This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's March edition.
The Winter months haven’t been particularly kind this year for us stargazers, with cloudless nights rather lacking. As Spring comes upon us, sadly that does mean the nights grow shorter, however we’re ever hopeful for some better weather!
The biggest news is that we now have an Observatory on St Martins. We’ve had time over Winter to get the kit set up and ready to use – though this has taken more time than we’d like, because you can’t configure a telescope when you can’t see any stars! Our biggest piece of kit is a 14 inch Meade telescope, quite a beauty. On our first proper go, we pointed it at the Moon – I took a very amateur picture just for posterity, out of sheer excitement. It was incredible: the amount of detail you can see, quite mind-blowing.
Next to find the planets and deep sky objects. We’ll have to wait until Summer to see COSMOS favourites Saturn and Uranus at their best, but Mars is currently bright and red in the evening sky, to the West in Pisces.
Our skies – when the clouds are elsewhere – offer a wonderful display at the moment, with recognisable constellations high in the sky: among them Orion, Gemini, Taurus (and therein the Pleiades), Auriga, Cassiopeia and Perseus. This patch of sky is great to learn to navigate with the naked eye, where we must start! Repetition is key to learning your way around. Learn the constellations and then explore within and around them. For example, I’ve learned by heart how to spot neighbouring spiral galaxy, Andromeda, using Cassiopeia as a pointer. It’s only by doing things again and again that you gain confidence.
So it will be with the Observatory, in this, our first year of opening. As we step into the unknown, and open to the public, we have a plan but equally that plan will evolve (and, leitmotif alert, be subject to the mercy of our dynamic weather). We will be open ‘officially’ from 1 April 2019. The site will not be open all the time – as we’re a team of volunteers – but we have set openings on Tuesday evenings and Friday afternoons. These are fixed, come rain or shine. Plus we’ll be open other nights, confirmed nearer the time, for special events and talks. If you’re visiting Scilly this year, we’d love to see you on St Martins. Our website (cosmosscilly.co.uk) has all listed events, or email me for any additional info at email@example.com.
Thank you for all your support in getting to this point. The Observatory really is a community project come to fruition, made possible by the belief and enthusiasm of many of you. Now it’s time to use it!
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in February 2019
Have you ever looked up at the stars on a clear Winter night and noticed a faint but bright fuzzy patch, somewhere near Orion? Unmistakeably a glowing thing, but not the pinpoint of light like a regular star. You might have rubbed your eyes or wondered…what IS that cloudy starry thing?
Well that would be the Pleiades – also known as the Seven Sisters. Officially part of the constellation Taurus. The Pleiades are one of the nearest star clusters to us here on planet Earth. A star cluster being simply a group of stars, bound together by gravity. The Pleiades are an open cluster – which means they’re all relatively young stars. These types of clusters are only found in spiral galaxies, like ours, the Milky Way.
To find the Pleiades, follow the line of Orion’s belt up, through red-looking star Aldebaran (the main star in Taurus, and easy to spot as it’s a bright one). Keep going in pretty much a straight line and you’ll reach your cluster destination. This is much easier to master with the naked eye. Once you’ve found it, then grab your binoculars and point them in the area you were just looking!
The Pleiades are a fuzzy mystery with the naked eye but through binoculars are a real treat – you can clearly make out the 7 brightest stars, and many, many more. Grab any pair you can find and give it a go – you won’t be disappointed. You might need to scout around a bit to locate the cluster but once you’ve found it, it’s unmistakeable.
With the naked eye, if you want to make sure you’ve found it, just direct your eyes’ focus ever so slightly to one side of the fuzzy patch. Funnily enough it will look clearer – that’s because the edge of our vision is more sensitive to subtle light, because the majority of our light-sensing rod cells are located in the peripheral retina. The opposite is true for colour though, so don’t be attempt this technique when trying to be sure that you’re looking at red planet Mars! Enough of the eye science.
Back to the Pleiades. In mythology, the Pleiades are the seven divine sisters – supposedly very attractive ones at that – daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione, hence Pleiades. However it’s thought that the name of the cluster actually comes from the Ancient Greek plein, meaning to sail, as the appearance of the star group in the sky marked the beginning of the Greek sailing and navigation season. Interesting fact for those – like us on Scilly – reliant on boating!
Here and now, the Pleiades dropping lower in our sky is more likely to indicate the start of our tourist season. Winter having been fairly rubbish all round for stargazing, we’re hoping to spend more time up at the Observatory as Spring comes along. Anyway, grab a look at the wondrous Pleiades while you can – stay hopeful for a patch of clear sky!
Last Friday, I shared a few star facts with the Reception class (aka Toppers) of the Five Islands Academy, at the Carn Gwaval base on St. Mary's. They have been looking at fun things to do at night time - obviously stargazing needs to be on the list!
We looked at the Plough and Orion, and completed dot-to-dot puzzles of these. We also learned the words ‘astronomer’ and 'constellation'. Their homework was to find Orion’s belt! I can't wait to hear how they got on.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in January 2019.
Orion is one of the gems of the Winter sky. Right now, this unmistakeable constellation, famous for its ‘belt’ of 3 stars in a row, lies due south in the sky and is clearly visible as soon as it’s decently dark. As I speak, that’s roughly 6.30/7pm.
Orion’s a really rewarding constellation for beginners and experts alike, as it has lots of items of interest. Orion was a hunter in Greek mythology, a rather good one, as he managed to place Zeus (king of the gods) in the sky, as the constellation Orion.
To find our hunter in the sky, look south and find the constellation with its 4 corners and distinctive 3-star belt. As you’re looking at it, the top left and bottom right of the 4 corners are interesting to observe. The top left, Betelgeuse, is a red giant star nearing the end of its life; you can clearly see it has any orangey hue, almost (but not quite) to rival that of Mars.
Contrast Betelgeuse with the blue tint of the bottom-right star of Orion; Rigel (or, if you must, Rigel just like Nigel) is a blue supergiant and the 6th brightest star in the night sky. Look directly at the stars to get the best of their colour; for even more pronounced viewing, grab a pair of binoculars.
The great Orion Nebula hangs below Orion’s belt. It can clearly be recognised with the naked eye as something other than a star…something more…nebulous. It’s a place – in our Milky Way – where stars are born: literally. It is a stellar nursery. Stick your binoculars – or even a modest telescope – in that direction, and you’re in for a treat.
Orion is the centrepiece object of the Campaign for Rural England’s Star Count 2019, running throughout February, designed to survey the darkness (or lack thereof) of England’s night skies. Find – again, the 4 corner stars of Orion; these will give you a rectangle. Allow your eyes to adjust for, say, 15 minutes. Now, with the naked eye, how many stars can you count within that rectangle? You can’t count the 4 corners but you can count the 3 in the belt. To give you an idea, if you can count less than 10, you’re somewhere rather light polluted. If you can count more than 30, you’re looking at truly dark skies!
In the Campaign for Rural England’s recent Night Blight report, Scilly was recorded to have the darkest skies of anywhere in the UK – and long may that continue. So get out there and prove it.
Finally, the Observatory on St Martins will be officially open to the public from 1 April. We’ll be shortly publishing our schedule of events for the season shortly. In the meantime, if you want to find out more or have a look around, do get in touch.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in January 2019.
We had our first go on the observatory’s 14 inch Meade telescope on Saturday night. It’s not fully set up but the Moon was out (behind a light screen of mist). We thought we may as well have a go. And we weren’t disappointed – it was, quite simply, phenomenal.
Magnificent as it is, you don’t really need a big old telescope to view the Moon. It’s only 385 thousand-ish kilometres away, which is practically next door, in the grand scheme of space.
Binoculars will give you a real reward. You will easily see that the moon’s surface has plains, craters and mountains. Through a small telescope, you start to make out detail in textures and contours, spotting the smaller, shallower craters. This is where you might want a map to start finding your way around!
You can’t get many places without consulting a map here on Earth and so it’s the same with the Moon. Find yourself a Moon map – there are several online – and this will help you to identify various features.
The Lunar Maria – or Seas of the Moon are a complete misnomer, because they’re actually bone dry. They were once thought to be seas, the dark patches mistaken for water. They were given poetic names like the ‘Sea of Serenity’, ‘Sea of Tranquility’. We now know that these aren’t seas, but are flat plains of lava, however the fancy names have stuck.
Believe it or not, Full Moon is the worst time to observe the moon (after New Moon, obviously). It’s so bright that you won’t be able to make out great detail. The best time to view our lunar neighbour is as it’s waxing or waning, ideally in the days following the first quarter – i.e. NOW! Your best place to look is along the line of darkness – known as the terminator (nothing to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger). As the terminator recedes, features near the border stand out in bold relief; that means that shadows become stronger and details are more easily seen. So, grab a map and get looking up at the moon – it has a lot to offer, none of it cheese.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in December 2018
The Geminids are one of the year’s most spectacular meteor showers. You can see them radiating from star Castor, in constellation Gemini. Gemini represented the twins and looks a little like 2 stick figures. You can find it located near to the top – and to the left - of the unmistakeable Orion.
This year the peak of activity is tonight and tomorrow, so 13 and 14 December. The best time to be looking for Geminids is after midnight, though at the moment the forecasts aren’t looking promising for a clear night. That said, keep your eyes on the skies as even a short break in the clouds could reap rewards.
It’s estimated that, at the Geminids’ peak, you’ll be able to see up to 120 shooting stars an hour, if you’re in an area with very dark skies – which in Scilly, yes we are. It can be quite the light show with the Geminids appearing white, red, blue or even green. Though I’m not talking full on disco lights, more subtle differences in tone.
We might call them shooting stars but the bright streaks of light you’ll see (fingers crossed) whizzing across the sky have nothing to do with stars. Rather, they come from a stream of cosmic debris entering the earth’s atmosphere at extremely high speeds, whereupon they burn up, and voila, you get what looks like a falling star. Bonus fact: most meteors are smaller than a grain of sand, which indicates just how fast they are going, to create that much light!
The Gemenids source is unusual in that it’s from an asteroid – Asteroid 3200 Phaeton to be precise – rather than a comet. The main difference between asteroid and comet is simply what they are made from, because they both orbit the sun – albeit with rather irregular paths – and both are leftovers – as in they’re made from materials left over from the formation of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Nice.
Anyway, the real pleasure is in observing this December phenomenon for yourself – if not on Thursday or Friday then fingers crossed for the weekend or early next week. I hope you can catch a falling Geminid!
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in November 2018
This last couple of week’s weather hasn’t been the best for stargazing. Wind is one element stargazers can generally cope with! If Storm Diana achieved one thing on Wednesday, it blew all the clouds away! Late November and December are some of the best months for stargazing. Wednesday night was a perfect example. I walked home from the island hall with fellow COSMOS member Anna. It was just coming up to 7pm and yet the sky was pure dark and dazzling. We decided to turn off our head torches, to better enjoy the starry sky. Admittedly my bike and I did end up in the hedgerow a couple of times, which just proves the logic of allowing your eyes time to adjust. Anyway, in just 10 minutes we could see the Milky Way and countless stars, beyond stars, and yet more stars.
I returned home with the aim of locating the Andromeda Galaxy, aka M31, through my monocular (basically half a pair of binoculars. It works for me). I’ll save what I saw for another time – but all you need to know for now is that M31 is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way AND you can see it with a half decent pair of binoculars, on a clear night, right here from Scilly! I cannot wait to view it through our observatory’s 14 inch Meade telescope…which was finally installed on its mount this week.
So back to the sky and to Cassiopeia, an easily recognisable constellation that helps locate the Andromeda Galaxy but is a thing of beauty in and of itself. Cassiopeia is currently high in the sky above us, a constellation of 5 nearly equally-bright stars shaped like a wonky W. It’s also one constellation that is constantly visible from our location – it never sets in our Scilly sky. Hard to miss! Fittingly for such an eye-catching constellation, Cassiopeia is named after a rather vain queen, of Greek Mythology, who boasted about her beauty, so the W shape corresponds to her lounging, vainly – we assume, on her throne. Yes, or a wonky W. Sometimes you just have to go with it.
We’ll be looking at Cassiopeia and neighbouring Perseus in this weekend’s Saturday Stargazing here on St Martins – we run these every week through the Winter months, except in the worst of weathers. I hope you too can get out in these dark early evenings, weather permitting, and enjoy Scilly’s stunning night sky, it really is at its best right now.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in November 2018
The Summer Triangle asterism is still with us. It’s one of the most obvious things you’ll see when you look upwards after dark. These three bright stars are – highest in the sky – Deneb (part of the northern cross, or Cygnus the swan), then to the right, Vega (of constellation Lyra), and the lowest is Altair, main star in Aquila, the eagle.
Now that may not be all that interesting on the surface of it – though Deneb does lie smack bang in the middle of the milky way, making it a good waymarker. However, on this occasion, I’m talking about the coathanger! This is a lovely asterism – or unofficial collection of stars that make a shape in the sky. The coathanger can be handily found between Altair and Vega and it’s called the coathanger, because (and this isn’t always the case with naming things in astronomy) it looks just like a coathanger! Albeit from where we are it is upside down.
To find it, with a pair of binoculars sweep upwards, from Altair to Vega. About a third of the way you’ll find the coathanger. It’s formed of a straight line of 6 stars, below which is a hook of 4 stars. See if you can find it!
Meanwhile, back on earth, on St Martins, our observatory now has 2 domes and we’re awaiting delivery of the final few bits of building materials. All being well we’ll be in there soon playing with all the kit! I think it’s going to be an exciting winter ahead of stargazing ahead.
The Observatory construction on St Martins is gearing up for its next stage – the arrival of our domes and telescopes. However we still have a few hurdles to jump before we can get the facility ready for opening. We're holding a Gala Dinner at Karma St Martins on 6 October, with the fantastic Ian Morison FRAS. There's also a silent auction with a phenomenal line up of locally donated lots. We sincerely hope this will be an amazing event celebrating the wonder of our dark skies, as well as how far we've come as a team of enthusiastic amateurs (my most useful phrase of 2018 so far) and, crucially, raising the last funds needed to complete the project.
Autumn marks the start of the new observing season, bringing longer, darker evenings. As much as I adore Scilly summers, the annual dusting off of the telescope brings a whole other level of glee. There is so much to enjoy in the dark.
Summer constellations still loom large through September and October, moving slowly westward across our skies. Feast your eyes on the glorious Summer Triangle – a bright triad of alpha stars, waymarkers offering so much to explore: Deneb, Vega and Altair. Deneb forms the swan's head in Cygnus, and the tip of the Northern Cross asterism, lying smack bang along the haze of the Milky Way. Altair is the brightest star in Aquila, the eagle, and one of the closest naked eye stars to Earth, a mere 17 light years away. And then there's dazzling Vega, in Lyra, the harp – a little harder to make out in all but the clearest skies, but worth persevering.
We're pretty lucky on Scilly with regards to the planets this Autumn. Our solar system sisters are currently scraping close to the horizon. In a built up area this might preclude your enjoyment, but surrounded by seas, no problem. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are are stunningly bright – shining even through the twilight. Amaze some younger stargazers by pointing out these strange worlds, so far away from us and yet, astronomically speaking, on our doorstep.
More info on our Gala Dinner can be found here. To book call Karma St Martins on 01720 422368.
This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's August edition.
After months of beautiful weather bringing clear night skies, it naturally transpired that one of the rainiest evenings of July coincided with the most spectacular astronomical event of the season, the total lunar eclipse. Of course.
It's easy to be fatalistic about it, but the simple truth is that sometimes weather happens, sometimes it doesn't. Such is the life of a Scilly stargazer, the joys of our 'dynamic' skies.
I've written before about the rewards of snatching moments of clear sky as and when they arise – and the lunar eclipse was a case in point. The COSMOS team, dotted around St Martins, was eagerly curtain twitching until finally, roughly 10.20pm, the sky cleared and the final half of the eclipse could be seen. While we missed the wow-factor of totality, witnessing first hand the Earth's shadow on the Moon remains a spine-tingler. Plus the added bonus of a jumbo Mars at opposition. Just magic! Check out Jason Poat's photo taken from Polreath – it really was worth venturing out in the end!
Dazzling Mars is currently shining at its brightest for 15 years and you'll struggle to miss it – look out for the very bright, very red star! It's planet Mars. However the real highlight of the August skies is the annual Perseid meteor shower. This year promises to be a blinder – as the peak of the showers coincides with a new Moon, promising (ahem, weather permitting) favourable viewing. Dates for your diaries, 9 – 16 August, with the peak actual expected between 9pm and 9am on 12-13 August.
Set yourselves up a deckchair in a dark spot (luckily we have loads of these on Scilly) and acclimatise your eyes for at least 20 minutes. The meteors emanate between Cassiopeia and Perseus – have a look on Stellarium to familiarise yourself with the whereabouts of these constellations. Really though, anywhere 'up' is a good place to start spotting this month, and that's fine by me.