Astronomy questions

Do you have an astronomy or stargazing question that you’d like to ask Jodrell Bank?
Check out our FAQs below to see if any of these can help you…

What have I seen in the sky?

If you’ve seen something that looks a bit odd in the sky, chances are it was a planet, satellite, or meteor.

Planets are stationary in the sky (relative to the background stars). They can look very bright, and they don’t twinkle. To find out what planets are visible in the sky at the moment, we highly recommend Professor Ian Morison’s Night Sky page. You can also download programs such as Stellarium to predict where the planets are going to be at what times. If you’d like help identifying a planet, you will need to tell us (a) where you were, (b) what direction you were facing (e.g. South), and (c) what time it was. Please do not send a zoomed-in picture of a single dot! It’s actually better to zoom out, so we can see some of the surrounding constellations.

Satellites look like bright dots that move across the sky, against the background of stars. They do not flash on-and-off like aircraft, however they can sometimes ‘appear’ or ‘disappear’ suddenly. This is because they reflect light from the Sun, and as they move they can suddenly catch, or stop catching, the sunlight. There are over 3,000 working and defunct satellites in orbit around the Earth, so it is very difficult to know which one you saw! However, one very large satellite on a relatively low orbit is the International Space Station. This makes it very bright when it passes overhead. To find out when the ISS is passing over your location, visit Spot the Station. For a more complete list of satellites passing overhead, please visit Heavens Above.

Meteors (or ‘shooting stars’ – even though they have nothing to do with stars!) are small bits of rock or metal falling from space, to Earth. They look like a bright streak across the sky, and are gone in the blink of an eye. It is estimated that around 3,000 meteors fall to Earth a day! Sometimes larger meteors can create a flare, or fireball in the sky, which is often quite colourful. If you’d like to report a fireball which you’ve seen, head to the UK Meteor Network.

What are these strange lights on my photo?

Sometimes odd looking streaks, or glowing dots can appear in photos, especially when taking pictures at night.

Usually when we receive these images, they are showing ‘lens flare’. For more information on this, we recommend this handy guide.

 

 

I've bought a star - can you tell me where it is?

There are hundreds of billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy. The human eye is only good enough to see a few hundred on a clear night.

If you have ‘bought a star’, it will probably be a star very far away, that you cannot see with the naked eye. You will probably need a powerful telescope to see it. Also, please bear in mind that it might be a star that it’s not possible to observe from your location.

At Jodrell Bank we’re not able to help with finding a particular star. This is because our telescopes are radio telescopes. This means they detect radio waves from objects in space, which is different from the light we see with our eyes. We don’t have telescopes that people can look through!

Also, because there are so (very!) many stars, it’s impossible to know where a star is just from its catalogue number. Trying to find a particular star in space is quite a tricky business. Imagine searching through lots of grains of sand to try and find a particular one!

So, what can you do? Hopefully you have some information about the star, such as the constellation it’s in, or its coordinates, which might be in right ascension (RA) and declination (dec).

You can try looking up the star using an astronomical database, such as Sky View or SIMBAD. You could also download a free program called Stellarium to try and search for it.

Have I found a meteorite?

Meteorites are among the rarest things found on Earth. They are rarer than gold, diamonds, or emeralds. This means that unfortunately, the chances of finding a meteorite lying on the group are very small indeed!

However, if you think you may have found a meteorite, there are some tests you can do to check. The Natural History Museum lists some here.

We don’t have anyone who studies meteorites at Jodrell Bank. This is because we are astronomers; we observe space using telescopes. People who study space rocks are called planetary scientists. The science of studying meteorites is called ‘meteoritics’.

If you want to find out whether a rock you have is a meteorite, you can contact The British and Irish Meteorite Society.

Did you know that Manchester Museum has a meteorite collection in their gallery?

What should I look for when buying a telescope?

There are many things to consider when buying a telescope, such as how often you’ll be using it, what you’ll be looking at, how mobile it has to be, and how much you’ve got to spend. There’s no one model which is good for everyone.

There are lots of helpful online guides which can guide you through the various issues. We recommend the following:

You can also visit your local astronomical society on an observing night, to have a practical look at the various types of telescopes. Most astro-socs are very welcoming and would be happy for you to join them on an evening. You can find a list of UK astronomical societies, along with their contact details on the Federation of Astronomical Societies website.

At Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre we sometimes host Stargazing evenings, where visitors can meet members of a local astronomical society, have a practical look at some optical telescopes, and put their observing questions to the experts. Find out about any upcoming events on our Whats On page.

Still have a question?

If you didn’t find the answer you were looking for above, you can send your question to us at jodrellquestions@manchester.ac.uk. (Please note this email address is for astronomy-based questions only. If you have any general enquiries about visiting the Discovery Centre, please click here.) It may take a while, up to several weeks, for our experts to get back to you. This is because our staff are busy delivering engagement activities to visitors and school groups.

If your query is very technical in nature, you may prefer to ask one of the researchers at Jodrell Bank. During school holidays, we run Meet the Expert sessions, where visitors can put their questions to one of our researchers or engineers. For more information on upcoming Meet the Expert sessions, please visit our Whats On page.

Meanwhile, our podcast The Jodcast runs a regular feature called ‘Ask an Astronomer’, where questions submitted by listeners are answered by an astronomical researcher. If you’d like to submit your query to the Jodcast, please click here.

And finally, if you would prefer to ask your question in person, please do visit us; all our on-gallery staff are space experts with qualifications in science and astronomy. Find out more and plan your visit here.