This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's February 2020 edition.
I would say a belated Happy New Year, but so far 2020 brings little let-up in cloudy night skies. It’s fair to say that this winter’s been pretty dismal for stargazing on Scilly! We can only hope for more clement Spring skies as we’re all itching to get the telescopes pointing up, up and away.
Cold comfort, then, that clear night skies reveal such jewels at this time of year. The rich fabric of sky has some corking treats for stargazers of all abilities. Orion, Auriga, Gemini, Taurus…the Pleiaides: what we lack in visible planets, we gain in some tantalisingly easy-to-identify constellations. (That is unless they’re all wondrously hidden by a layer of dense cloud.)
Ever the optimists however, we Scilly stargazers seize every fleetingly clear moment and are, as always, rewarded for our efforts. You don’t even need to stay up too late!
Stunningly bright planet Venus graces our evening skies in the early part of 2020; spy the south-western sky from dusk until about 2 hours after sundown. Ancient civilisations knew Venus as the morning star or evening star – so dazzling is she and only ever visible either just to the side of sunset and sunrise, and the brightest object in the night sky after only the Sun and the Moon.
Not a star at all, Venus is in fact, in proportion, remarkably similar to our Earth. It’s thought that once (a mere billion or few years ago) she may have had a climate similar to ours. Named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty (and as an aside – the only planet named after a female), alas she is anything but lovely. Venus’ world is a could-be cautionary tale of global warming gone mad. Her atmosphere is made up of 96.5% carbon dioxide and temperatures average a toasty 462 degrees Celsius, making her the hottest planet in the solar system, despite not being closest to the Sun. Add to this that standing on Venus would be the equivalent in pressure to being 1000km underwater on Earth. So inhospitable is Venus that we know very little about her – most missions have overheated and the longest surface landing lasted less than 24 hours before the craft failed. Let’s admire this ‘beautiful’ planet from afar and let her give us impetus to protect our own Earth’s climate before it’s too late.
2020 is another exciting year for the COSMOS team, our second year of opening regularly to the public and welcoming more new and returning visitors. St Martin’s is also hosting the inaugural Scilly Dark Skies Week in October this year – which will be packed with special talks, workshops, island events and guided stargazing. If you’ve never visited in October, we can’t give you more encouragement than this! We’d love you to join us; Click here for more information.
This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's December 2019 edition.
2019 will go down in history as the year St Martin’s finally got its observatory! We’re very proud of this achievement and continue to be overwhelmed by the support we receive. Thank you. From our first trickle of guests in April this year, to jam-packed nights through July and August, more than 800 people have visited us and – hopefully – come away better informed about Scilly’s beautiful dark skies and enthused about astronomy.
Highlights of our year included: gazing upon gas giants Jupiter and Saturn in the Summer months; entertaining talks by visiting astronomers Mark Holmes and Ian Morison; watching the transit of Mercury across the Sun; and did I mention…more than 800 wonderful visitors! If you were one of them, again, thank you! Lowlights included our state-of-the-art 14 inch Meade telescope needing replacement due to a faulty go-to mechanism and rather too many nights of thick cloudy sky. Of course we expected to have teething issues and the good news is the big Meade is now functional; the bad news is that we’re still waiting as I write for a decent run of clear sky to get it fully calibrated!
2020 is going to be another exciting year for us, as we’ll be open again for the season in April, and welcome even more people to experience our dark skies. We’re also planning our inaugural Dark Skies Week in October 2020, a week of astronomy-related activity with visiting speakers, special events and lots of stargazing. We hope to see you on St Martin’s!
Finally, tis the season for a bit of gifting. We’re frequently asked advice on buying telescopes. But it’s a bit like buying a car: depends how much you’ll use it and how far you need to go. Probably the very first question you should ask yourself is (if it’s not ‘where’s my nearest observatory and how do I join?’): ‘could I get more out of a good book or a pair of binoculars first?’
If you’re determined to buy a telescope for yourself or a loved one this Christmas, it’s wise to do a bit of research before you splash out. There are many different types available. Manual starter scopes come with a cheaper price tag but can take a bit of time to get your head around – absolutely worthwhile if you’re serious about learning the basic mechanics of how telescopes work and the layout of the night sky. You’ll need to invest time and use it regularly but this will give you an excellent grounding in observing. If that doesn’t sound realistic, you may end up with something that fills a cupboard but not your free time.
The alternative is investing a bit more and going for a scope with a go-to motor, essentially astronomy by numbers: type in what you want to look at, and your scope points at it. What you gain in press-of-a-button convenience, you risk losing in acquisition of basic skills. And you still need to know what you’re supposed to be looking at, regardless of any automation!
May the festive season bring you happiness, and plenty of dark, clear skies.
Hello again from the Observatory on St Martin’s. It’s been a little longer than usual since my last update on the night sky. The reason for that is the arrival of our baby, whom we’ve called Teddy, a month early! He was born just before the New Moon in September, so the astronomer in me would like to think he knew it was the right time to get out there and stargaze. In any case, in honour of Teddy, I thought I’d talk about the other little bear in my life, the one in the sky: Ursa Minor.
We will be more familiar with Ursa Major, the great bear, and especially the main pattern within it that’s nicknamed the Plough. Or the big dipper in the USr , or – my preferred – the saucepan, in France. Visible all year, Ursa Major is one of the Northern Hemisphere’s great waymarkers of the sky. It’s what’s called a ‘circumpolar constellation’, meaning it rotates round the northern celestial pole. In practicality, that means its place in the sky changes throughout the year – it won’t always look the same way up! It’s a really good one to make yourself familiar with – find one familiar constellation and you will soon begin to learn many more.
Located within a celestial stone’s throw of the Plough is Ursa Minor, the small bear, also known as the little dipper. Its alpha star, Polaris, gives Ursa Minor its importance, because it’s actually a fairly faint constellation in the grand scheme of things. Polaris is the North Star, or Pole Star, so known because it’s located within one degree of the celestial North Pole. This makes it a very good one for navigating by the stars.
Because it’s so well known, many expect the Pole Star to be brighter than it is. It’s actually only a magnitude 2 star (less bright than the three brightest stars in the Plough). Polaris is, we reckon, 680 light years from us and 6000 times as bright luminous as the Sun. (So actually, that makes it very bright indeed, we’re just quite far away!)
You can find Polaris by extending your gaze up past the 2 right hand side of the plough by 5 times the distance between those 2 stars. Polaris forms the tail of the little bear. The pattern of Ursa Minor looks like a slightly dim and distorted back-to-front version of the Plough.
The other notable star in the constellation is Kochab, at the other end of Ursa Minor to Polaris. Kochab’s got a nice orangey colour, which makes it a good contrast with more white-looking Polaris. Have a go with the naked eye and see if you can become as familiar locating the little bear as its big neighbour.
The Observatory on St Martin’s is now closed for the season – our Tuesday night and Friday afternoon open sessions will be back in April. That said, if you’re on the island and would like to drop in, do get in touch and if we’re around we’ll be happy to open up for you. Otherwise, we’re taking this Winter to get more familiar with the kit and hopefully to get lots more super dark sky images to share with you. Watch this space, as they say!
Autumn is a welcome time for us stargazers as the longer nights offer more opportunities for enjoying Scilly’s stunning skies. What’s more, as our climate retains that little bit of extra warmth as the nights draw in, we look forward to some toasty evenings up at the observatory without too many added layers! And if we do get chilly, we can retreat to our cosy warm room. We can even operate our largest telescope, the 14 inch Meade, from the computer in there! Not that anything quite beats looking at some of our skies’ wonders with our own eyes, direct from the eyepiece.
It’s been a brilliant summer for us in several ways. In our first 6 months, we’ve welcomed nearly 700 visitors. We’ve had some heart-warming feedback about both what we’ve achieved and our enthusiasm. It has been terrific showing off the observatory to visitors of all ages and giving some visitors their own astronomy ‘wow’ moments, hopefully which will inspire them to pursue this most rewarding of hobbies.
We always talk to our visitors about what makes Scilly’s skies unique, our chief attribute being complete lack of light pollution. We want people to understand what this means and why we’re in the dwindling 21% of the UK that still has pristine night skies!
We have had some terrific evenings of observing with still, clear nights, and have cast our telescopes on not just star clusters and planets, but distant nebulae and galaxies.
As we get further into autumn and winter, the last of the summer constellations drop out of view and new ones appear. Now is a great time to catch the rich heart of our Milky Way at its best. Constellation Cygnus, the swan, which can be reduced to the Northern Cross, lies smack bang across the Milky Way and offers a rich area of observing. Gorgeous ringed Saturn will still be viewable in much of September up until November in fact, albeit very low in the southern sky; and giant Jupiter’s hanging around our early evening skies. Both are magical seen through our observatory’s telescopes – reality sometimes is more wondrous than you can imagine!
While we’re open until the end of October, with our first ‘season’ under our belts, we can now look back – and forward – to think about what we might do differently next year. Opening twice a week has worked well for us, with sell-out Tuesday nights and more informal Friday afternoons for drop-in tours and sun-gazing. While we’d like to be open more, we’re still a small team of dedicated volunteers (though in the longer term, there’s potential for a paid job there!). It’s still the case that visitors not staying on St Martin’s need to arrange their own transport to us, which poses issues due to the inevitable night boating: but this is island life. There’s also my previous point about peak season on Scilly not being the optimum time for stargazing – we could put on extra dates but it wouldn’t get dark any earlier, nor could we guarantee clear weather.
You’ve got until the end of October to pay us a visit in person. Then it’s our chance as a team and an island community, over our first Winter with our kit all up and running, to have a good play and build our working knowledge. One of the best things, however, about astronomy, and indeed running a community observatory, is that you can never know it all!
A version of this piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in September 2019.
September is well and truly upon us and for us eager astronomers, this month marks the beginning of the new stargazing season (...handily, just as the tourist season on Scilly winds down and things get that bit quieter – less haring about between multiple jobs and still squeezing in open nights at the observatory!).
That ‘start of the stargazing season’ is less to do with what’s up in the sky but more that we’ve now hit meteorological autumn and the nights are getting longer: and you know what that means: more time for observing! In terms of what’s up there to look at, nothing’s massively changed since last month. Just that we can now see it by 9pm, cloud permitting.
I say the sky is much darker now, but for the next week and a bit, the very bright Moon, which is rising in the evenings, presents a bit of a pain – certainly when for looking at deep sky objects or indeed anything more than planets! – it can wash out all but the brightest stars up there. The Milky Way will also be less visible with the naked eye. The full Moon peaks on 14 September. While this means we can leave torches at home if we’re off out late, we’re really going to have to wait until after the last quarter, on 22 September, to appreciate the richness of the month’s skies. Nothing to stop you having a good old look at the Moon: Patrick Moore would approve, and you don’t really need anything more than binoculars for this. Proper astronomers – by the way I’m not counting myself in this category here! – will tell you that full Moon is the worst possible time to look at the Moon through a telescope, particularly if you want to look in geographical detail at the seas and craters, because it’s just too bright! They’ve got a point, but it depends what floats your boat. Amateurs like us at COSMOS will gladly say pooh to that: we’ll be happy to point our telescopes at the Moon whenever it’s big and bright. I for one quite like the aesthetic satisfaction of seeing the whole disc through the eyepiece in all its glory.
As we inch further into autumn and winter, the last of the summer constellations drop out of view and new ones appear; this is particularly the case in the hours before dawn. At 7 and a half month’s pregnant, I’m frequently up and down in the night, and I make the most of this joy (!) by popping my head out of the window to see what’s out there! If you’re also up into the wee small hours, you’ll notice Taurus (the Bull) is back with its clusters of the Hyades and the distinctive smudge of the Pleiades. This is part of my favourite patch of sky which also features stick men twins Gemini and, below them, multicoloured Orion. These will get higher in the sky earlier as the months progress towards the end of the year.
Gorgeous ringed Saturn will still be viewable in much of September - up until November in fact – albeit very low in the southern sky, not an issue for us sea-locked islanders whereas it would be if you lived in a built up area; and giant Jupiter’s hanging around our early evening skies. After the Moon, Jupiter’s the brightest thing in the sky at the moment. Nearby Saturn will appear dimmer, and more orange-y, but will be viewable before its nearby stars. If you're unsure what you're looking at, it’s a good time to refresh your knowledge on a stargazing app on your computer or phone – Stellarium is our go-to on PC; I use Star Walk 2 on my phone, but others are available.
We’ve welcomed more than 700 people to the observatory since April, which we’re very pleased with for our first ‘Scilly season’, and we’ve got lots to think about for next year – more on that later. We’re relishing the chance to get some decent stargazing sessions in as a team over the Winter, this is now our chance to get to know the kit a lot better, so as best to show it off to you! Anyway, you’ve got until the end of October to join us on St Martin’s in person, more details on our website. Tuesday evenings fill up fast so you must book ahead, and Friday afternoons offer a good point to drop in for a look around if you’re passing, or staying on another island.
That’s all for now: I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, when the new Moon means we’ll have some darker starry skies to explore.
A version of this piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in August 2019.
We’ve had some delightful evenings stargazing in the last couple of weeks, with relatively cloudfree skies – and a late-rising Moon – meaning that between 9.30pm and 11.30pm (ish) there’s been a nice window for observing. By that I mean before the very bright Moon pops up and wipes out all but the brighter stars up there.
At this time of year the Milky Way arcs brightly across our sky. It’s something many visitors to Scilly come to marvel at and appreciate, thanks to our naturally dark skies here. It must be stressed that you need dark minimal light pollution to stand a chance of seeing it clearly, which wipes out much of the mainland! Indeed a recent report by the Campaign for Rural England warned that many children in the UK risk growing up never seeing the Milky Way, because of the damaging effect of artificial light on the night sky. Unless they live in rural areas, and that’s a real deprivation.
One sad fact is that England has only 21.7% of pristine, unpolluted sky left (even sadder is that most of these areas are sparsely or unpopulated – so go figure what the cause is).
Anyway, we treasure our dark sky here in Scilly and long may our nights gazing at the Milky Way continue. But what is the Milky Way and what are we seeing when we look at it?
The Milky Way is the galaxy that our Sun, and therefore our solar system, belongs to. In fact, all the individual stars we can see in our night sky are part of the same galaxy, the same Milky Way.
A galaxy is a group of stars, gas, dust, remains of stars, and dark matter, bound together by gravity. There are several different types of galaxy, named by shape. The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, which means it resembles…a spiral. Following so far? Our Milky Way is somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 light years across. So, very big then. You might at this stage be wondering how on earth we know all this. And the answer is, very clever guess work, scientific estimations – based on other spiral galaxies in space and observations of patterns of behaviour of the stars we can see. If you’re still doubting, you’ll have to take my word for it.
We are inside the galaxy, and as such we’ll never be able to see ALL of the stars in it. What we can see is a disk of stars that forms the Milky Way from inside the disk, which tells us that our galaxy is basically flat… but not much more.
Several telescopes have taken detailed images of the bar of the Milky Way, from different directions, and all have found a concentration of stars in a band in the middle, which adds evidence that we’re a spiral galaxy. Put it this way, if we were an elliptical galaxy, we’d see stars of our galaxy spread around the sky, not just in a single band.
At the centre of our galaxy is a dense bar-shaped cluster of stars, a veritable bulge, where most of the activity happens. And all the stars in our galaxy revolve around this galactic centre. It takes our Sun about 250 million years to do one full orbit so in terms of whether we notice the difference in our position, I’d say the answer is no.
Even though all the stars we can see in the sky are part of the Milky Way, the galaxy gets its name – no, not from the chocolate bar, the stars came first – but from how it appears as a milky band of light in the sky. So what are we looking at?
In short, that bright, milky streak in the sky, is what I’ve talked about: the bright, star-packed centre of our galaxy. Are we alone in it? Who knows. Give it a wave next time we get a clear night, and most of all appreciate how lucky we are to be able to see this wonder at all.
A version of this piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in August 2019.
We’ve had lots of lovely visitors to our observatory over the last couple of weeks, and thankfully the skies are getting just that little bit darker, so that now by 10pm you’ve got a good selection of stars and planets to ogle at. This week we enjoyed a great session looking at the first-quarter Moon through our two biggest telescopes and spotting Jupiter and Saturn along the ecliptic.
Remember that it’s the busiest time of year here on Scilly and our sessions have proven to be very popular, so we do recommend you booking in advance, particularly for evenings, if you’d like to visit us in person.
The star event this week is not a star but the Perseids. The annual Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak on the night of the 12th August this year. If the weather plays fair with us, you should be able to see up to 70 shooting stars per hour, streaking across our skies. However we will be subject to a bright Moon causing us some light pollution, which will drown out the fainter ones. Don’t let this put you off though – the Perseid meteor shower is one of the best and most loved meteor showers in the northern hemisphere, for good reason. These meteors can be spectacular.
You don’t have to wait until Monday night to spot Perseids. We tend to focus on the peak of activity, entirely reasonable, but actually Perseids have been streaking across our sky since about the 17th July, and activity has ramped up from the beginning of August. You might have even seen some already! The Perseids tend to take a while to build up to a peak before falling off sharply – though we’ll still see them up to 10 days after the peak of activity on the 12th.
So what do they look like and why are they so special?
Perseid meteors are particularly bright and fast with lovely long trails. It’s one of the most active meteor showers of the whole year. There’s a particularly high chance of seeing fireballs – very bright meteors – as well. While they can be seen streaking across any part of the sky, they seem to radiate – or come from – within the constellation of Perseus, or, to my mind and somewhat easier to spot, below the wonky W of Cassiopeia.
Meteors in these annual showers come from streams of debris left behind in space, by comets. In this case, that’s Comet Swift Tuttle. As our planet Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Swift Tuttle, bits of the comet’s debris slam into our Earth’s upper atmosphere at an average speed of 36 miles per second, burning up on impact. This force of energy causes quite the night-time light show from these fast-moving meteors.
And how best to view the Perseids?
The good news is that you don’t need any special equipment or knowledge of the constellations! Get yourself to a spot where you’ve got dark, open sky. Open sky is essential because these meteors fly across the sky in many directions and in front of lots of different constellations. On Scilly, finding dark and open sky is an easy one, but you’ll still want to take yourself away from any outdoor lighting or glare from house lights. You might want to lie on the grass - or beach - or get yourself a nice reclining deck chair with a blanket!
The weather for the peak of the activity this year is looking variable, though we may be lucky enough to snatch some cloud-free moments. The best time to look is towards midnight and after, when the chances of seeing increase. However, meteors are part of nature and there’s no way to predict how many you’ll see during any given period. Be patient. In any case, to get the best of it, give yourself at least an hour of observing time – and remember your eyes can take up to 20 minutes to adjust to the dark. Perseids can come in fits and starts and good things come to those who wait. Find yourself a good spot and relax – you’ll see some.
Let us know how you get on – and remember you can share any photos on our COSMOS Facebook group or email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy those shooting stars!
We’re past the summer solstice which means only one thing for us stargazers: the nights are getting longer! Slowly at first, but by August we should have some precious extra time – before we get to the wee small hours – to enjoy Scilly’s beautiful dark skies.
Summer might be a glorious time to visit Scilly during the day, but by night alas you’ll have to stay out pretty late to make the most of our unpolluted sky. That shouldn’t put you off visiting us at the observatory when we’re open – as you’ll still get a good look round and we’ll make sure you leave with some top tips for your stargazing, if, that is, you don’t manage to see anything for yourselves. However, if you’re really keen to use the telescopes for some deep sky viewing, Autumn’s where it’s at. September through to November here on Scilly offer tantalisingly dark skies at far more reasonable hours and there’s still residual warmth in our temperatures to boot.
We’ve been treated to far this summer to some stunning glimpses of king of the planets Jupiter, gracing our southern skies. From our vantage point on St Martin’s, it’s been hovering above the Eastern Isles. Even a modest telescope can make out its rings of cloud and if you’re lucky, spot the great red spot. I’m sharing a picture of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, taken through our smaller night-time telescope.
August is a prime month for gazing upon many people’s favourite planet, Saturn – he of the majestic rings. Saturn’s best viewed low in the southern horizon from the middle of August. It’s wonderful to view through our telescopes as the feted rings become tangibly real.
Also look out for the peak of the spectacular Perseid meteor shower around 12/13 August, when we’re expecting in the up to 70 per hour, whizzing across the night sky! For best viewing, sneak out pre-dawn when there’s a short Moon-free window, before the twilight appears. If you can’t rouse yourself for that, the Perseids should still deliver you some ‘ooh’ moments if you’re lucky at any time after dark. Perseids are often bright and leave visible trails. Look to the north-eastern part of the sky – they radiate (appear to come from) the constellation of Perseus. Enjoy!
A version of this piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in July 2019.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the recent coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, by NASA’s Apollo 11 crew. There have been some excellent documentaries on the telly about the mission that have reminded us just how exciting ‘the future’ of space travel was 50 years ago. 50 years feels like a long time ago when you think that even 20 years ago WiFi wasn’t even a thing and even 10 years ago lots of us didn’t even have a smartphone let alone an iPad! For perspective, Apollo 11’s onboard computer had about the same computing power as the fitness tracker on my wrist! Now it’s 10,000 small steps a day for man…
And yet, for all their worth, the Apollo missions didn’t usher in a new era of space travel. After Armstrong and Aldrin, 10 more men walked on the Moon before 1972 when the Apollo programme was wound up. The space race with Russia was, in many ways, more a political victory more than a scientific one. Though the science is remarkable. But NASA ran out of money, and 'the public' had already lost interest (imagine!!) by Apollos 15 to 17. No one since has stepped on the Moon nor any other world, and that’s not looking particularly imminent. We might now look to new superpowers including China – the only country so far to have landed on the dark side of the Moon.
At the Observatory we had a lovely open afternoon to commemorate the events of 1969, however we weren’t able to gaze upon the Moon that night – due to pesky cloud stopping play. The beginning of August actually offers a much better opportunity to fix a telescope on the Apollo 11 landing site – not that you can see any flags or footprints, even with a whopping great telescope ten times the size of our whopper here on St Martin’s. Still – the first few days after the New Moon offer brilliant Moon-gazing opportunities, from being the first to spot the new crescent to exploring the textures along terminator (the edge between the moon and shadow) as the Moon grows.
We’re also entering the start of the annual summer Perseid meteor shower. One of the best and brightest spectacles of the night sky. Sadly this is where we get the Moon even if we don’t want it, the Moon providing the only light pollution we can expect here in Scilly for the Perseids this year! Still, you won’t have to be too lucky to catch a shooting star. The peak (which is around 12th August this year) sees about 75 Perseids an hour. These shooting stars are renowned for their brightness and long, lingering tails. From the 1st of August, you should be able to catch some – in fact we’ve seen a few at our stargazing sessions on St Martin’s already. They radiate – appear to come from – the constellation of Perseus. But the easiest way in my book is to find the distinctive wonky W of Cassiopeia and aim your gaze around there. You might want a deckchair for this to save your neck!
If that’s not enough for you and you’d like to stargaze at an actual star, see if you can find Altair, in Aquila the eagle. It’s the lowest of the 3 bright stars in the Summer triangle asterism, well placed in the Summer sky at the moment. Altair is a lovely bright giant, flanked by 2 dimmer stars, making almost a straight line of 3 – not to be mistaken for Orion’s belt, that’s for Winter. As if there’s not enough to be looking up at, see if you can find these three, the family of Aquila for yourself in the next couple of weeks.
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.