It’s good to have something to look forward to, and the upcoming spring skies keep us looking up. Amidst the relentless uncertainty, here, we have some constants: our winter dark skies remain entrancingly dark; cloudless nights haphazardly grace us with jaw-dropping awe. We snatch our stargazing when we can, and, when we do, what a sky.
The start of the year has seen us – with social distancing, and in household bubbles - perform some essential maintenance to the observatory site: pruning the hedges to clear our horizons, clearing tenacious bracken, and of course checking the domes and telescopes are in good working order. It’s felt a good time to ‘refocus’ all round. I’m pleased to report that not only is the observatory now looking spruce, the telescopes are ready for stargazing, whenever that is safe to do so.
When aligning a telescope, you need to be looking at something that you can confidently, consistently identify with the naked eye as well as through magnification. To make it fun, it might as well be something lovely too. At this time of year, the Orion Nebula (aka M42), is the ideal such target. A mere 1300 light years distant, Orion Nebula is a stellar nursery - where stars are literally being born. If you can find the 3 aligned stars of Orion’s Belt, you’re nearly there. Just underneath, you’ll locate Orion’s nebula. With the naked eye, it’s a fuzzy patch of sky. Add in binoculars or a small telescope and you’re in for a mind-bending treat. As ever, slight avert your eyes to get the best of it – our peripheral vision is much more sensitive to light!
Moving a little closer to home, this spring, Mars is one to watch. Our rocky, iron-rich neighbour is easily identified in the night sky by its bright, distinctive orange hue. It’s moving away from us at present, but still prominent in the southwestern night sky after dark. Through a telescope you get the definite sense of its planetary character – shape and surface detail. But with the naked eye and binoculars, it’s still a brilliant spot. On 3 March, Mars nestles stunningly close to the Pleiades – an open cluster in Taurus, also known as the Seven Sisters. By 19 March, Mars will form a loose triangle with the Pleiades and the crescent Moon.
Mars is likely to be in the news again, too. By the end of February, NASA’s latest Mars rover, Perseverance, and helicopter, Ingenuity, will have landed on the red planet. The mission’s aim is to study the Martian soil for signs of life, as well as testing out new remote technology to be utilised by future space projects. By April, Mars should be a relative hive of activity, as the China National Space Administration is also due to land a functional mission – searching for water and returning samples. It looks set to be a remarkable year for science all round!
We hope to have more news about the observatory’s plans for opening for the 2021 season very soon. Until then, stay safe; keep looking up.