Astronomy tourism is a burgeoning field – luckily for me, as it’s how I make a living! – with city-folk now starting to make the effort to travel to places with darker skies, in the hope of seeing things that simply cannot be seen from the orange glare of a town sky.
Stargazers at an astronomy tourism event in Sark (image credit: Martin Taylor)
Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, which I helped establish in 2009, has seen a lot of this dark sky tourism trade, due to its high profile in the media, but many other places around the country – Sark in the Channel Islands, and Exmoor National Park to name but two – have followed suit, hoping to attract the stargazing crowds.
And as more and more people come out of the city for a stargazing weekend under dark skies it’s becoming clear to me that there’s a real appetite for seeing the Milky Way and other elusive dark sky objects. It’s almost become something to put on your “bucket list”: see a wild lion in Africa; fly in a hot air balloon; see the Milky Way.
However there are lots of other amazing astronomical objects visible under a dark sky so here is the first installment of my top-ten “Dark Sky Bucket List”. (more…)
This artist's conception illustrates Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s Kepler mission has confirmed its first planet in the “habitable zone,” the region where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Kepler also has discovered more than 1,000 new planet candidates, nearly doubling its previously known count. Ten of these candidates are near-Earth-size and orbit in the habitable zone of their host star. Candidates require follow-up observations to verify they are actual planets.
The newly confirmed planet, Kepler-22b, is the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun. The planet is about 2.4 times the radius of Earth. Scientists don’t yet know if Kepler-22b has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition, but its discovery is a step closer to finding Earth-like planets. (more…)
The View of the Porlock Vale from Porlock Hill looking over toward Bossington Hill and North Hill taken by Sean Hattersley on the 27/06/06
Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve follows in the footsteps of Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, and Sark Dark Sky Island, both of which I helped to set up.
I first met Emma Dennis, the landscape officer for Exmoor National Park Authority who led the whole process, in 2008 when I brought the idea to her that Exmoor’s dark skies and favourable weather made it an ideal site for a dark sky reserve. (more…)
I’m 33, I live in Bristol and I like astronomy. However, I don’t have a telescope and even if you did give me one, I’d be uncertain where to put my eye. I write comedy and I’m a professional blogger. My favourite colours are beer and dark skies.
Telescopes scare me. Not in the way a stranger in my bedroom or a spider in my knickers would scare me, but they do fill me with a certain fear.
I mean, I absolutely love things that go *shine* in the night, and have since I was a little girl, but the prospect of going out and buying a scope – something I know NOTHING about — is fairly petrifying. It even makes me feel a bit of a fraud. How can I be in to astronomy when I don’t even know my azimuth from my elbow? And also, I’m not too hot on my constellations either – sure, I know the main ones they teach you at school, but ask me to point out Lyra? Pegasus? Lucky Jim’s Pirate Ship?
OK, I admit it, I’m an AMATEUR amateur astronomer, but so is 99.9999999999999999999999% (possibly more nines than that, I didn’t have time to conduct a survey) of the world’s population, so it’s a cool club to be in.
Before I got friendly with astronomers on Twitter, I always fancied one of those thin tubular ones they sell for £90 in Argos. Surely I would be able to see the storms on Jupiter, the arms of Andromeda, and the Bristol football team practicing from 10 miles away? Turns out I’d be better off peering through a toilet roll tube with some cling film on the end of it – I’ve been told that cheap telescopes merely turn unimpressive white dots into marginally less impressive WOBBLY white dots, so I’m saving the cash for a Virgin Galactic space holiday instead. I hear the weather’s quite exceptional on Mercury…
But something happened this weekend that made me feel better about scope envy. I’ve been getting friendly with our very own @virtualastro on Twitter, and when I discovered I had 900 free minutes to use before the end of the month, I thought it was nigh on time we spoke to each other.
So, I called him up, and we spent a total of FIVE HOURS on the phone over the course of Saturday and Sunday night. Rest assured Twitter, we have plotted and planned some very exciting things together which will be blazing your way like a comet made of ideas instead of muddy ice soon …but the best, most wonderful, amazing, magical thing we did was…GO STAR HOPPING TOGETHER. Without a freakin’ telescope!
Even though we are about 70 miles apart (I live in Bristol, he lives in Oxfordish somewhere) we were both able to look up at the same sky, see the same ISS passes, and the same meteors. It was remarkable to be on the phone to someone with such an incredible knowledge of the skies. I sat gob smacked, mouth and ears open, as he talked me through constellations, clusters, satellites and gory Greek myths. I had no idea Cassiopeia had been a naughty girl and was sentenced to dangle upside down on a chair for eternity. I’d never heard of the Cygnus Rift — an ominously dark patch of sky in our milky way. I couldn’t even pick out the summer triangle, but now I know where it lives I will undoubtedly point it out to people in the pub, spilling cider as I leap around, trying to remember which stars make it up.
The best part was a dazzling ISS pass with a Perseid meteor streaking past like an arrow through a love heart. @VirtualAstro even had to put the phone down to deal with the deluge of tweets, and it felt amazing to be part of something so communal, so magical, yet so fleeting.
He also reassured me I didn’t need a telescope to enjoy the skies – which is fabulous because I was getting a bit sick of wishing for one on every meteor I saw. He said ‘if you look up at the sky…then you’re already an astronomer,’ a line which neatly castrated the last traces of my scope envy.
As I lay back and looked at the star-flecked sky, with crickets singing in the hedge, fired up with a guided tour of our resplendent heavens, it dawned on me. This was better than any naughty phone chat line. He could quite easily wire up a premium-rate number to his phone and charge £1.50 a minute for the pleasure of his knowledge.
Yep, I had a great time star-gazing without a scope last night. To the point of rubbing my thighs and drooling a bit. And how was it for you, darling?
Vicky pretended she was having fun looking through the telescope, but the view was better with just her eyes.
If you are looking for a great spot to see the shooting stars of the Perseids away from bright lights and light pollution, there are some very good National Trust sites you can go to in the UK.
These sites are ideal for all kinds of stargazing any time of the year and are set in some of the most beautiful locations in the country
The seven best National Trust sites for star gazing and see the wonders of the night sky are:
Black Down in Sussex – Get closer to the stars on the highest point in the South Downs, just over a mile from the town of Haslemere.
Download the guide for Black Down
Teign Valley in Devon – Discover the stars at this Trust property within Dartmoor National Park and close to Castle Drogo.
Download the guide for Teign Valley
PenbrynBeach in Wales – Beautiful, unspoilt mile-long beach on the Ceredigion coast in west Wales, great for a bit of star gazing and a late night paddle.
Download the guide for Penbryn Beach
StonehengeLandscape in Wiltshire – Step back in time and discover the ancient skies of Salisbury Plain’s chalk downlands, home to the impressive prehistoric stone monument.
Download the guide for Stonehenge Landscape
Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire – Close to historic Ely, the wild landscape of the National Trust’s oldest nature reserve offers dark skies and a wealth of nocturnal wildlife to listen out for.
Download the guide for Wicken Fen
Mam Tor in Derbyshire – Escape the bright city lights of Sheffield and experience the peace and tranquillity of Mam Tor’s dark skies in the Peak District.
Download the guide for Mam Tor
Friar’s Crag in Cumbria – Surrounded by the breathtakingly beautiful scenery of the Lake District, Friar’s Crag in Keswick juts out into the spectacular lake of Derwentwater; a restful place to contemplate the world above us.
Download the guide for Friar’s Crag
More information about all of these sites is available by visiting: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/darkskies and enjoy stargazing and meteorwatch at these fabulous locations.
The Channel Island of Sark has been recognised for the quality of its night sky by the International Dark-sky Association (IDA), who have designated it the world’s first dark sky island, the latest in a select group of dark sky places around the world.
Sark has no public street lighting, there are no paved roads and cars, so it does not suffer from the effects light pollution in the same way as towns and cities do. This means that the night sky is very dark, with the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, meteors streaking overhead, and thousand of stars on display.
Caption: “Stargazers on Sark enjoy the wonder of the Milky Way”. Image Credit: Martin Morgan-Taylor
The announcement was hailed as a great success by astronomers. Prof Roger Davies, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: “This is a great achievement for Sark. People around the world are become increasingly fascinated by astronomy as we discover more about our universe, and the creation of the world’s first dark sky island in the British Isles can only help to increase that appetite. I hope this leads to many more people experiencing the wonders of a truly dark sky”.
The award follows a long process of community consultation, which included the assessment of the sky darkness and an audit of all the external lights on Sark. A comprehensive lighting management plan was created by lighting Jim Patterson of the Institute of Lighting Engineers, and many local residents and businesses have altered their lighting to make them more dark sky friendly, ensuring that as little light as possible spills upwards where it can drown out the starlight.
Caption: “The Milky Way above the Seigneur’s Mill on Sark”. Image Credit: Martin Morgan-Taylor
The government of Sark, the Chief Pleas, were supportive from the start. Conseilleur Paul Williams, chair of the Agriculture Committee, which oversees environmental matters, said: “Sark becoming the world’s first dark sky island is a tremendous feather in our environmental cap, which can only enhance our appeal. Sark is a wonderful island and this recognition will bring our uniqueness and beauty to a wider audience.”
This designation means that Sark joins the select group of international sites chosen for their dark skies, including Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, which became Europe’s first International Dark Sky Park in November 2009.
Steve Owens, the dark sky development officer who led Sark’s application to the IDA, recognises the benefits that this might have for the community on Sark: “This is an ideal opportunity to bring stargazers to the island throughout the year, and I think that Sark is about to see a boom in astro-tourism, especially in the winter months. We’ve seen a surge of public interest in astronomy in recent years, with the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 and more recently with the success of BBC Stargazing Live, and it’s great that places like Sark and Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park are allowing people from towns and cities to come and experience a dark sky”.