Autumn is a welcome time for us stargazers as the longer nights offer more opportunities for enjoying Scilly’s stunning skies. What’s more, as our climate retains that little bit of extra warmth as the nights draw in, we look forward to some toasty evenings up at the observatory without too many added layers! And if we do get chilly, we can retreat to our cosy warm room. We can even operate our largest telescope, the 14 inch Meade, from the computer in there! Not that anything quite beats looking at some of our skies’ wonders with our own eyes, direct from the eyepiece.
It’s been a brilliant summer for us in several ways. In our first 6 months, we’ve welcomed nearly 700 visitors. We’ve had some heart-warming feedback about both what we’ve achieved and our enthusiasm. It has been terrific showing off the observatory to visitors of all ages and giving some visitors their own astronomy ‘wow’ moments, hopefully which will inspire them to pursue this most rewarding of hobbies.
We always talk to our visitors about what makes Scilly’s skies unique, our chief attribute being complete lack of light pollution. We want people to understand what this means and why we’re in the dwindling 21% of the UK that still has pristine night skies!
We have had some terrific evenings of observing with still, clear nights, and have cast our telescopes on not just star clusters and planets, but distant nebulae and galaxies.
As we get further into autumn and winter, the last of the summer constellations drop out of view and new ones appear. Now is a great time to catch the rich heart of our Milky Way at its best. Constellation Cygnus, the swan, which can be reduced to the Northern Cross, lies smack bang across the Milky Way and offers a rich area of observing. Gorgeous ringed Saturn will still be viewable in much of September up until November in fact, albeit very low in the southern sky; and giant Jupiter’s hanging around our early evening skies. Both are magical seen through our observatory’s telescopes – reality sometimes is more wondrous than you can imagine!
While we’re open until the end of October, with our first ‘season’ under our belts, we can now look back – and forward – to think about what we might do differently next year. Opening twice a week has worked well for us, with sell-out Tuesday nights and more informal Friday afternoons for drop-in tours and sun-gazing. While we’d like to be open more, we’re still a small team of dedicated volunteers (though in the longer term, there’s potential for a paid job there!). It’s still the case that visitors not staying on St Martin’s need to arrange their own transport to us, which poses issues due to the inevitable night boating: but this is island life. There’s also my previous point about peak season on Scilly not being the optimum time for stargazing – we could put on extra dates but it wouldn’t get dark any earlier, nor could we guarantee clear weather.
You’ve got until the end of October to pay us a visit in person. Then it’s our chance as a team and an island community, over our first Winter with our kit all up and running, to have a good play and build our working knowledge. One of the best things, however, about astronomy, and indeed running a community observatory, is that you can never know it all!
A version of this piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in September 2019.
September is well and truly upon us and for us eager astronomers, this month marks the beginning of the new stargazing season (...handily, just as the tourist season on Scilly winds down and things get that bit quieter – less haring about between multiple jobs and still squeezing in open nights at the observatory!).
That ‘start of the stargazing season’ is less to do with what’s up in the sky but more that we’ve now hit meteorological autumn and the nights are getting longer: and you know what that means: more time for observing! In terms of what’s up there to look at, nothing’s massively changed since last month. Just that we can now see it by 9pm, cloud permitting.
I say the sky is much darker now, but for the next week and a bit, the very bright Moon, which is rising in the evenings, presents a bit of a pain – certainly when for looking at deep sky objects or indeed anything more than planets! – it can wash out all but the brightest stars up there. The Milky Way will also be less visible with the naked eye. The full Moon peaks on 14 September. While this means we can leave torches at home if we’re off out late, we’re really going to have to wait until after the last quarter, on 22 September, to appreciate the richness of the month’s skies. Nothing to stop you having a good old look at the Moon: Patrick Moore would approve, and you don’t really need anything more than binoculars for this. Proper astronomers – by the way I’m not counting myself in this category here! – will tell you that full Moon is the worst possible time to look at the Moon through a telescope, particularly if you want to look in geographical detail at the seas and craters, because it’s just too bright! They’ve got a point, but it depends what floats your boat. Amateurs like us at COSMOS will gladly say pooh to that: we’ll be happy to point our telescopes at the Moon whenever it’s big and bright. I for one quite like the aesthetic satisfaction of seeing the whole disc through the eyepiece in all its glory.
As we inch further into autumn and winter, the last of the summer constellations drop out of view and new ones appear; this is particularly the case in the hours before dawn. At 7 and a half month’s pregnant, I’m frequently up and down in the night, and I make the most of this joy (!) by popping my head out of the window to see what’s out there! If you’re also up into the wee small hours, you’ll notice Taurus (the Bull) is back with its clusters of the Hyades and the distinctive smudge of the Pleiades. This is part of my favourite patch of sky which also features stick men twins Gemini and, below them, multicoloured Orion. These will get higher in the sky earlier as the months progress towards the end of the year.
Gorgeous ringed Saturn will still be viewable in much of September - up until November in fact – albeit very low in the southern sky, not an issue for us sea-locked islanders whereas it would be if you lived in a built up area; and giant Jupiter’s hanging around our early evening skies. After the Moon, Jupiter’s the brightest thing in the sky at the moment. Nearby Saturn will appear dimmer, and more orange-y, but will be viewable before its nearby stars. If you're unsure what you're looking at, it’s a good time to refresh your knowledge on a stargazing app on your computer or phone – Stellarium is our go-to on PC; I use Star Walk 2 on my phone, but others are available.
We’ve welcomed more than 700 people to the observatory since April, which we’re very pleased with for our first ‘Scilly season’, and we’ve got lots to think about for next year – more on that later. We’re relishing the chance to get some decent stargazing sessions in as a team over the Winter, this is now our chance to get to know the kit a lot better, so as best to show it off to you! Anyway, you’ve got until the end of October to join us on St Martin’s in person, more details on our website. Tuesday evenings fill up fast so you must book ahead, and Friday afternoons offer a good point to drop in for a look around if you’re passing, or staying on another island.
That’s all for now: I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, when the new Moon means we’ll have some darker starry skies to explore.