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.
This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's June edition.
Stargazing aside, it's been a momentous time for astronomy on St Martins. We are utterly delighted to have been offered major funding from the Government's Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) towards the construction of our Observatory. Our application has been ongoing for the best part of 2 years, so we are thrilled that all our efforts have finally borne fruit (or rather, domes). We still have a good way to go to reach our target, so we can't rest on our laurels just yet, though this is a very exciting start to our Summer. If you would like to help us in any part towards our fundraising, please do get in touch.
There's not much in the way of dark sky time this month, as we pass through our summer solstice. While it may never get properly black, with Scilly's naturally darker skies, it's still worth seizing a clear night.
Saturn is at its brightest for the year from 22 June, with the best chances of viewing this spectacular ringed planet in the very early hours, say 1am onwards. If you can get your hands on a small telescope (or a good pair of binoculars), I highly recommend trying to view Saturn yourself. Seeing it clearly for the first time remains one of my top astronomy 'wow' moments. You'll find Saturn South in the sky, above the Teapot asterism in Sagittarius. On 27 June it will appear tantalisingly close to the full moon – just 2 degrees (or 2 finger spaces with an outstretched arm) away.
June and July are also your best months for observing noctilucent clouds. These atmospheric phenomena appear as whisps of light-coloured clouds that are noticeably bright against the darkening sky. Look out for them shortly after sunset, low above the Northwest horizon. Again, make the most of Scilly's exceptionally dark, low horizons – if you're here you'll have a very good chance of spotting some.
If you've visiting Scilly this summer, do look out for our interesting Astronomy Talks and Events – this year there will be boats from the islands over to St Martins for these, subject to demand. We'd love to meet you there.
This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's February issue.
The antics of the moon have dominated much astronomical discussion so far in 2018, but ironically, a large and bright moon presents challenge for earnest stargazers. Although here on Scilly, we get to enjoy such stunningly unpolluted skies that even when the moon is at its brightest, the blanket of stars shine on, if a little upstaged.
A full moon of course has wonders of its own to marvel at. On St Martin's we celebrated January's blue moon with a stargazing party for the island children. It's magical how exciting a simple walk in the dark can be when you're 4, but even the grown-ups' hearts raced, the moment the supermoon emerged, majestic and dazzlingly bright, from behind a cloud. It's worth remembering where and when your love of the night sky starts – often its a simple source. Pointing out Orion's Belt – the only 3 stars in a straight line in our entire sky – could be hook enough. I certainly hope it has inspired St Martins' youngest astronomers.
Orion – the hunter - is such a joy to observe with children. It dominates our Winter night sky and has with plenty of interest to engage. Betelgeuse, Orion's 'right shoulder', is a red giant, on its last legs astronomically speaking (it's due to expire in, say, the next 100 million years...). Betelgeuse's orangey colour is easily identifiable with the naked eye and beautifully enhanced with binoculars.
In stark contrast there is Rigel, Orion's 'left foot', a blue-white supergiant and the 7th brightest star in our sky. Below Orion's belt, you have Orion's nebula, a misty blur of light with naked eyes but add binoculars and you can clearly make out clusters of stars. Follow the line of Orion's belt down and you'll get to Sirius, the brightest of all the stars visible from Earth, and a mere 8 and a half light years away.
The two full supermoons in March offer an ideal excuse to take an exploratory walk in the dark with children. As our fundraising for a permanent observatory on St Martins continues (with accompanying reams of paperwork), our 'in the dark' walk proved a timely reminder of what it's all about: let us, of all ages, be awed at the wonders of our Scilly skies.
This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's December 2017 issue.
COSMOS on St Martin's is not an infinite concept – in fact it is still very much a work in progress. As a team of volunteers working towards building a community observatory on St Martins, COSMOS (Community Observatory St Martin's on Scilly) happens to be our apt acronym.
This time last year, we'd just received approval for planning permission for the site of the Observatory behind St Martin's Island Hall. Since then we've been hard at work researching, fundraising, networking and filling in infinitely lengthy application forms. We’re all learning so much along the way, although the admin side of a building project can sap the joy out of even the keenest! So, as an admirer of Steve Sims' informative Scilly Stars page, I got in touch and offered to write about what we're up to over on St Martin's - not just the observatory's development, but also what we're looking at in the sky. A big thank you to Steve for your encouragement and the kind mention in your last article.
The early evening darkness and long nights of the Winter months are a treat for stargazers. As is often the case, with our changeable weather, opportunities for stargazing can't always be planned - but when seized are relentlessly rewarding.
On St Martin's, a walk from Higher Town down the road to the Seven Stones Inn (and, after a tipple or two, back) offers a particularly delightful activity for clear nights. You'll find yourself following the bright streak of the Milky Way for most of the journey, and, with a little help from the Plough and Orion, you easily can start to pinpoint other major constellations with the naked eye. You may also find yourself stumbling into a bush or two along the way, with all that gawping at the sky, but that's another story.
Before I get to what we'll be looking at in the coming month, let me first touch on a topical Christmas issue. The science behind the Star of Bethlehem, as followed by the three wise men, is contested. The favoured astronomical explanation of said Christmas Star suggests it was a rare convergence of three bright planets of our own solar system: Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. It would've been a grand optical illusion - the planets, seemingly coming together, would have appeared as one big and bright 'star'. Planets were, indeed, the 'wandering stars' of the ancients.
We won't see any such showy convergence this December. But by 11-15 January, Mars and Jupiter will both be wandering near (from our earthly perspective!) to our Moon. Naked eye, binoculars or small 'scope – take your pick. It's a good chance to try telling them apart. Mars looks red if you look at it askance. Even with a small 'scope, you can make out Jupiter's gaseous stripes.
Back, briefly to 'wandering stars', this time of the shooting kind. We've had a good run viewing the Winter of meteor showers in Scilly this year, and late December is a good chance to catch the last of 2017's offering – the Urseids. They'll be visible in the sky close to Ursa Minor around 21/22 December. By no means as spectacular as November's Leonids, or early December's Gemenids, the lack of moon at the end of the month means it's a perfect time to get out and enjoy excellent dark skies.
Have a happy and star-filled Christmas, and I look forward to sharing more about the developments with COSMOS – and what to see in our Scilly skies – in issues to come.