that will soon launch into space, and find out what you can see in the night sky.

The Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation has hosted an annual public 'Stargazing at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard' event since 2013, in collaboration with the National Museum of the Royal Navy. We hope to be back with an in-person event in 2022 but look forward to seeing you online this year instead!

Use the hashtag #PompeyStargazing if you're taking part, telling your friends or sharing your stargazing observations on social media.

Ticketed events

A new era of astronomy

Monday 25 January, 6.00pm

This panel discussion will feature three academics from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation who will share their thoughts about the scientific possibilities of the new generation of space telescopes that are due to come online over the next few years.

Recommended for ages 14+

Book now

Ask us about astronomy and the cosmos!

Tuesday 26 January, 5.00pm

Put your questions about all things astronomical and cosmological to researchers from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation.

Recommended for ages 12+

Book now

Virtual stargazing for schools

Wednesday 27 January, 10.00am-2.45pm

A programme of interactive astronomy sessions for schools and home-schoolers.

The scale of the solar system

10.00am-11.00am

Key stage 2 (ages 7-11)
Galaxy Zoo

12.00pm-12.45pm 

Key stage 3 (ages 11-14) 

Black hole hunter

2.00pm-2.45pm 

Key stage 4 (ages 14-16)

Book now

Cosmic inflation: Physics at the edge of the Universe

Thursday 28 January, 6.00pm

A public talk by Professor David Wands about our current understanding of the early universe and the physics that shaped it.

Recommended for ages 16+

Book now

Virtual stargazing family fun day

Saturday 30 January

Curious about our place in the Universe? Want to know what rainbows have to do with astronomy research? Got a question about space that you've always wanted to ask an astronomer? Join our Virtual Stargazing Family Fun Day from the comfort of your own home.

Our Cosmic Address

10.30am-11.30am

Recommended age 7+

Rainbow Astronomy

1.00pm-1.45pm

Recommended age 11+

Virtual Planetarium Show

2.15pm-3.00pm

Recommended age 5+

Ask us about astronomy!

3.30pm-4.15pm

Recommended age 7+

Book now

Colliding black holes and neutron stars: Detecting gravitational waves

Sunday 31 January, 6pm

A public talk by Dr Laura Nuttall about gravitational waves - tiny ripples in space-time from cataclysmic cosmic sources.

Recommended for ages 16+

Book now

Other activities

Social Media

Keep an eye on the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation Facebook and Twitter pages throughout the week where we'll be on-hand with some bonus content and answers to your stargazing questions.

Night Sky Audio Tour

As we can’t be together in person to show you the night sky, we've created an audio tour that you can download instead.

Take it outside and follow along as Dr Jen Gupta from the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation explores what we'll be able to see from Portsmouth at 7.30pm on a clear evening during the last week of January.

Afterwards, join us on the ICG Facebook page from 8pm where we’ll try to answer any questions you have about what you’ve just seen.

Stream the audio guide or download it to a phone, tablet or music player before you head outside.

Audio guide transcript:

Hello and welcome to this audio tour of the night sky brought to you by the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth, as part of our Virtual Pompey Stargazing event. 

My name is Dr Jen Gupta and I’m an astronomer working at the ICG. Over the next 20 minutes or so, I’ll be helping you to find your way around the night sky and explaining a bit more about what you’re seeing.

This audio tour has been recorded assuming that you’re in Portsmouth in the UK and it’s 7.30 in the evening in the last week of January 2021. That’s the 25th to the 31st of January. The view across the UK should be pretty similar to what we see in Portsmouth, but if you’re in another part of the world, or if you’re outside at a different date or time, then your view of the night sky might not match up to what’s in this guide!

OK. Just a few more things before we head outside. The first is to make sure that you wrap up warm - I can definitely recommend layering up if you’re going to do some stargazing during the winter in the UK! The other thing is to stay safe - particularly at the moment with England in lockdown we’d definitely recommend that you stick to stargazing at home, whether that’s in your garden, from your front step, or even just out of the window! And don’t forget that it’s absolutely not cheating to use an app or a star chart to help you find your way around the night sky. I often use an app called Stellarium to check what I’m looking at. But if you are going to use your phone, it’s best to see if there’s a night mode you can use either on your phone or in the app itself so it doesn’t affect your night vision as much.  

Right. Let’s go! Once you’re in position, take a few minutes to just look up and around the night sky. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness. It actually takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to seeing in the dark so be patient! What can you see? Hopefully some stars, probably some clouds if you’re in the UK! There’s a planet that’s visible to the naked eye this week but we’ll come to that later. There isn’t a meteor shower this week but you still might see a stray shooting star if you’re lucky! There could be trees or buildings in the way in some directions, that’s absolutely fine.

Depending on what day of the week it is, the most obvious thing might be the Moon. It’ll be high up in the south east on Monday the 25th of January, and if you go out each night at this time, you’ll notice that the Moon’s position changes, moving lower and to the left or east each night, until by Sunday it actually won’t have risen at 7.30 so you’ll have to head out a bit later on in the evening if you want to see it. The phase of the Moon changes as well so its shape will be a bit different each night, peaking with a round full Moon on Friday the 29th of January. And this is one of the things that I love about stargazing - the more you do it, the more you notice how the night sky changes - whether it’s over the course of a night, or a month, or a year, the night sky isn’t static. 

As your eyes get used to the darkness you might spot a satellite going overhead. Satellites basically look like stars but they move steadily across the sky. It can sometimes be a bit tricky to tell the difference between a satellite and a plane but remember that satellites don’t have flashing lights like a plane does. The only reason we can see these satellites is because the Sun’s light is reflecting off them. The easiest satellite to spot is the International Space Station, currently home to seven astronauts from the USA, Russia and Japan, who make up Expedition 64. There should actually be some great opportunities to see the ISS this week from Portsmouth if it’s clear - it’ll be visible a bit earlier in the evening, at around 6.30/6.35 on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, and around 5.45 on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check out our UoPCosmology Facebook page for more information about how to spot it, and don’t forget to wave to the astronauts if you do see it!

OK, it’s time to have a more detailed look at some of the stars we can see at the moment. The first pattern of stars, or constellation, that I want to point out is in the south east. Constellations are basically made up dot to dot drawings that astronomers have made by connecting the stars, and they help us find our way around. The constellation we’re starting with is called Orion, and the easiest way to find it is to look for three stars in a straight line that makes up Orion’s belt. If you’re out on Monday the 25th, then look for the Moon and Orion is below and slightly to the right of it, by the 28th it’s directly to the right of the Moon. Have you found the three stars in the belt? Once you’ve got the belt, it’s time to find the rest of him, and depending on the level of light pollution where you are, you might only be able to see a few more of the stars in Orion, so I’m going to focus on them. The easiest way I find to picture Orion is like someone standing in a victory pose, with their legs apart and their arms up in the air. So once you’ve found the belt, go slightly diagonally down from the two outer stars and you’ll get to another two stars that make up Orion’s feet. The one on the right should be brighter - this is a star called Rigel and it should look a bluey white colour. Now we’ve got his feet it’s time to go the other way. Go back up to the belt and this time look above and again slightly diagonal from the outer belt stars. When you do this you’ll see two stars that in my depiction of Orion would be his hands in his victory pose, but in the actual constellation they’re meant to be his shoulders or armpits. The star on the right is called Bellatrix and the star on the left is called Betelguese. Betelguese should look a bit red in colour and it might be pulsating or flickering a bit. Compare it to Rigel on the opposite foot and see if you can tell that they’re different colours. I always keep an eye on Betelguese when I’m out at night in the winter - it’s a red supergiant star that’s coming to the end of its life, which means it should die in a supernova explosion soon and you wouldn’t want to miss that! Although when astronomers say soon, it could be tomorrow, it could be in 10,000 years! So don’t hold your breath! 

OK those are the main stars in Orion but if you are somewhere dark you might be able to see more stars in the constellation. Thinking of Betelguese and Bellatrix as his shoulders, Orion then has one arm extending up and over his head from Betelguese, and the other stretching out to the side from Bellatrix, ending in a vertical line of stars that looks to me like he’s holding a bow to shoot arrows from. Going back to his belt, there’s a vertical line of stars going down from the middle star this line of stars is sword - if you’re somewhere really dark you might notice that one of these stars towards the end looks a bit fuzzy - that’s because it’s not actually a star but the Orion nebula, a cloud of gas and dust where new stars are being born.

Moving on from Orion, we can use his belt to find the brightest star that you can see in the night sky. Imagine drawing a straight line through his belt and down towards the horizon. That line will point you to a very bright star called Sirius. As I said, this is the brightest star that is in our night sky and it’s part of a constellation called Canis Major, or the great dog. In Greek mythology Orion was a hunter and then Canis Major is his hunting dog. The rest of Canis Major is quite low on the horizon at the moment so we won’t try to find the rest of the stars, but you can always look it up later if you’re interested. 

We’re going to swivel round now to the left and look in the north east for one of the most recognisable patterns of stars in the northern sky. These stars will be a little bit lower in the sky, slightly closer to the horizon than Orion, and we’re looking for 7 stars that look a bit like a saucepan with a bent handle that’s on its side, as if someone is holding it aloft, up in the air by the handle. Have you found it? You’re looking for three stars making up the bent handle of the saucepan, that then connect to the top left star of the pot part, and the pot has four stars in total in a trapezium shape that’s wider at the top of the saucepan than the bottom. I really hope that makes sense! This pattern of stars is known as the Plough or the Big Dipper, and it’s not one of the 88 official constellations so we refer to it as an asterism instead. These 7 stars are part of a bigger constellation though, called Ursa Major, or the great bear, but again the rest of the stars in this constellation can be a bit hard to spot if there’s light pollution around so I’ll leave that for you to look up yourself later on if you want. 

The Plough is a great pattern of stars to know how to spot, so if you come away from this experience only remembering one thing then I recommend that it’s this! Unlike Orion which is only visible in our night sky for part of the year, you can see the Plough all year round from the UK so you’ll be able to spot it no matter when you’re doing your stargazing, and once you’ve found the Plough you can use it to find other things in the night sky. Tonight, we’re going to use it to find the north star, also known as the pole star or Polaris. To do this, trace the shape of the saucepan, from the star at the end of the handle, which will be closest to the horizon, along those three handle stars to the top left of the pot, down to the bottom left star, across the bottom of the saucepan where your baked beans would sit, and to the right hand side of the pot, the furthest away from the handle. We’re going to use these two stars that make up the right hand side of the pot as our guide stars. If you take the distance between them as one step, and then go from the bottom of the saucepan to the top and about 5 more steps in that direction, you’ll come to another fairly bright star. Can you see it? This is the north star which is the star that just happens to be above the north pole of the Earth. If you stay out over the course of the night, you’ll notice that most of the stars appear to move across the sky, in a similar way to how the Sun does during the day. This is because the Earth is rotating, not because the stars themselves are moving. But because the north star is above the north pole, it will always appear in the same part of the sky. That means that once you find the north star from the Plough, you can imagine drawing a line straight down to the horizon from it and that direction is north. So you can start to navigate just by using the stars.

Onto our next and final constellation. It’s in the north west so we’re continuing round to the left, and the easiest way to find it is to imagine that you continued that line, from the Plough to the north star and keep going until you see 5 stars that make up a kind of squashed w shape on its side. You might think it looks a bit like a lightning bolt. These 5 stars make up a constellation called Cassiopeia. The ancient greek astronomers who originally came up with this constellation thought it looked like a woman, queen Cassiopeia from their mythology. I think they had better imaginations than I do! Cassiopeia is another pattern of stars that’s visible all year round from the UK, and I like it because of what it can help me find. From a dark site, if you imagine you’re looking behind Cassiopeia, you might be able to see a fuzzy band of light and dark going up into the sky. This is us looking through the disk of our Milky Way galaxy. Now, all the stars we see in the night sky are part of the Milky Way, but when we look in this direction we’re looking through the spiral arms, where there’s so many distant stars that the light from them all merges together into this glow. At the same time, there’s lots of dust in the spiral arms which is what the dark patches are. Don’t worry if you can’t see this band of the Milky Way from where you are, as I said you need to be somewhere pretty dark and away from light pollution to see it. Maybe a challenge for you once restrictions ease and we’re able to travel again. 

Let’s finish up by going to find the one planet that’s visible to the naked eye at the moment. It’s in the south west so swivelling round to the left again, go too far and you’re back at Orion, so if you get to Orion, go back a bit to the right and then this planet is about halfway between Cassiopeia and Orion, roughly in line with Rigel, if you remember that’s the bottom right star of Orion as we look at him, the foot on the right. You might be able to see that this planet has a bit of a red tinge to it and that’s because we’re looking at Mars. The fourth planet in the solar system, the last of the rocky planets. Now the planet Uranus is actually just below Mars as well at the moment, but it’s at the very limit of what the human eye can see so you really need binoculars or a telescope to spot that one. Mars on the other hand should be pretty easy to find. One way to tell the difference between a planet and a star is that a planet won’t twinkle like the stars do. Although you do have to be a bit careful if a planet is low on the horizon because the Earth’s atmosphere can have a distorting effect. 

If you now continue looking round to the left, you should get back to Orion where we started. And so we come to the end of this audio tour of the night sky. I hope you enjoyed learning a bit about what you can see tonight, but we barely scratched the surface! As I said earlier there are 88 official constellations and we’ve only talked about 4 of them tonight! The constellations that we can see from the UK were all made up by ancient greek astronomers, but many cultures around the world had, and continue to have, their own way of looking at the night sky. There are loads of resources out there, from books, to apps, to podcasts to help you on your stargazing journey. 

Don’t forget to join us on the ICG’s Facebook page at 8pm each night this week, where we’ll be going live so you can ask us any questions you might have about what you’ve seen in the night sky. You can find us at facebook.com/UoPCosmology. We’ve also got lots of talks and activities going on all week, if you want to find out more then search for Virtual Pompey Stargazing 2021 on the University of Portsmouth website. That’s it from me, so all that’s left to say is that I hope to see you at a future in-person Stargazing event one day and keep looking up!

Tactile Universe sessions for vision impaired people

The Tactile Universe project is offering a small number of virtual astronomy workshops for vision impaired individuals.

Places are limited, so for more information, and to register your interest, please email the Tactile Universe project lead, Dr Nic Bonne, at nicolas.bonne@port.ac.uk.

For more information about the project, visit the Tactile Universe website.

To participate in these workshops, we'll need to send you some of our tactile resources so places are limited to UK residents.

National Museum of the Royal Navy

While we're unable to team up in-person with the National Museum of the Royal Navy for this year's Stargazing event, they've produced some educational resources themed around the Royal Navy and Navigation for you to explore instead.

Download a resource pack from the TES website. 

Stargazing resources

You'll hear us talk about various websites and resources during the week.

Here are a few useful links for you to investigate further:

 

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