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I am not a professional Astronomer, nor am I qualified to answer highly technical questions - but I know people who can.

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 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.

'Doing' astronomy is a practical skill, a bit like fishing. You have to have the right equipment and know how to use it in the dark!  Most of you will already have enough to get started: very warm clothes and a pair of binoculars. Go out and look at the Moon.  If you never have, you will be amazed.  It is also a very sociable activity - sharing the experience of seeing Saturn or the Great Globular Cluster for the first time is special.  In a group you share  and learn from each other, and it’s fun. 

Professor Brian Cox and the BBC have brought Astronomy to the attention of the general public, as Carl Sagan did in the 1980s.  More has been learned about the Universe in the last 30 years than in the previous 300.  

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 ?!  Here is a list of good websites :-

http://britastro.org/baa/    -  The British Astronomical Society
http://www.popastro.com/   -  The Society for Popular Astronomy
http://www.exploratorium.edu/ronh/solar_system/   -   Make a Solar System model
http://www.heavens-above.com/    -  Chat site
http://www.moonconnection.com/moon_phases_calendar.phtml  -  Moon phases’ calendar
http://stargazerslounge.com/   -   Chat site
http://www.skyviewcafe.com/skyview.php  -   Easy planetarium for most computers
http://www.stellarium.org/   -  Planetarium for PCs  Uses a lot of memory and graphics.
http://www.apod.nasa.gov/   -    Astronomy Picture Of the Day   -   wonderful !
http://www.u3a.org.uk/images/stories/Buying_a_telescope_V2.pdf   -  buying a telescope.

There are many Astronomy Societies across the UK and U3A members should consider visiting them for talks or observing evenings. To find your nearest Society - Google the name of your town and ‘Astronomy’.  If you go when they have their telescopes operating – wear very warm clothes !  

For speakers at your U3A General Meetings of all members, 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  http://fedastro.org.uk/fas/ has a list of speakers.

Don’t miss the BBC TV “The Sky At Night” for a monthly update of all things Astronomical.  There are several magazines worth reading as well.

As with any U3A Group, the Leader should not do all the work for the group; s/he could get each member to research a topic and make a presentation. 

Clear Dark Skies.  Martin Whillock.  U3A Astronomy Adviser