Have you ever wished you understood the night skies a bit better? An astronomy workshop for beginners up in the Yorkshire Dales on December 13 will offer the perfect introduction. But book quickly, because places are limited, says STEPHEN LEWIS

HAVE you ever wondered what a star looks like as it dies?

Well, you'll soon be able to see it for yourself. On December 13 (one of the darkest nights of the year) at Bainbridge in deepest Wensleydale (one of the darkest corners of Yorkshire) astronomer Richard Darn is planning to teach enthusiastic beginners how to properly look at the night sky.

He's chosen a date when the Gemenid meteor shower should be at its finest - so you're almost guaranteed to see a spectacular cosmic firework display as shooting stars flash across the night sky.

But, with the help of the telescopes and binoculars he will supply, you'll be able to see much more, too, Richard promises: far-away galaxies; beautiful constellations; star nurseries where young stars are being born in clouds of cosmic dust - and the Ring Nebula.

This is a beautiful object glowing bright in the constellation Lyra. It looks like an amber jewel - or possibly a wedding ring (hence the name). But what it actually is is a star in the process of dying, Richard says.

The Ring Nebula is a Red Giant star on the point of collapsing in on itself on become a white dwarf. It is puffing out huge gouts of gas and stardust as it does so, forming that ring. "So when you look at it, what you're seeing is the death throes of a star," Richard says.

Don't feel too sad as you look at it, though. The Ring Nebula is a very long way away indeed - 2,300 light years away, in fact. That means that it has taken the light from the nebula 2,300 years to reach us here on Earth. The events you're witnessing actually took place more than two millennia ago - 300 years before the birth of Christ.

The Ring Nebula nevertheless has a lot to teach us about own own eventual fate. One day far, far in the future, our own sun will die in pretty much this same way, Richard says. But again, you probably don't need to worry about that. Stars tend to live for a long time. Ours is still quite young, at 4.5 billion years old. It won't enter its final death throes for another six or seven billion years...

That's the thing about astronomy. It tends to deal in big numbers. Billions, not millions, of years. Cosmic distances measured in light-years, not miles (and if you're wondering how big a light year is, it is the distance light travels in a year: which is, astonishingly, about 5.9 trillion miles).

Given that everything out there in the Cosmos is on such a vast scale, the key to being able to do astronomy is knowing where to look in the night sky, Richard says.

As the Earth spins in space, the heavens wheel above us. Nothing stays still - the stars, the heavens, the most distant galaxies, all are in constant motion above and about us.

For the beginner, it can be hopelessly confusing. Where in that endless night sky would you look to spot even our nearest neighbours, the planets Mars and Venus? Most people wouldn't have a clue.

But that's the whole point of Richard's workshop.

The 57-year-old, a PR man by profession, has been an enthusiastic amateur astronomer ever since his parents presented him with his first telescope as an eight-year-old.

He's gone through countless telescopes since then. And his skill as an astronomer has grown to such an extent that he now works with the Dales and North York Moors national parks on dark sky conservation and astronomy outreach programmes - and has even appeared on the BBC's Sky At Night.

He knows exactly where and when to look to observe the infinite mysteries that the deep night sky holds, therefore. So does Steve Williams, the 'ace astro-photographer' who will be presenting the workshop with Richard.

Between them, they'll be aiming to teach novice astronomers how to do the same. "We'll be showing people how to find a few important objects," Richard says. "Galaxies, constellations, bright stars, that sort of thing." And also stars in the moments of being born. One of the objects he'll be showing beginners on the workshop is another nebula - this one a far-off cloud of cosmic gas which is a stellar nursery, where proto-stars are condensing out of the dust in space.

Bainbridge, high up in Wensleydale, is an ideal place to do this, he says - because it is dark. The light pollution that puddles around modern cities at night is the curse of the astronomer. "From towns and cities you will be lucky to see a handful of stars," he says. "But on a clear moonless night in the Dales you could see up to 2,000. The first time I observed in the Dales I was blown over by the quality of the night sky, with the Milk Way arching overhead."

You'll get to see the Milky Way, too, on December 13 - early in the evening, at least. But the real stars of the night (pun intended) will be the Gemenids.

This is a meteor shower that happens ever year, reaching its peak on the night of December 13/ 14. Meteors are tiny particles of dust left behind by comets or asteroids as they swing on their journeys around the sun. The Gemenids are a trail of dust left behind by an object with the unexciting name of 3200 Phaethon - a ball of space rock which has an orbit which brings it closer to the sun than any other asteroid.

Each year in mid December, as the Earth swings on its own orbit around the sun, it cuts through the trail of dust left behind by 3200 Phaeton. Tiny grains and particles of asteroid dust get caught up in our own atmosphere, falling to earth at speeds of about 10-20 miles per second. They're travelling so fast that they burn up in our atmosphere - causing streaks of fire that we refer to as shooting stars.

It is a beautiful phenomenon, Richard says - one that can easily be seen with the naked eye if you're in the right place at the right time.

Bainbridge on the evening of December 13 will be that place and time.

When you watch a meteor shower, what you're seeing is tiny particles of rock and dust that were formed at the birth of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago finally meeting a fiery end a few miles above your head, Richard says. "When I see that, I always think it's as though space is reaching down to you from above."

Which is what astronomy is really all about.


Places on Richard Darn's Stargazing Workshop for beginners are limited to 20.

The event takes place at Bainbridge Village Hall, at Bainbridge in upper Wensleydale, from 7pm-10pm on Wednesday December 13. It will take a little dedication for novice astronomers from York to get out there, Richard admits (and then back home again at 10pm). "But the thing about astronomy is, you have to do it when it's dark!"

Richard will bring telescopes and binoculars. If you have your own, feel free to bring these with you, though you won't need them.

The workshop is open to adults and children over 12. Tickets are £16, which includes refreshments.

To book, call 0775 367 0038, email richard@richarddarn.com, or reserve places online at https://darkdales.eventbrite.co.uk