Do you know your Castor from your Pollux? If you are too embarrassed to ask your doctor, there’s a discreet way to find out. At the same time you can learn to distinguish between the Dog Star and the Pointers, and the Head of Hydrus and the Arm. How to access this galaxy of knowledge? Enrol on an astronomy course.

All being well, the sky isn’t going to fall in on us any time soon, so we can and should make the most of exploring it by eye. But how do you know what to look for, or indeed what you are looking at? Budding astronomers can enrol on courses such as those on offer at the Mansfield & Sutton Astronomical Society, to which Phil Randall belongs. “We had been running night school courses in conjunction with Nottingham University for several years,” he says. “However, as time went on they were poorly attended and some were cancelled owing to lack of interest.” The society decided to run its own beginners’ course, believing the public would be interested in a leisure rather than academic course at a more affordable rate.

“Because there are no qualifications gained, we can run it for all ages. We have had entrants as young as nine on one. Students have lectures on general astronomy, the inner and outer solar system, stars, clusters, galaxies and nebulae,” Randall continues. “Then we move on to viewing equipment and what you can expect to see with the naked eye.” The final week involves a quiz, viewing and questions, and as the course is run at an observatory, students have the chance to use a 24in Newtonian telescope.

In an age when busy people can schedule in only a casual, non-committal form of learning, what drives societies to run these courses? “Our society feels that astronomy is a leisure activity. If people have an interest they should be able to find out what is in the sky, where it is and, possibly, why,” says Randall.

Kevin Read, treasurer of the West Yorkshire Astronomical Society (WYAS), experienced the same difficulties with commitment ? on the lecturer’s part. Although the WYAS had been talking about setting up an introductory course for a long time, the major problem proved to be getting someone with enough time to prepare and deliver it.

“In 2006 the society was approached by John Popham, a local school’s science advisor. He had wanted to run a course to GCSE level but had never been able to get the minimum number of people to attend. He agreed to offer a 10-week taster course as part of a public outreach programme that would be free to attend,” Read says. “The teacher’s fee and the room rent was to be paid by the local education authority. As I had completed Open University courses in astrophysics and planetary science, I agreed to prepare and teach the course.”

What began as a dream soon became a reality. “Twenty-two people turned up, with an age range from 10 to about 70,” continues Read. “Their backgrounds ranged from primary school to a master’s degree in science. By the end there was a hard core of about 12. None of them wanted a qualification, they were just interested in learning more about astronomy.” However, some students do want to earn qualifications, and the Norman Lockyer Observatory (NLO) in Sidmouth, Devon, is one place that caters for them. Its Foundation Astronomy Course consists of weekly evening meetings with eight lecture modules and two practical telescope evenings. As this course is designed to cover most of the GCSE syllabus, those who see it through can enrol for the GCSE Astronomy Tutorial and complete the practical and coursework required for the exam.

Another way of gaining a qualification is to participate in a long-distance learning course, such as those offered by the Liverpool John Moores University. These are taught using a variety of media such as DVDs, websites and interactive CD-ROMs. Students can work in their own time and from home, which appeals to many. However, Gerald White from the NLO emphasises that the long-distance method lacks what societies have to offer. “We believe that science is best presented by a real person who has time to chat. People learn by involvement in practical projects and from hands-on experiences.” He thinks that distance learning courses isolate the student, whereas societies offer “fellowship and inter-student stimulus, which is very important”.

On the subject of inter-student stimulus, what about the question of destiny? Sue Keating, president of the Leeds Astronomical Society, has her lucky stars to thank for meeting her partner, Lee, who works for the Green Witch Astronomy Centre in Cambridge. They met at the Leeds Astromeet. Are such fateful meetings common? It appears not. “Despite the moon and the stars being the stuff of romance, we astronomers seem to be a rather lovelorn bunch. Standing out in the dark staring up at small white dots isn’t the ideal way to find the love of one’s life,” Keating says.

Sadly, then, however much you wish upon a star, you might not find love. But you can certainly learn a lot about the universe. Whatever you want to aim for, there is a course out there for you. As Read says, “Students of astronomy, at whatever level, learn to understand how the universe fits together and works, why Earth is fit for life as we know it and what the prospects are for life elsewhere. These courses should also give people the confidence to realise that they, too, can understand science and that it is not just for boffins in white coats with mad hairstyles. Science is for everyone and astronomy brings home how exciting it can be.”

Instead of twiddling your thumbs this winter, why not try a course and see what you can learn from gazing at the stars? For once, the sky’s not the limit. Astronomy is one of the few areas of science where amateurs make vital discoveries and contributions. You never know, you might even find the Question to the Ultimate Answer.

Star gazing at home

Computer controlled telescopes

*However casual or amateur an astronomer you are, a telescope is a worthwhile investment. As with many products, it is worth paying more for a good one rather than buying a cheap one and being put off because it breaks or fails to provide the necessary quality of vision.
*Ask for advice at your local astronomy club, and get a range of opinions if possible.
*The most important criteria to bear in mind are: light-gathering power, the quality of the optics and the mounting.
*Computer-controlled mounts are proving very popular and are therefore more widely available than they used to be. Many computer controllers also have information about what is being observed, so beginners are helped to recognise what they are looking at.
*Usually the telescope doesn’t have to be linked to your computer ? instead, there is a handset that connects to the telescope via a short cable, which means it is self-contained and easily portable.
*Visit Astronomy Now for advice on telescopes.
*Green Witch Astronomy Centre recommends two telescopes in particular. These are the Meade ETX80 and the same company’s LX90. More ETX80s are sold worldwide than any other telescope. It is compact, so it won’t take up much room. Finding and tracking objects in the sky is made easy with the Autostar computer control system. It comes with computer control and a field tripod. Prices start under £300. The LX90 is bigger, comes with long-exposure CCD-imaging and is astrophotography-capable. It costs around £1,600.
*Green Witch offers a short training session to teach owners how to use the
telescopes. It also offers a half-day course on astrophotography with a webcam.