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.
Hello again from the Observatory on St Martin’s. It’s been a little longer than usual since my last update on the night sky. The reason for that is the arrival of our baby, whom we’ve called Teddy, a month early! He was born just before the New Moon in September, so the astronomer in me would like to think he knew it was the right time to get out there and stargaze. In any case, in honour of Teddy, I thought I’d talk about the other little bear in my life, the one in the sky: Ursa Minor.
We will be more familiar with Ursa Major, the great bear, and especially the main pattern within it that’s nicknamed the Plough. Or the big dipper in the USr , or – my preferred – the saucepan, in France. Visible all year, Ursa Major is one of the Northern Hemisphere’s great waymarkers of the sky. It’s what’s called a ‘circumpolar constellation’, meaning it rotates round the northern celestial pole. In practicality, that means its place in the sky changes throughout the year – it won’t always look the same way up! It’s a really good one to make yourself familiar with – find one familiar constellation and you will soon begin to learn many more.
Located within a celestial stone’s throw of the Plough is Ursa Minor, the small bear, also known as the little dipper. Its alpha star, Polaris, gives Ursa Minor its importance, because it’s actually a fairly faint constellation in the grand scheme of things. Polaris is the North Star, or Pole Star, so known because it’s located within one degree of the celestial North Pole. This makes it a very good one for navigating by the stars.
Because it’s so well known, many expect the Pole Star to be brighter than it is. It’s actually only a magnitude 2 star (less bright than the three brightest stars in the Plough). Polaris is, we reckon, 680 light years from us and 6000 times as bright luminous as the Sun. (So actually, that makes it very bright indeed, we’re just quite far away!)
You can find Polaris by extending your gaze up past the 2 right hand side of the plough by 5 times the distance between those 2 stars. Polaris forms the tail of the little bear. The pattern of Ursa Minor looks like a slightly dim and distorted back-to-front version of the Plough.
The other notable star in the constellation is Kochab, at the other end of Ursa Minor to Polaris. Kochab’s got a nice orangey colour, which makes it a good contrast with more white-looking Polaris. Have a go with the naked eye and see if you can become as familiar locating the little bear as its big neighbour.
The Observatory on St Martin’s is now closed for the season – our Tuesday night and Friday afternoon open sessions will be back in April. That said, if you’re on the island and would like to drop in, do get in touch and if we’re around we’ll be happy to open up for you. Otherwise, we’re taking this Winter to get more familiar with the kit and hopefully to get lots more super dark sky images to share with you. Watch this space, as they say!