A version of this piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in July 2019.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the recent coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, by NASA’s Apollo 11 crew. There have been some excellent documentaries on the telly about the mission that have reminded us just how exciting ‘the future’ of space travel was 50 years ago. 50 years feels like a long time ago when you think that even 20 years ago WiFi wasn’t even a thing and even 10 years ago lots of us didn’t even have a smartphone let alone an iPad! For perspective, Apollo 11’s onboard computer had about the same computing power as the fitness tracker on my wrist! Now it’s 10,000 small steps a day for man…
And yet, for all their worth, the Apollo missions didn’t usher in a new era of space travel. After Armstrong and Aldrin, 10 more men walked on the Moon before 1972 when the Apollo programme was wound up. The space race with Russia was, in many ways, more a political victory more than a scientific one. Though the science is remarkable. But NASA ran out of money, and 'the public' had already lost interest (imagine!!) by Apollos 15 to 17. No one since has stepped on the Moon nor any other world, and that’s not looking particularly imminent. We might now look to new superpowers including China – the only country so far to have landed on the dark side of the Moon.
At the Observatory we had a lovely open afternoon to commemorate the events of 1969, however we weren’t able to gaze upon the Moon that night – due to pesky cloud stopping play. The beginning of August actually offers a much better opportunity to fix a telescope on the Apollo 11 landing site – not that you can see any flags or footprints, even with a whopping great telescope ten times the size of our whopper here on St Martin’s. Still – the first few days after the New Moon offer brilliant Moon-gazing opportunities, from being the first to spot the new crescent to exploring the textures along terminator (the edge between the moon and shadow) as the Moon grows.
We’re also entering the start of the annual summer Perseid meteor shower. One of the best and brightest spectacles of the night sky. Sadly this is where we get the Moon even if we don’t want it, the Moon providing the only light pollution we can expect here in Scilly for the Perseids this year! Still, you won’t have to be too lucky to catch a shooting star. The peak (which is around 12th August this year) sees about 75 Perseids an hour. These shooting stars are renowned for their brightness and long, lingering tails. From the 1st of August, you should be able to catch some – in fact we’ve seen a few at our stargazing sessions on St Martin’s already. They radiate – appear to come from – the constellation of Perseus. But the easiest way in my book is to find the distinctive wonky W of Cassiopeia and aim your gaze around there. You might want a deckchair for this to save your neck!
If that’s not enough for you and you’d like to stargaze at an actual star, see if you can find Altair, in Aquila the eagle. It’s the lowest of the 3 bright stars in the Summer triangle asterism, well placed in the Summer sky at the moment. Altair is a lovely bright giant, flanked by 2 dimmer stars, making almost a straight line of 3 – not to be mistaken for Orion’s belt, that’s for Winter. As if there’s not enough to be looking up at, see if you can find these three, the family of Aquila for yourself in the next couple of weeks.