This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in July 2019.
The last fortnight’s glorious calm weather has given us some fantastic nights for stargazing. Many visitors to the observatory in the last couple of weeks have told stories of unbelievable skies (I believe them) later on in the evenings. Campers especially seem to be the lucky ones with late night toilet trips. One perk to sleeping under canvas if ever you needed one!
I have also been asked on one memorable occasion this week if I can make the sky darker during the observatory’s open hours, to which the answer, sadly, is no. This might be high season for Scilly but it’s low season for astronomers.
In any case, the nights are drawing in – slowly! – so by 11pm you’ve got near complete darkness. Better than nothing.
Now if there’s one planet that you must view through a telescope once in your life it has to be Saturn. Even the most die-hard, seen-it-all astronomer will still get a kick from viewing Saturn at this time of year. It really is a beauty. And it has an exquisite ring system, unmatched by any other planet.
Saturn has reached opposition this week – which in short means it’s as close as it gets to Earth all year. We’re talking a few thousand kilometres closer, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t far, so to be honest, all month is good for viewing! The best time to view is around midnight, when it’s highest in the sky. Technically it rises above our horizon around 9pm, but because of the lightness then, good luck spotting it any time before half ten!
Saturn can be spotted relatively low in the Southern Sky, at the moment, below and to the left of the very bright Jupiter as you’re looking. We’re lucky here on Scilly because it’s southern position means we’ll largely be viewing it above the sea, as low a horizon as you could wish for. Saturn’s not as bright as giant Jupiter – bear in mind that not only is it smaller, it is also twice as far away. But Saturn IS brighter than any nearby stars. You can tell this because you’ll see it with the naked eye well before any other stars come out. If you need any more clues to its identity, you’ll see it’s got a noticeably yellowish hue. I looked at it last night through my modest binoculars and could just make out an oval shape, which includes the rings. Add in a small telescope and you’ll see the rings clearly. A 14 inch Meade such as we have at the Observatory might blow your mind!
Before we get dark however there’s a super atmospheric phenomenon that we can witness just after sunset, in the name of Noctilucent Clouds – aka NLCs. These are the highest clouds on Earth and occur in a narrow layer some 80km up in the atmosphere. Because they’re so high up, they even reflect the Sun’s light during the hours of darkness. Noctilucent means ‘night shining’. The ideal time to look for them is 1 and a half to 2 hours after sunset, and to the northwest horizon. Alternatively, if you’re an early riser, look Northeast an hour or so before sunrise. Noctilucent clouds may look electric blue against an otherwise darkening sky. They’re very pretty and you’ll be able to spot them from now up until the start of August.
So there you have it - Saturn and Noctilucent Clouds – beauties to marvel at when it’s dark….and getting dark.