The sky’s the limit for astronomy in Scotland

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Astronomers up and down the country are crossing their fingers for clear night skies, because it’s National Astronomy Week. Scotland hosts some of the darkest skies in the whole of Europe, so what better place and time for you and your family to discover the joys of Astronomy!

Scotland is a world-leader in Astronomy. At our universities, labs, and companies we search for the most distant galaxies and the nearest neighbouring solar systems, and build the latest high-tech kit for telescopes on the ground and in space. We have some of the most active astronomy societies in Britain, and started the UK’s first Dark Sky Park - in Dumfries and Galloway.

Your correspondents today are pushing back the frontiers. Catherine specialises in observing the dark side of our Universe, the stuff that we can’t see or touch, but know is there in abundance because of the effect that it has on the galaxies and stars that we can see. Andy scans the sky looking for rare explosions in distant galaxies, which may be the tell-tale sign of a star being ripped apart by a dormant black hole. In our partner institute here at the Royal Observatory, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre has just made a special camera for NASAs upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

That’s all very exotic and exciting, but what has it got to do with ordinary people, or the wealth of the nation? For Scotland PLC, it’s part of a network of high tech activity, and is one of the best ways we know of encouraging kids into science. But for us, it just seems important as human beings to look at the sky and get to know the universe you live in. Seeing the Milky Way, or a shooting star, or the rings of Saturn, can really change the way you look at life. Jupiter is easy to see in the evening sky just now, and if you follow the instructions on the National Astronomy Week website, you can join in a project to measure the speed of light by tracking the motions of Jupiter’s moons!

If you’ve never looked through a telescope before, book into the “Eyes on the Sky” event at Almondell Country Park organised by the ROE Visitor Centre on Thursday 6th March. There are other Astronomy events in the region, in Peebles, Dunblane, Musselburgh, and St Andrews, so check out the National Astronomy Week website and have fun!

• Andy Lawrence and Catherine Heymans work for Edinburgh University’s Institute for Astronomy, located at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh together with the ROE Visitor Centre, and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, a national lab run by the Science and Technologies Facilities Council. Andy and Catherine are teaching a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) starting in April, called AstroTech: The Science and Technology behind Astronomical Discovery.