Subject Advice

Astronomy & Spaceflight

Contact the adviser

 Martin Whillock

Thank you for visiting my Astronomy Advice page.

My main 'qualification' is as an amateur with my own small observatory, and knowledge of practical back garden astronomy. I was Secretary of the York Astronomical Society for 5 years and remain an active member. I am a good organiser, with a professional background in Adult Education, Youth Work and Community Development. I was an early member of my local U3A, and our Speaker Secretary for 5 years.

I have been interested in Astronomy and Space exploration for 70 years, inspired by Patrick Moore and Arthur C. Clarke.

I hope no one will feel that they know nothing about astronomy and so are inhibited about asking me for advice. The simple questions are often the best. 

Andromeda galaxy. Copyright John jgj9Andromeda galaxy. Copyright John jgj9



Support for your groups 

Here is a lot of stuff for you to consider. Please share with your Group.
When running a Group there is no set pattern anyone is expected to follow.

As with any u3a Group, the organiser should not do all the work for the group, s/he should get each member to research a topic and make a presentation.

A good format is to have a presentation for about 30 minutes followed by Q & A & discussion. Access to the internet, a computer, projector and screen or flat screen is very useful as Google knows everything.

Astronomy is a very sociable activity - sharing the experience of seeing Saturn or the Great Globular Cluster for the first time is very special. In a group you share and learn from each other, and it’s fun. As u3a Astronomy Adviser I am asked where to get information for Study Groups to consider because the range of topics within the catch-all “Astronomy” is so huge. The simple answer is the Internet, but where to start ?!  

Jupiter (ESA)

 List of useful websites:-

  • Here’s my talk The Solar System, with a little of what is beyond. Click on the picture. 



Useful handout, for beginners:-

Astronomy numbers handout 

Moon image featuring Clavius Crater - Graham Moore

Finding Speakers

For speakers at your u3a General Meetings of all members, maybe not small groups, contact Physics Departments in local Universities - they are likely to have lecturers and PhD students who could come to visit you. They normally do not charge a fee but sometimes ask for travel costs. Also The Federation of Astronomical Societies a list of speakers.

Find your nearest Astronomy Group

There are many Astronomy Societies across the UK; u3a members should consider visiting them for talks or observing evenings. To find your nearest amateur society Google your town’s name and ‘Astronomy’. Members of 'ASs' are all a bit nerdy but all are committed to outreach and making astronomy interesting for the public. If you go when they have their telescopes operating wear very warm clothes! You will never forget your first sight of the Moon or Saturn with your own eyes in a small telescope.

You and your friends can do actual observing of things in the night sky without telescopes. Ordinary binoculars are very good for looking at the Moon, especially when it's not full, it's too bright then.

If you are thinking of buying a telescope, please visit my Buying a small Telescope (Oct 2020) ASIAIR revolution (Oct 2021) as a start. 


Solar eclipse. Copyright - Mike Pringle.

Safety first! Precautions and Procedures for sky observing events

There are precautions and procedures which all u3a Group Leaders should keep to. In addition here are things Astronomy Group Leaders should consider for night sky observing events for your members and/or the public : First Common sense must prevail !   And :-

  • Find a dark sky site away from street lights.
  • Tell people before an event to wear warm clothes, woolly hats, gloves and appropriate footwear for eg : mud, wet grass, wet concrete.
  • Tell them where to park if arriving in a car, and to keep their cars and lights away from the telescopes.
  • Tell them to bring red hand torches or low light white torches, or to use their mobile phones lights for moving about in the dark AVOIDING SHINING THEIR LIGHTS INTO ANYONE'S EYES.  LED lights are very bright but can be dulled with layers of insulating tape - experiment !
  • Tell them to look out for trip hazards.
  • Tell them not to touch the telescopes.
  • For day lit events no one should look at the Sun directly with binoculars or a telescope, it will blind you.
  • Children must be closely supervised.
  • Place red lights on the feet of tripods, to stop people tripping over them. 
  • Tell them to enjoy themselves and you like simple questions !

Here's a challenge - find and see the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 million light-years away - you can see it with binoculars, let me know when you succeed. A £10 Planisphere and a basic star maps book will help you learn the sky. Find the Plough, Orion and Cassiopeia Constellations first, they are the most obvious.

Don’t miss the BBC TV ‘The Sky at Night’ for an update of all things Astronomical. The presentation style is often juvenile and its broadcast dates are erratic, but its contents are always good.

There are several magazines worth reading as well E.G. Astronomy Now and The Sky at Night available from newsagents.

Please don’t hesitate to ask me for more help.

Martin Whillock FRAS UK u3a Astronomy Adviser July 2023.



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