Urban astronomy – seeing stars from cities

It’s usually assumed that attempting to study the stars from urban environments is a waste of time.

This isn’t true, as proved by the discovery of  supernova 2014J last month.

News coverage of the discovery of the supernova here in Britain  concentrated on the fact that it was discovered purely by chance by a lecturer (Dr. Steve Fossey) and a group of students from University College, London. Dr Fossey was demonstrating how to use a particular telescope at the college’s observatory and chose the galaxy M82, in which the supernova lies, purely because of the thickening cloud cover that was obliterating other areas of the sky. What struck me most about this news was that the observatory is in Mill Hill, north London. I drive past it quite often. It is right beside a huge trunk road and is marooned in the the vast expanse of London’s suburban sprawl. Every time I go past it I think how sad it is that such a nice observatory should find itself enveloped in the glare of city lights, making useful observations well nigh impossible – or so I thought until the discovery of the supernova. I’ll look at the place differently in future.

A quick look at the observatory’s web page  shows me that the observatory conducts public tours every few weeks during the autumn and winter, and that, surprise surprise, they are now fully booked for the rest of this season.

Supernovae are perhaps the most distant celestial objects that you’re ever likely to see. Fortunately for the urban astronomer one of the most interesting objects to look at in the night sky is the closest celestial object – the moon. The moon is a little less exotic than a supernova, granted, but due to its proximity to the earth it makes fascinating viewing.

From my base in north London – just a few miles from the observatory that discovered supernova 2014J – a person would be hard pushed to make out even the stars of Orion, the glare in the sky is so bad. Despite this,  it’s well worth training a telescope on the moon. The moon is bright enough to shine through almost any amount of metropolitan fug (in fact the dimming of the moon by the urban air may enhance viewing, as the light from the moon on a clear night in the countryside can be almost too bright when viewed through a telescope). What’s more, the moon changes its appearance every single night as it goes through its phases, with different craters and other features standing out on different nights. Buy yourself a decent lunar atlas and start exploring (I use the Cambridge Photographic Moon Atlas myself).


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