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.