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!
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in November 2018
This last couple of week’s weather hasn’t been the best for stargazing. Wind is one element stargazers can generally cope with! If Storm Diana achieved one thing on Wednesday, it blew all the clouds away! Late November and December are some of the best months for stargazing. Wednesday night was a perfect example. I walked home from the island hall with fellow COSMOS member Anna. It was just coming up to 7pm and yet the sky was pure dark and dazzling. We decided to turn off our head torches, to better enjoy the starry sky. Admittedly my bike and I did end up in the hedgerow a couple of times, which just proves the logic of allowing your eyes time to adjust. Anyway, in just 10 minutes we could see the Milky Way and countless stars, beyond stars, and yet more stars.
I returned home with the aim of locating the Andromeda Galaxy, aka M31, through my monocular (basically half a pair of binoculars. It works for me). I’ll save what I saw for another time – but all you need to know for now is that M31 is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way AND you can see it with a half decent pair of binoculars, on a clear night, right here from Scilly! I cannot wait to view it through our observatory’s 14 inch Meade telescope…which was finally installed on its mount this week.
So back to the sky and to Cassiopeia, an easily recognisable constellation that helps locate the Andromeda Galaxy but is a thing of beauty in and of itself. Cassiopeia is currently high in the sky above us, a constellation of 5 nearly equally-bright stars shaped like a wonky W. It’s also one constellation that is constantly visible from our location – it never sets in our Scilly sky. Hard to miss! Fittingly for such an eye-catching constellation, Cassiopeia is named after a rather vain queen, of Greek Mythology, who boasted about her beauty, so the W shape corresponds to her lounging, vainly – we assume, on her throne. Yes, or a wonky W. Sometimes you just have to go with it.
We’ll be looking at Cassiopeia and neighbouring Perseus in this weekend’s Saturday Stargazing here on St Martins – we run these every week through the Winter months, except in the worst of weathers. I hope you too can get out in these dark early evenings, weather permitting, and enjoy Scilly’s stunning night sky, it really is at its best right now.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in November 2018
The Summer Triangle asterism is still with us. It’s one of the most obvious things you’ll see when you look upwards after dark. These three bright stars are – highest in the sky – Deneb (part of the northern cross, or Cygnus the swan), then to the right, Vega (of constellation Lyra), and the lowest is Altair, main star in Aquila, the eagle.
Now that may not be all that interesting on the surface of it – though Deneb does lie smack bang in the middle of the milky way, making it a good waymarker. However, on this occasion, I’m talking about the coathanger! This is a lovely asterism – or unofficial collection of stars that make a shape in the sky. The coathanger can be handily found between Altair and Vega and it’s called the coathanger, because (and this isn’t always the case with naming things in astronomy) it looks just like a coathanger! Albeit from where we are it is upside down.
To find it, with a pair of binoculars sweep upwards, from Altair to Vega. About a third of the way you’ll find the coathanger. It’s formed of a straight line of 6 stars, below which is a hook of 4 stars. See if you can find it!
Meanwhile, back on earth, on St Martins, our observatory now has 2 domes and we’re awaiting delivery of the final few bits of building materials. All being well we’ll be in there soon playing with all the kit! I think it’s going to be an exciting winter ahead of stargazing ahead.
The Observatory construction on St Martins is gearing up for its next stage – the arrival of our domes and telescopes. However we still have a few hurdles to jump before we can get the facility ready for opening. We're holding a Gala Dinner at Karma St Martins on 6 October, with the fantastic Ian Morison FRAS. There's also a silent auction with a phenomenal line up of locally donated lots. We sincerely hope this will be an amazing event celebrating the wonder of our dark skies, as well as how far we've come as a team of enthusiastic amateurs (my most useful phrase of 2018 so far) and, crucially, raising the last funds needed to complete the project.
Autumn marks the start of the new observing season, bringing longer, darker evenings. As much as I adore Scilly summers, the annual dusting off of the telescope brings a whole other level of glee. There is so much to enjoy in the dark.
Summer constellations still loom large through September and October, moving slowly westward across our skies. Feast your eyes on the glorious Summer Triangle – a bright triad of alpha stars, waymarkers offering so much to explore: Deneb, Vega and Altair. Deneb forms the swan's head in Cygnus, and the tip of the Northern Cross asterism, lying smack bang along the haze of the Milky Way. Altair is the brightest star in Aquila, the eagle, and one of the closest naked eye stars to Earth, a mere 17 light years away. And then there's dazzling Vega, in Lyra, the harp – a little harder to make out in all but the clearest skies, but worth persevering.
We're pretty lucky on Scilly with regards to the planets this Autumn. Our solar system sisters are currently scraping close to the horizon. In a built up area this might preclude your enjoyment, but surrounded by seas, no problem. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are are stunningly bright – shining even through the twilight. Amaze some younger stargazers by pointing out these strange worlds, so far away from us and yet, astronomically speaking, on our doorstep.
More info on our Gala Dinner can be found here. To book call Karma St Martins on 01720 422368.
This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's August edition.
After months of beautiful weather bringing clear night skies, it naturally transpired that one of the rainiest evenings of July coincided with the most spectacular astronomical event of the season, the total lunar eclipse. Of course.
It's easy to be fatalistic about it, but the simple truth is that sometimes weather happens, sometimes it doesn't. Such is the life of a Scilly stargazer, the joys of our 'dynamic' skies.
I've written before about the rewards of snatching moments of clear sky as and when they arise – and the lunar eclipse was a case in point. The COSMOS team, dotted around St Martins, was eagerly curtain twitching until finally, roughly 10.20pm, the sky cleared and the final half of the eclipse could be seen. While we missed the wow-factor of totality, witnessing first hand the Earth's shadow on the Moon remains a spine-tingler. Plus the added bonus of a jumbo Mars at opposition. Just magic! Check out Jason Poat's photo taken from Polreath – it really was worth venturing out in the end!
Dazzling Mars is currently shining at its brightest for 15 years and you'll struggle to miss it – look out for the very bright, very red star! It's planet Mars. However the real highlight of the August skies is the annual Perseid meteor shower. This year promises to be a blinder – as the peak of the showers coincides with a new Moon, promising (ahem, weather permitting) favourable viewing. Dates for your diaries, 9 – 16 August, with the peak actual expected between 9pm and 9am on 12-13 August.
Set yourselves up a deckchair in a dark spot (luckily we have loads of these on Scilly) and acclimatise your eyes for at least 20 minutes. The meteors emanate between Cassiopeia and Perseus – have a look on Stellarium to familiarise yourself with the whereabouts of these constellations. Really though, anywhere 'up' is a good place to start spotting this month, and that's fine by me.
This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's June edition.
Stargazing aside, it's been a momentous time for astronomy on St Martins. We are utterly delighted to have been offered major funding from the Government's Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) towards the construction of our Observatory. Our application has been ongoing for the best part of 2 years, so we are thrilled that all our efforts have finally borne fruit (or rather, domes). We still have a good way to go to reach our target, so we can't rest on our laurels just yet, though this is a very exciting start to our Summer. If you would like to help us in any part towards our fundraising, please do get in touch.
There's not much in the way of dark sky time this month, as we pass through our summer solstice. While it may never get properly black, with Scilly's naturally darker skies, it's still worth seizing a clear night.
Saturn is at its brightest for the year from 22 June, with the best chances of viewing this spectacular ringed planet in the very early hours, say 1am onwards. If you can get your hands on a small telescope (or a good pair of binoculars), I highly recommend trying to view Saturn yourself. Seeing it clearly for the first time remains one of my top astronomy 'wow' moments. You'll find Saturn South in the sky, above the Teapot asterism in Sagittarius. On 27 June it will appear tantalisingly close to the full moon – just 2 degrees (or 2 finger spaces with an outstretched arm) away.
June and July are also your best months for observing noctilucent clouds. These atmospheric phenomena appear as whisps of light-coloured clouds that are noticeably bright against the darkening sky. Look out for them shortly after sunset, low above the Northwest horizon. Again, make the most of Scilly's exceptionally dark, low horizons – if you're here you'll have a very good chance of spotting some.
If you've visiting Scilly this summer, do look out for our interesting Astronomy Talks and Events – this year there will be boats from the islands over to St Martins for these, subject to demand. We'd love to meet you there.
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.
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.