Reach for the skies to shed light on our world

Martin Lunn can tell a lot from looking up at the stars.

On a clear night he can plot the various constellations with consummate ease, he can gauge the temperature of the brightest stars and should he ever find himself marooned on desert island, a quick glance to the heavens and he'd be able to tell the direction to home.

He and the rest of the world's astronomers can also have a good go at producing long-term weather forecasts, and the news for the UK, which has already spent the last month or so shivering beneath freezing temperatures, is not good.

According to recent reports, the current astronomical goings-on may well mean the Big Freeze isn't just a meteorological blip, but a sign of harsh winters to come. Around 50 years of them to be more exact.

"One bad winter is unlucky, two is a coincidence and three, well that starts to look like a pattern," says Martin, who having been appointed curator of York Observatory in 1986 has spent much of the last 25 years trying to enthuse others in his own love of the night sky. "Sunspots, which are basically dark patches bigger than the Earth on the sun, come and go periodically.

"However, we now believe there is a link between a low number of sunspots and the atmospheric conditions, which effectively block warm, westerly winds reaching Europe during winter months.

"We won't know for certain whether we are about to enter a period with a low number of sunspots for a few years, but it's certainly looking like we might be in for a prolonged period of freezing temperatures and going on what we know, the harsh winters could last for half a century or more.

"The first documented big freeze, which became known as the Little Ice Age, lasted between 1645 and 1715 and it happened again between 1780 and 1830 when there were reports of the River Ouse regularly freezing over."

It's the kind of news likely to send a chill down the spine of emergency planners and local councillors who are already battling to order right amounts of the grit and prevent the country grinding to a standstill at the first sign of snow.

However, Martin, who has learnt over the years that when it comes to the movements of the stars and the planets, humans are but a tiny speck in an infinite picture, is a man determined to look on the bright side.

"There are always positives to something like this," he says. "Remember in the last period of really cold winters, Charles Dickens was growing up, and the weather that he witnessed as a child had a major influence on his novels. It was he who crystalised the image of a white Christmas in the public consciousness and finally we might actually get to see the descriptions he wrote for real.

"My expertise is astronomy, but I'm reliably informed that a few years of really harsh winters are also good for wildlife. Fungus and other bugs can't survive in such low temperatures and in some ways it's the natural equivalent of a spring clean. However, the rest of us should probably invest in a hat and a thick pair of gloves."

Like most astronomers, Martin first became interested in the stars as a child. His imagination was first awakened when he read a book about Patrick Moore and while he dreamed of following in his hero's footsteps, the real world ultimately came calling.

Growing up in a working-class family, university wasn't an option and on leaving school he secured a job on the railways. However, his passion for the skies continued and after successfully completing an Open University degree in science, specialising in astronomy, in 1986, he spotted a job advertisement for curator of York Observatory.

The small building, housing a powerful telescope, nestles in the shadow of the Yorkshire museum in the city's Museum Gardens. It doesn't shout about its presence, but come the New Year it may just see a boost to visitor numbers as it takes part in a new BBC series Stargazing Live, which hopes to do for astronomy what Springwatch has done for nature.

Over three days, physicist Brian Cox and comedian and science graduate Dara O'Briain will try to inspire the rest of us to glance upwards.

"The golden period for astronomy was during the 1960s when people became inspired to know more about space and the stars after watching the Apollo missions," says Martin. "It was then the search really began for life on other planets and there was a collective feeling of wanting to investigate the final frontier.

"Eventually interest waned, but I've definitely noticed a resurgence in recent years."

It's partly, says Martin, the result of renewed efforts by European Space Agency. Its new recruits should have a chance to go up into space by 2013 and with the last year having seen spectacular showers of shooting stars and the discovery of colossal stars whose size and brightness go well beyond what many scientists thought was even possible, astronomy does seem to be on something of a roll.

"You don't need to spend thousands on a telescope and you really don't have to go that far away from urban centres to get a really good view of the night sky," says Martin. "Light pollution can be a bit of a problem, but during the winter most people should be able to get a good view of Jupiter, which is basically the brightest light in the sky, from their back garden and those who get up early enough should also be able to see Venus in the East.

"I never tire of looking up to the stars. To me astronomy is endlessly fascinating, but it's when I see the look of awe on the faces of children that I know that I'm doing my job right."

As part of the attempts to widen the appeal of astronomy, York Observatory will be holding a party on January 3 to celebrate the day when the Earth is at the closest point to the Sun.

"It's what we're calling a Perihelion Party and it's our little way of joining in the BBC's celebrations.

"I know it seems crazy to be marking the day when we are nearest to a big ball of fire when it's hellish cold outside, but it will be a bit of fun, we might even break out the biscuits."

York Observatory's Perihelion Party – Stargazing Live will take place from 5pm-8pm on January 3. Entry is free, but for more information call 01904 687687.

Looking to the heavens: The astronomical calendar for the year ahead

The next 12 months promises to provide a bumper crop of astronomical happenings.

January 4: Partial solar eclipse which should be visible in most parts of northern Europe.

April 3: Saturn at Opposition. At its closest approach to Earth, this will be the best time to view the ringed planet and its moons.

April 21: Lyrids Meteor Shower. At its peak the shower should produce in the region of 20 meteors per hour.

June 15: Total Lunar Eclipse. The eclipse should be visible throughout most of Europe.

August 12 & 13: Perseids Meteor Shower. Producing up to 60 meteors an hour at its peak and can be seen best by looking towards the northeast after midnight.

September 23: The Autumnal Equinox occurs in the northern hemisphere at 09.04 when there will be equal amounts of day and night.

October 29: Jupiter at Opposition. As the giant planet marks its closest approach to Earth, it should be easily visible from Earth and this is also the best time to photograph its moons.

December 10: Total Lunar Eclipse. The eclipse should be visible throughout most of Europe.

December 13 & 14: Geminids Meteor Shower. Considered by many to be the best shower, it is known for producing up to 60 multi-coloured meteors an hour. The peak usually occurs in the middle of the month, but meteors should be visible from December 9.