This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's December 2019 edition.
2019 will go down in history as the year St Martin’s finally got its observatory! We’re very proud of this achievement and continue to be overwhelmed by the support we receive. Thank you. From our first trickle of guests in April this year, to jam-packed nights through July and August, more than 800 people have visited us and – hopefully – come away better informed about Scilly’s beautiful dark skies and enthused about astronomy.
Highlights of our year included: gazing upon gas giants Jupiter and Saturn in the Summer months; entertaining talks by visiting astronomers Mark Holmes and Ian Morison; watching the transit of Mercury across the Sun; and did I mention…more than 800 wonderful visitors! If you were one of them, again, thank you! Lowlights included our state-of-the-art 14 inch Meade telescope needing replacement due to a faulty go-to mechanism and rather too many nights of thick cloudy sky. Of course we expected to have teething issues and the good news is the big Meade is now functional; the bad news is that we’re still waiting as I write for a decent run of clear sky to get it fully calibrated!
2020 is going to be another exciting year for us, as we’ll be open again for the season in April, and welcome even more people to experience our dark skies. We’re also planning our inaugural Dark Skies Week in October 2020, a week of astronomy-related activity with visiting speakers, special events and lots of stargazing. We hope to see you on St Martin’s!
Finally, tis the season for a bit of gifting. We’re frequently asked advice on buying telescopes. But it’s a bit like buying a car: depends how much you’ll use it and how far you need to go. Probably the very first question you should ask yourself is (if it’s not ‘where’s my nearest observatory and how do I join?’): ‘could I get more out of a good book or a pair of binoculars first?’
If you’re determined to buy a telescope for yourself or a loved one this Christmas, it’s wise to do a bit of research before you splash out. There are many different types available. Manual starter scopes come with a cheaper price tag but can take a bit of time to get your head around – absolutely worthwhile if you’re serious about learning the basic mechanics of how telescopes work and the layout of the night sky. You’ll need to invest time and use it regularly but this will give you an excellent grounding in observing. If that doesn’t sound realistic, you may end up with something that fills a cupboard but not your free time.
The alternative is investing a bit more and going for a scope with a go-to motor, essentially astronomy by numbers: type in what you want to look at, and your scope points at it. What you gain in press-of-a-button convenience, you risk losing in acquisition of basic skills. And you still need to know what you’re supposed to be looking at, regardless of any automation!
May the festive season bring you happiness, and plenty of dark, clear skies.