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.