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 (like Nigel, apparently), 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.