10 astronomy things to do before you die

I was over at Chris Lintott's blog and saw his link to the New Scientist blog's list of Top 10 spacey things to do before you die. There are some interesting things on there but I thought I would make myself my own list and include some obvious omissions. My list covers a whole range of phenomena or acheivements, some easy, some hard. If you disagree with my list, add your own suggestions in the comments.

10. Observe Saturn through a telescope



Saturn
Saturn seen through a 14 inch telescope CREDIT: Stanimir Metchev at the University of California, Los Angeles
OK, I thought I would start with something relatively simple; observe Saturn through a good amateur telescope. Most amateur astronomers have probably already done this and for many this is what first got them hooked on astronomy in the first place. There is something magical about the very first time you see Saturn and its rings through an 8 or 10 inch diameter telescope. Perhaps the excitement is in the realisation that the photons of light have travelled a billion miles or so from Saturn to get to the back of your eye. Perhaps it is just to see those stunning rings for yourself even if the view may not be as detailed as an image from Hubble or Cassini. Either way, seeing Saturn for the first time is special. If, like me, you don't have a 10 inch telescope, go along to a star party or your local astronomical society and someone might let you have a look through one.

9. Visit Stonehenge



Stonehenge
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK CREDIT: Frédéric Vincent
One of the most famous astronomical observatories of ancient times is sat in the middle of Salisbury plain in the south of England - Stonehenge. Stonehenge was built around 2200 BC. It has been argued that Stonehenge's purpose was to observe the setting midwinter Sun which would mark the return of longer days. So, I suggest a visit on the winter solstice.

8. Stand astride the Prime Meridian



Prime Meridian
The Prime Meridian at Greenwich. CREDIT: Dr Perry Tompkins, Physics 100 class
Although Greenwich Mean Time was established in the 1700s, it wasn't until 1847 that the first time zone was created. By international agreement, the Prime Meridian - the point taken as zero for longitude - was chosen to go through the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England. The Observatory has a great visitor centre (and spangly new planetarium) and has the Airy Transit Circle which was originally the zero of longitude - the Prime Meridian. If this trip is too easy, try a harder version; stand astride the Prime Meridian and the Equator (0 longitude, 0 latitude). That's much harder as it is several hundred miles south of Ghana in the Atlantic Ocean. You will probably need a boat for that one!

7. Visit Meteor Crater



Meteor Crater
Meteor Crater CREDIT: David Roddy, United States Geological Survey
This one is on the New Scientist list and I include it because it is probably the most famous impact crater on Earth. The Barringer Meteor Crater was created about 49,000 years ago when a 30-50 metre wide asteroid hit northern Arizona. A visit to the site will show just how easily life on our planet is threatened unless we get our act together and seriously think up workable plans to deflect asteroids.

6. See a naked-eye comet



Comet McNaught
Comet McNaught CREDIT: Ian Musgrave, Astroblog
Comets are leftover parts of the solar system that reside out beyond the orbit of Pluto in the Oort cloud. They can be described as snowy dirtballs and some of them occasionally pass through the inner solar system. When they do, the warmth of the Sun causes them to heat up and the frozen water and other gases sublimates off into space leaving a dust tail behind them as they go. As they near the Sun they also interact with the solar wind and this causes an ion tail which points away from the Sun. Seeing a great comet is more down to luck than planning as new, spectacular comets can appear with relatively little notice. The most spectacular comet of the past couple of years was Comet McNaught which was visible in the Southern Hemisphere. I remember Hale-Bopp and Hyutake from a few years ago and just about remember seeing Comet Halley from the kitchen window back in 1986.

5. See a rocket launch



Space Shuttle
Space Shuttle launch
There is something inspiring about seeing something launched into space and these days you have a few choices of where to go to see it happen live. The most popular choice for most is Cape Canaveral in Florida but those in other parts of the world should check out the European Space Agency's Spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana, the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome, India's Satish Dhawan Space Centre north of Chennai or Japan's Tanegashima Space Center.

4. See a green flash



Green flash
Green flash CREDIT: Pekka Parvianinen
A green flash is a phemonena caused by the refraction of light in the Earth's atmosphere which makes the top edge of the Sun momentarily turn green. This can last for a fraction of a second up to a few seconds as the Sun sets. There are several different types and they are very difficult to see because the conditions have to be right - a west facing coastline is a good place to try. If you've already seen a green flash try to spot a violet flash!

3. Be at one of the Earth's poles at night



South pole
View of stars and aurora at the South Pole Observatory. CREDIT: NOAA
I'm not fussy, either one will do but the South Pole may be easier as it is on dry (very) land and there is shelter for warmth. The poles are very special places because they mark the axis about which the Earth turns. The spinning causes the stars to appear to sweep out huge circles in the sky. At the pole, the pole star (Polaris in the northern hemisphere and Sigma Octantis in the south) would be directly overhead and all the other stars would be circling it every 23 hours 56 minutes. That also means that stars near the celestial equator would be near the horizon and would travel horizonally. From a geeky point-of-view, you would be at the only places where an equatorial mount behaved the same as an alt/az mount. For best views, I suggest being there at night although that does mean you'll probably have to winter over!

2. Have an asteroid or comet named after you



Itokawa
Asteroid Itokawa CREDIT: JAXA
How cool would it be to have a five mile wide lump of rock millions of miles away from the Earth named after you? To acheive this is going to require some work though. One way is to hunt for comets as they are usually given a name corresponding to the person or people that discovered it. Finding comets and asteroids isn't just limited to the professionals as many comets are found by amateurs. Alternatively, if you aren't the best observer, you can hope that you meet the Committee on Small Body Nomenclature's guidelines and sit back and hope they'll pick you.

1. See a total solar eclipse



Solar eclipse
Total solar eclipse CREDIT: Williams College Eclipse Expedition 2001
Every so often, the Moon passes directly between the Earth and Sun. The result is total solar eclipse. Total solar eclipses happen every year or so but they are only visible from a narrow strip of the planet each time so are not easy to see. It is the most thrilling type of eclipse and many become eclipse chasers to repeat the experience of seeing one. So, if you haven't already seen one (or have but want to see another) the next solar eclipses are August 1st 2008 (Canada, northern Greenland, the Arctic, central Russia, Mongolia, and China), July 22nd 2009 (India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, Japan) and July 11th 2010 (Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Easter Island and South America). There is nothing like being in the shadow of the Moon and seeing stars during day time. The closest I got to this was Cornwall back in 1999. Even though I only saw a sky full of cloud it was still magical.

Other things that didn't quite make my list because I ran out of space were: seeing aurora, observing Pluto, using a large professional telescope (not remotely), completing a Messier Marathon, spotting a micro-meteorite impact on the Moon, seeing a meteor shower, watching the dance of Jupiter's moons, and observing a transit of Venus.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 19th Oct 2007 (00:20 BST) | Permalink
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