Look up at the moon and stars
By Mina Hayati, Community Engagement Officer
In this blog article, we provide a brief history of the telescope, amateur astronomy, and the moon landing. We explore astronomy ideas for beginners and consider how we all might benefit from a bit of stargazing or even just remembering to look up and appreciating the wonderful natural world.
These images from the Heritage Doncaster collection reflect the increasing popularity of astronomy at home from the 1960s. This was largely due to advances in space exploration and the development of mass produced telescopes, which coincided with the 1969 moon landing.
The moon landing
On 20th July 1969, Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin made their first steps on the moon whilst a third astronaut Michael Collins was left in control of the command module. This still remains one of the most televised broadcasts of all time with an estimated 600-650 million people tuning in to watch Armstrong walk out on moon rock and deliver the famous lines ‘one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.’ Media coverage around this incredible feat of human science and engineering naturally led to an interest in all things space.
Who invented the Telescope? A short history
There is debate amongst historians as well as astronomers as to who invented the first telescope. A Dutch glass and lens maker named Hans Lippershey can be credited with building the first telescope in the early 1600s. He tried to get a patent for his invention in 1608 but as others came forward claiming to have invented similar instruments he was denied the patent and for this reason cannot be confirmed as the inventor.
Many people associate the creation of the telescope with the renowned Italian mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei. In fact, Galileo coined the Italian word telescopio from its Latin and Greek roots. Although Galileo is not the proven inventor of the telescope, he did modify it, developing techniques for stargazing using Lippershey’s model and was known to be the first person to use the telescope for space observation. Using his adapted and improved telescope, Galileo has an impressive list of discoveries including craters and mountains on the moon, the four moons circling Jupiter, studied Saturn, sunspots on the sun and observed the phases of Venus.
Shortly after Lippershey, many others, like Galileo went on to develop and perfect the telescope inspired by his work. By 1609 it was possible to purchase a telescope in big cities like Paris, though it would still be centuries before telescopes entered the mass market and it remained a very specialised hobby reserved for the wealthy who could afford the materials and time.
Amateur astronomy and telescopes
For centuries astronomy was a rather specialised and niche hobby with many stargazers creating and adapting their own telescopes. Before the 1960s many telescopes were hand crafted by dedicated individuals.
In the 1960s the first telescopes were being produced for the home market and it became a popular hobby in the late 1960s and 1970s. Tom Johnson, founder of Celestron, still a market leader in telescopes today, partnered with business man Alan Hale and created the first mass produced Schmidt-Cassegrains telescope. This telescope had the capability of being both a refractor and reflector, was more convenient in size and had portability. This made it more suitable for use at home.
Later in the 1970s telescopes became more computerised and tracking systems made them even more appealing to the commercial market. Today there are a huge range of sophisticated telescopes available to buy which can do much of the work that would have taken a dedicated enthusiast hours of skill and patience to map out. Apps on your smart phone can also do some incredible stuff that would have stunned the likes of Lippershey and Galileo. Some of these are listed at the end of this article.
Amateur astronomers have existed for millennia and made many space discoveries…
- An example of one ancient pre-tech discovery is from the Greek philosopher and budding stargazer Aristotle who lived 384-322 BC. He was the first known person to identify that planets and earth was spherical, though it would be many centuries before this was accepted as fact.
- William Hershel, was an English music director, who discovered the planet of Uranus in 1781, he was regarded as an astronomer later for his findings.
- In 2009 an Australian amateur astronomer, Anthony Wesley used a telescope in his own back yard and spotted a hole approximately the size of the Earth in the atmosphere of Jupiter. The cause of this was thought to have been a comet or an asteroid crashing into the gas giant. After contacting NASA with photographs they used their high-tech infrared telescope and confirmed his discovery.
Happy Birthday Hubble- 30 years old in 2020
Hubble is the biggest and most powerful telescope known to humankind and has been orbiting 350 miles above our earth for three decades. The telescope is about the size of a school bus and has taken thousands of breathtaking images of the cosmos. Hubble has massively improved our understanding of the universe and made numerous discoveries. It was launched by NASA on April 24th 1990 and has just had its 30th birthday.
Mindfulness and the moon
How many of us have been busy about our day, later caught a glimpse of the moon and been awe struck by its beauty? The moon is a great wonder so you might just like to sit or stand and look up at it, pause and reflect.
Mindfulness is a way in which we can ease stress and anxiety, including worries about the past and future by learning to appreciate the present moment. There are plenty of mindful breathing exercises that involve taking deep soothing breathes in and out. The moon can be a wonderful focal point to help anchor us and ground us in the present day.
- The moon has been the source of much art and poetry, myth and legend.
- For thousands of years people have believed the lunar cycle can affect sleep patterns, mood, behaviour and women’s menstrual cycles. Whilst these beliefs may not be as widespread today research studies have backed many of these ideas up.
A simple mindful breathing exercise to do whilst stargazing
If you are new to mindfulness and breathing exercises then here is a script that you can practice at home or when doing any activity. Here it is made more relevant to the sensations you might notice when star gazing, with the breath serving as an anchor to help you feel calm and relaxed.
Relaxed breathing instructions
- Breathe in slowly and steadily through your nose for a count of 4
- Pause for a count of 1
- Exhale slowly and steadily for a count of 4 – breathe out gradually
- Repeat for a few minutes until you notice a change in how your body feels
- If you get distracted or you find your mind wanders then do not worry, this is normal, just keep bringing your attention back to your breath
Focus your attention, and notice what:
- You see around you, right where you are.
- Listen to the sounds around and inside you.
- Notice whatever you can smell. (Perhaps you can smell rainwater or grass.)
- Reach out and touch what is within reach – the chair, a warm mug of tea, the floor, the night air on your fingertips.
- Notice bodily sensations of breathing in your chest, belly, throat and nose.
- Simply notice whenever other thoughts and sensations come to mind –try to imagine thoughts as clouds in the sky (perhaps one you can see) that are blowing by then gently re-focus on your breath or chosen mindful activity.
- Be patient and compassionate with yourself.
- Describe your experiences and what you notice, rather than judging them to be good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. It is as it is. It will pass.
Points for further reflection
Consider how it may make you feel about your place in the universe. This is personal for everyone. Some things to consider might be that you are part of the world and more connected, that there is something greater than yourself; This could be God, wonderful mother nature or humanity.
Star gazing ideas tips for beginners
The stars have been used for millennia and long before the age of modern technology to help nomads track the desert at night and sailors to navigate the oceans in darkness. The sky is virtually identical anywhere in the world and is a useful tool to guide us.
Stargazing is open to all who have a window and you don’t need a telescope or expensive equipment, just your eyes and a curious mind! Consider the following:
- Location– your yard or garden (stay at home!). If you live in a high-rise apartment, perhaps you have a good open (but safe) window or balcony or perhaps consider your nearest patch of land.
- When? Choose a clear and cloudless night, when the moon is in its smallest phase. This is because the moon reflects the suns light which makes the stars harder to perceive.
- Switch off your lights and ensure that it is as dark as possible!
- Give your eyes time– Around 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness as this will allow you to observe as clearly as possible
- Binoculars can help you see further but are not essential
- Make it an event and have fun- involve your household, have a picnic in your back yard or garden. Take a flask of hot chocolate or your choice of beverage and nibbles.
- Enjoy the peace, quiet and solitude if you want to stargaze alone
- You can find out when astrological events/ phenomena are happening in the news or more common occurrences via websites and apps (listed below). An exciting event to observe are meteor showers. These happen at least 6 times in a year.
- Be curious! Budding astronomers are naturally fascinated and full of wonder for the universe and will seek out information. You can find so much online, download star charts and use apps to help in your search
- Breathe– be mindful and enjoy the moment
Some simple things to observe
The sun, the source of all life on earth, our nearest star. Take care never to look directly at the sun, through any lens as even at night it can permanently damage your eyes.
The stars– See how they twinkle- use your imagination and make your own patterns by looking at the stars and joining up the dots. You could sketch or draw what you see. A star chart will help you identify specific constellations. It is mind boggling to think that when you see the stars you are looking into the past. Light takes time to travel and stars are many light years away from us so you could be seeing a star that doesn’t even exist anymore!
The moon– the controller of all the tides. Look at its wonderful craters and uneven surface. Can you see a face? Is there a man on the moon?
Constellations to search for
- Look for zodiac constellations
Can you find your star sign in the sky?
Leo (the lion), is one of the easiest constellations to spot – although it is questionable how much it looks like a lion! (Imagine a lion sitting down.)
Ursa Major is visible all year in the northern hemisphere. It looks like a cup with a long handle.
Astronomy related websites and apps
We hope that this post may in some way inspire you to look up on a clear night and that this will give you a sense of wellbeing and calm. We have listed online resources and apps for you budding stargazers out there!
Is a great resource for telling you about astrological events taking place and even has a monthly moon calendar showing you the best days for stargazing based on the phases of the moon and your location.
Time & Date gives a continuous list of future moon and sun eclipses.
The Farmer’s Almanac gives dates for the full moon and harvest moon.
Star gazing apps
Star Walk (iPhone) or Google Sky (android)
Download one of these apps (above) to your mobile device, and they will tell you what stars you can see from your current location
By setting your phone to night mode these apps can show you the constellations you’re looking at by identifying the stars using an inbuilt GPS.Sky and Telescope
You can access an interactive star chart and download a free star chart here: