This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's April/May edition.
Now the clocks have gone back as we are in the midst of a lovely Scilly spring, the downside does mean later nights for us stargazers, and, potentially, the start of bleary-eyed mornings.
That aside, there’s still much to enjoy up there. The Spring constellations are slowly working their way into peak position in the night sky. We’re fast losing Orion; Taurus is hot on its heels, if at all visible, and the twin stick-figures of Gemini are low in the sky. Between the much fainter constellations of Cancer and Virgo you will now spot Leo, the lion.
If these names sound familiar it’s probably because you’ve read about them in the back of a magazine in your horoscope, and yes, they are constellations of the Zodiac. But I’m not talking about your ‘star signs’. Astrology – unlike astronomy – is not a science, although to be fair, they both involve the stars. That’s where it ends. Astronomy can explain the position of the stars in the sky, but frankly, it’s up to you to interpret their meaning.
In astronomy, the Zodiac refers to the twelve constellations that our Sun passes through, identified back in the day by the ancient Babylonians. This area of sky also includes the apparent paths of the moon and the planets. We also call this imaginary line frequented by Moon, Sun and planets ‘the ecliptic’. Arcing at 25.5 degrees, East to West, locate this area of the sky and you will also find some of the most wonderful night sights.
Leo is one of the oldest recognised constellations in the night sky, documented even by the Mesopotamians, and known as the lion in many ancient cultures. Handily, it’s one of the few constellations that looks like its namesake. You can find the Lion’s head south of the ‘dipper’ in the Plough, where it appears as a backwards question mark. The bottom of this sickle is Regulus, Leo’s brightest star, noted for its fast bullet-like shape and peculiar motion.
Back on Earth, our observatory is now open for the season on St Martins. For 2019 our regular openings – come rain or shine – will be Tuesday evenings and Friday afternoons, for a look around and fingers crossed some star (or sun) gazing. We’ll open other nights, which will vary week to week depending on cloud and astronomical events.
We look forward to welcoming you – finally – to Scilly’s own observatory!
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in March 2019.
It’s been a glorious week for Scilly stargazers, with still, clear days turning into still, clear nights! What luxury, and after the disappointing Winter season, it’s been great to have several reliable nights in a row to gaze up and reacquaint ourselves with the starry blanket above!
When I do have a clear night, I like to test out my knowledge of where the constellations are, piecing together the sky in a map. After lots of clouds, where you might be snatching moments to find a particular object, an open sky offers the chance to get back to basics.
Here’s a constellation that will open up many others for you: Ursa Major, better known by its asterism name, the Plough.
It’s got to be the most well known groups of stars in the sky. Most people can point it out. Lesser know, is its job as a navigation tool!
The plough appears as 7 bright stars. You’ve got 3 forming the curved handle and then 4 forming a sort of bowl or shallow bucket shape. In France the plough’s known as the saucepan, for obvious reasons.
There are actually 8 stars in the plough as the handle includes double stars Mizar & Alcor. If you look for the second star in from the end of the handle you’ll easily make it out as a pair with binoculars or small telescope.
The brightest stars of the ‘pan’ part are those on the far right, Dubhe, top of pan & Merak bottom right of pan.
To find Polaris, trace a line from Merak up through Dubhe, then extend that line 5 times, until you reach the Pole star, less than 1 degree from true North.
Arc to Arcturus, by following the curve of the plough’s handle down, to reach distinctive bright, red star Arcturus in Bootes.
Cross the top of the bowl, continuing past Dubhe, leads in the direction of Capella – cap to capella!
And one more. Follow down the 2 stars of the pan nearest the handle (Megrez & Phecda), and you’ll reach Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. A hole in the bowl will leak on Leo, as the saying goes.
There are even more, but give those a go for now. And here’s to many more clear nights!
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in March 2019.
I do love this time of year when the nights start drawing back and you’re no longer walking to and from work in the dark. However the downside does mean later nights for us stargazers, and, potentially, the start of bleary-eyed mornings.
That aside, the Spring constellations are slowly working their way into peak position in the night sky. Gemini and Leo are taking prominence high in the sky at the moment, with the very faint Cancer in between – if these names sound familiar it’s probably because you’ve read about them in the back of a magazine in your horoscope…and yes, they are constellations of the Zodiac. But I’m not talking about astrology or your ‘star signs’ here. Astrology – unlike astronomy – is not a science, although to be fair, they both involve the stars. That’s where it ends. Astronomy can explain the position of the stars in the sky, but frankly, it’s up to you and Mystic Meg to interpret their meaning.
In astronomy, the Zodiac refers to the twelve constellations that our Sun passes through, identified back in the day by the ancient Babylonians. This area of sky also includes the apparent paths of the moon and the planets. We also call this imaginary line frequented by Moon, Sun and planets ‘the ecliptic’.
Back to what you can actually see. Gemini is easy to spot, even for the most amateur of stargazers. It’s at its best right about now. You’ll spot Gemini northeast of Orion and it looks (if you join the imaginary dots) like two stick men holding hands. Apt, because Gemini represents the twins. Making it one of the few constellations that actually looks vaguely like what it’s called! The twins in question are Castor and Pollux from Greek mythology, inseparable brothers who became known as the Sons of Zeus. They were placed in the sky by dear old Zeus to honour their brotherly love. And there you are: Castor and Pollux are the names of the two brightest stars, which form the heads of our starry stick-twins.
Back on Earth, we’re gearing up for the start of the season on St Martins, and our observatory will be open to the public from the beginning of April. For 2019 our regular openings –come rain or shine- will be Tuesday evenings and Friday afternoons, for a look around and fingers crossed some star (or sun) gazing. We will be open other nights, but those will vary week to week depending on the weather and interesting night sky events. If you’d like to visit or find out more, drop me an email, have a look at our website, or find our group on Facebook.
Facebook: COSMOS Community Observatory St Martins on Scilly
Here's a copy of the constellation anagram round, from one of the St Martin's quiz evenings. See how many you can get!
This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's March edition.
The Winter months haven’t been particularly kind this year for us stargazers, with cloudless nights rather lacking. As Spring comes upon us, sadly that does mean the nights grow shorter, however we’re ever hopeful for some better weather!
The biggest news is that we now have an Observatory on St Martins. We’ve had time over Winter to get the kit set up and ready to use – though this has taken more time than we’d like, because you can’t configure a telescope when you can’t see any stars! Our biggest piece of kit is a 14 inch Meade telescope, quite a beauty. On our first proper go, we pointed it at the Moon – I took a very amateur picture just for posterity, out of sheer excitement. It was incredible: the amount of detail you can see, quite mind-blowing.
Next to find the planets and deep sky objects. We’ll have to wait until Summer to see COSMOS favourites Saturn and Uranus at their best, but Mars is currently bright and red in the evening sky, to the West in Pisces.
Our skies – when the clouds are elsewhere – offer a wonderful display at the moment, with recognisable constellations high in the sky: among them Orion, Gemini, Taurus (and therein the Pleiades), Auriga, Cassiopeia and Perseus. This patch of sky is great to learn to navigate with the naked eye, where we must start! Repetition is key to learning your way around. Learn the constellations and then explore within and around them. For example, I’ve learned by heart how to spot neighbouring spiral galaxy, Andromeda, using Cassiopeia as a pointer. It’s only by doing things again and again that you gain confidence.
So it will be with the Observatory, in this, our first year of opening. As we step into the unknown, and open to the public, we have a plan but equally that plan will evolve (and, leitmotif alert, be subject to the mercy of our dynamic weather). We will be open ‘officially’ from 1 April 2019. The site will not be open all the time – as we’re a team of volunteers – but we have set openings on Tuesday evenings and Friday afternoons. These are fixed, come rain or shine. Plus we’ll be open other nights, confirmed nearer the time, for special events and talks. If you’re visiting Scilly this year, we’d love to see you on St Martins. Our website (cosmosscilly.co.uk) has all listed events, or email me for any additional info at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for all your support in getting to this point. The Observatory really is a community project come to fruition, made possible by the belief and enthusiasm of many of you. Now it’s time to use it!
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in February 2019
Have you ever looked up at the stars on a clear Winter night and noticed a faint but bright fuzzy patch, somewhere near Orion? Unmistakeably a glowing thing, but not the pinpoint of light like a regular star. You might have rubbed your eyes or wondered…what IS that cloudy starry thing?
Well that would be the Pleiades – also known as the Seven Sisters. Officially part of the constellation Taurus. The Pleiades are one of the nearest star clusters to us here on planet Earth. A star cluster being simply a group of stars, bound together by gravity. The Pleiades are an open cluster – which means they’re all relatively young stars. These types of clusters are only found in spiral galaxies, like ours, the Milky Way.
To find the Pleiades, follow the line of Orion’s belt up, through red-looking star Aldebaran (the main star in Taurus, and easy to spot as it’s a bright one). Keep going in pretty much a straight line and you’ll reach your cluster destination. This is much easier to master with the naked eye. Once you’ve found it, then grab your binoculars and point them in the area you were just looking!
The Pleiades are a fuzzy mystery with the naked eye but through binoculars are a real treat – you can clearly make out the 7 brightest stars, and many, many more. Grab any pair you can find and give it a go – you won’t be disappointed. You might need to scout around a bit to locate the cluster but once you’ve found it, it’s unmistakeable.
With the naked eye, if you want to make sure you’ve found it, just direct your eyes’ focus ever so slightly to one side of the fuzzy patch. Funnily enough it will look clearer – that’s because the edge of our vision is more sensitive to subtle light, because the majority of our light-sensing rod cells are located in the peripheral retina. The opposite is true for colour though, so don’t be attempt this technique when trying to be sure that you’re looking at red planet Mars! Enough of the eye science.
Back to the Pleiades. In mythology, the Pleiades are the seven divine sisters – supposedly very attractive ones at that – daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione, hence Pleiades. However it’s thought that the name of the cluster actually comes from the Ancient Greek plein, meaning to sail, as the appearance of the star group in the sky marked the beginning of the Greek sailing and navigation season. Interesting fact for those – like us on Scilly – reliant on boating!
Here and now, the Pleiades dropping lower in our sky is more likely to indicate the start of our tourist season. Winter having been fairly rubbish all round for stargazing, we’re hoping to spend more time up at the Observatory as Spring comes along. Anyway, grab a look at the wondrous Pleiades while you can – stay hopeful for a patch of clear sky!
Last Friday, I shared a few star facts with the Reception class (aka Toppers) of the Five Islands Academy, at the Carn Gwaval base on St. Mary's. They have been looking at fun things to do at night time - obviously stargazing needs to be on the list!
We looked at the Plough and Orion, and completed dot-to-dot puzzles of these. We also learned the words ‘astronomer’ and 'constellation'. Their homework was to find Orion’s belt! I can't wait to hear how they got on.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in January 2019.
Orion is one of the gems of the Winter sky. Right now, this unmistakeable constellation, famous for its ‘belt’ of 3 stars in a row, lies due south in the sky and is clearly visible as soon as it’s decently dark. As I speak, that’s roughly 6.30/7pm.
Orion’s a really rewarding constellation for beginners and experts alike, as it has lots of items of interest. Orion was a hunter in Greek mythology, a rather good one, as he managed to place Zeus (king of the gods) in the sky, as the constellation Orion.
To find our hunter in the sky, look south and find the constellation with its 4 corners and distinctive 3-star belt. As you’re looking at it, the top left and bottom right of the 4 corners are interesting to observe. The top left, Betelgeuse, is a red giant star nearing the end of its life; you can clearly see it has any orangey hue, almost (but not quite) to rival that of Mars.
Contrast Betelgeuse with the blue tint of the bottom-right star of Orion; Rigel (or, if you must, Rigel just like Nigel) is a blue supergiant and the 6th brightest star in the night sky. Look directly at the stars to get the best of their colour; for even more pronounced viewing, grab a pair of binoculars.
The great Orion Nebula hangs below Orion’s belt. It can clearly be recognised with the naked eye as something other than a star…something more…nebulous. It’s a place – in our Milky Way – where stars are born: literally. It is a stellar nursery. Stick your binoculars – or even a modest telescope – in that direction, and you’re in for a treat.
Orion is the centrepiece object of the Campaign for Rural England’s Star Count 2019, running throughout February, designed to survey the darkness (or lack thereof) of England’s night skies. Find – again, the 4 corner stars of Orion; these will give you a rectangle. Allow your eyes to adjust for, say, 15 minutes. Now, with the naked eye, how many stars can you count within that rectangle? You can’t count the 4 corners but you can count the 3 in the belt. To give you an idea, if you can count less than 10, you’re somewhere rather light polluted. If you can count more than 30, you’re looking at truly dark skies!
In the Campaign for Rural England’s recent Night Blight report, Scilly was recorded to have the darkest skies of anywhere in the UK – and long may that continue. So get out there and prove it.
Finally, the Observatory on St Martins will be officially open to the public from 1 April. We’ll be shortly publishing our schedule of events for the season shortly. In the meantime, if you want to find out more or have a look around, do get in touch.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in January 2019.
We had our first go on the observatory’s 14 inch Meade telescope on Saturday night. It’s not fully set up but the Moon was out (behind a light screen of mist). We thought we may as well have a go. And we weren’t disappointed – it was, quite simply, phenomenal.
Magnificent as it is, you don’t really need a big old telescope to view the Moon. It’s only 385 thousand-ish kilometres away, which is practically next door, in the grand scheme of space.
Binoculars will give you a real reward. You will easily see that the moon’s surface has plains, craters and mountains. Through a small telescope, you start to make out detail in textures and contours, spotting the smaller, shallower craters. This is where you might want a map to start finding your way around!
You can’t get many places without consulting a map here on Earth and so it’s the same with the Moon. Find yourself a Moon map – there are several online – and this will help you to identify various features.
The Lunar Maria – or Seas of the Moon are a complete misnomer, because they’re actually bone dry. They were once thought to be seas, the dark patches mistaken for water. They were given poetic names like the ‘Sea of Serenity’, ‘Sea of Tranquility’. We now know that these aren’t seas, but are flat plains of lava, however the fancy names have stuck.
Believe it or not, Full Moon is the worst time to observe the moon (after New Moon, obviously). It’s so bright that you won’t be able to make out great detail. The best time to view our lunar neighbour is as it’s waxing or waning, ideally in the days following the first quarter – i.e. NOW! Your best place to look is along the line of darkness – known as the terminator (nothing to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger). As the terminator recedes, features near the border stand out in bold relief; that means that shadows become stronger and details are more easily seen. So, grab a map and get looking up at the moon – it has a lot to offer, none of it cheese.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in December 2018
The Geminids are one of the year’s most spectacular meteor showers. You can see them radiating from star Castor, in constellation Gemini. Gemini represented the twins and looks a little like 2 stick figures. You can find it located near to the top – and to the left - of the unmistakeable Orion.
This year the peak of activity is tonight and tomorrow, so 13 and 14 December. The best time to be looking for Geminids is after midnight, though at the moment the forecasts aren’t looking promising for a clear night. That said, keep your eyes on the skies as even a short break in the clouds could reap rewards.
It’s estimated that, at the Geminids’ peak, you’ll be able to see up to 120 shooting stars an hour, if you’re in an area with very dark skies – which in Scilly, yes we are. It can be quite the light show with the Geminids appearing white, red, blue or even green. Though I’m not talking full on disco lights, more subtle differences in tone.
We might call them shooting stars but the bright streaks of light you’ll see (fingers crossed) whizzing across the sky have nothing to do with stars. Rather, they come from a stream of cosmic debris entering the earth’s atmosphere at extremely high speeds, whereupon they burn up, and voila, you get what looks like a falling star. Bonus fact: most meteors are smaller than a grain of sand, which indicates just how fast they are going, to create that much light!
The Gemenids source is unusual in that it’s from an asteroid – Asteroid 3200 Phaeton to be precise – rather than a comet. The main difference between asteroid and comet is simply what they are made from, because they both orbit the sun – albeit with rather irregular paths – and both are leftovers – as in they’re made from materials left over from the formation of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Nice.
Anyway, the real pleasure is in observing this December phenomenon for yourself – if not on Thursday or Friday then fingers crossed for the weekend or early next week. I hope you can catch a falling Geminid!