We’re past the summer solstice which means only one thing for us stargazers: the nights are getting longer! Slowly at first, but by August we should have some precious extra time – before we get to the wee small hours – to enjoy Scilly’s beautiful dark skies.
Summer might be a glorious time to visit Scilly during the day, but by night alas you’ll have to stay out pretty late to make the most of our unpolluted sky. That shouldn’t put you off visiting us at the observatory when we’re open – as you’ll still get a good look round and we’ll make sure you leave with some top tips for your stargazing, if, that is, you don’t manage to see anything for yourselves. However, if you’re really keen to use the telescopes for some deep sky viewing, Autumn’s where it’s at. September through to November here on Scilly offer tantalisingly dark skies at far more reasonable hours and there’s still residual warmth in our temperatures to boot.
We’ve been treated to far this summer to some stunning glimpses of king of the planets Jupiter, gracing our southern skies. From our vantage point on St Martin’s, it’s been hovering above the Eastern Isles. Even a modest telescope can make out its rings of cloud and if you’re lucky, spot the great red spot. I’m sharing a picture of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, taken through our smaller night-time telescope.
August is a prime month for gazing upon many people’s favourite planet, Saturn – he of the majestic rings. Saturn’s best viewed low in the southern horizon from the middle of August. It’s wonderful to view through our telescopes as the feted rings become tangibly real.
Also look out for the peak of the spectacular Perseid meteor shower around 12/13 August, when we’re expecting in the up to 70 per hour, whizzing across the night sky! For best viewing, sneak out pre-dawn when there’s a short Moon-free window, before the twilight appears. If you can’t rouse yourself for that, the Perseids should still deliver you some ‘ooh’ moments if you’re lucky at any time after dark. Perseids are often bright and leave visible trails. Look to the north-eastern part of the sky – they radiate (appear to come from) the constellation of Perseus. Enjoy!
A version of this piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in July 2019.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the recent coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, by NASA’s Apollo 11 crew. There have been some excellent documentaries on the telly about the mission that have reminded us just how exciting ‘the future’ of space travel was 50 years ago. 50 years feels like a long time ago when you think that even 20 years ago WiFi wasn’t even a thing and even 10 years ago lots of us didn’t even have a smartphone let alone an iPad! For perspective, Apollo 11’s onboard computer had about the same computing power as the fitness tracker on my wrist! Now it’s 10,000 small steps a day for man…
And yet, for all their worth, the Apollo missions didn’t usher in a new era of space travel. After Armstrong and Aldrin, 10 more men walked on the Moon before 1972 when the Apollo programme was wound up. The space race with Russia was, in many ways, more a political victory more than a scientific one. Though the science is remarkable. But NASA ran out of money, and 'the public' had already lost interest (imagine!!) by Apollos 15 to 17. No one since has stepped on the Moon nor any other world, and that’s not looking particularly imminent. We might now look to new superpowers including China – the only country so far to have landed on the dark side of the Moon.
At the Observatory we had a lovely open afternoon to commemorate the events of 1969, however we weren’t able to gaze upon the Moon that night – due to pesky cloud stopping play. The beginning of August actually offers a much better opportunity to fix a telescope on the Apollo 11 landing site – not that you can see any flags or footprints, even with a whopping great telescope ten times the size of our whopper here on St Martin’s. Still – the first few days after the New Moon offer brilliant Moon-gazing opportunities, from being the first to spot the new crescent to exploring the textures along terminator (the edge between the moon and shadow) as the Moon grows.
We’re also entering the start of the annual summer Perseid meteor shower. One of the best and brightest spectacles of the night sky. Sadly this is where we get the Moon even if we don’t want it, the Moon providing the only light pollution we can expect here in Scilly for the Perseids this year! Still, you won’t have to be too lucky to catch a shooting star. The peak (which is around 12th August this year) sees about 75 Perseids an hour. These shooting stars are renowned for their brightness and long, lingering tails. From the 1st of August, you should be able to catch some – in fact we’ve seen a few at our stargazing sessions on St Martin’s already. They radiate – appear to come from – the constellation of Perseus. But the easiest way in my book is to find the distinctive wonky W of Cassiopeia and aim your gaze around there. You might want a deckchair for this to save your neck!
If that’s not enough for you and you’d like to stargaze at an actual star, see if you can find Altair, in Aquila the eagle. It’s the lowest of the 3 bright stars in the Summer triangle asterism, well placed in the Summer sky at the moment. Altair is a lovely bright giant, flanked by 2 dimmer stars, making almost a straight line of 3 – not to be mistaken for Orion’s belt, that’s for Winter. As if there’s not enough to be looking up at, see if you can find these three, the family of Aquila for yourself in the next couple of weeks.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in July 2019.
The last fortnight’s glorious calm weather has given us some fantastic nights for stargazing. Many visitors to the observatory in the last couple of weeks have told stories of unbelievable skies (I believe them) later on in the evenings. Campers especially seem to be the lucky ones with late night toilet trips. One perk to sleeping under canvas if ever you needed one!
I have also been asked on one memorable occasion this week if I can make the sky darker during the observatory’s open hours, to which the answer, sadly, is no. This might be high season for Scilly but it’s low season for astronomers.
In any case, the nights are drawing in – slowly! – so by 11pm you’ve got near complete darkness. Better than nothing.
Now if there’s one planet that you must view through a telescope once in your life it has to be Saturn. Even the most die-hard, seen-it-all astronomer will still get a kick from viewing Saturn at this time of year. It really is a beauty. And it has an exquisite ring system, unmatched by any other planet.
Saturn has reached opposition this week – which in short means it’s as close as it gets to Earth all year. We’re talking a few thousand kilometres closer, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t far, so to be honest, all month is good for viewing! The best time to view is around midnight, when it’s highest in the sky. Technically it rises above our horizon around 9pm, but because of the lightness then, good luck spotting it any time before half ten!
Saturn can be spotted relatively low in the Southern Sky, at the moment, below and to the left of the very bright Jupiter as you’re looking. We’re lucky here on Scilly because it’s southern position means we’ll largely be viewing it above the sea, as low a horizon as you could wish for. Saturn’s not as bright as giant Jupiter – bear in mind that not only is it smaller, it is also twice as far away. But Saturn IS brighter than any nearby stars. You can tell this because you’ll see it with the naked eye well before any other stars come out. If you need any more clues to its identity, you’ll see it’s got a noticeably yellowish hue. I looked at it last night through my modest binoculars and could just make out an oval shape, which includes the rings. Add in a small telescope and you’ll see the rings clearly. A 14 inch Meade such as we have at the Observatory might blow your mind!
Before we get dark however there’s a super atmospheric phenomenon that we can witness just after sunset, in the name of Noctilucent Clouds – aka NLCs. These are the highest clouds on Earth and occur in a narrow layer some 80km up in the atmosphere. Because they’re so high up, they even reflect the Sun’s light during the hours of darkness. Noctilucent means ‘night shining’. The ideal time to look for them is 1 and a half to 2 hours after sunset, and to the northwest horizon. Alternatively, if you’re an early riser, look Northeast an hour or so before sunrise. Noctilucent clouds may look electric blue against an otherwise darkening sky. They’re very pretty and you’ll be able to spot them from now up until the start of August.
So there you have it - Saturn and Noctilucent Clouds – beauties to marvel at when it’s dark….and getting dark.