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.
Here's our latest newsletter! While we haven't much to report, we can at least look forward to a new year of stargazing. We hope to see you at the observatory again in 2021.
Val, Charlie, Terry, Terry, Anna, Robin & Cheryl, the COSMOS Committee
This has felt like a very long year with very little stargazing. It certainly wasn’t the second year the observatory’s team here on St Martin’s expected, but I can’t imagine we were alone in that! We made the hard but necessary decision to remain closed for the season, as we couldn’t be certain that we could ensure a safe experience. As I’ve said many times to many different people this year, telescope astronomy is a close-proximity activity. Perhaps if we were more established (and with a bigger pool of volunteers to help out running sessions), we could have managed it, somehow. Everything this year has been hard to predict. We missed not just using the observatory ourselves as a group, but also showing others around. Sharing our love of astronomy is, after all, our observatory’s raison d’etre.
To quote the great Stephen Hawking, ‘where there is life, there is hope’. As we look towards 2021, we must be hopeful that normal life will return to the observatory next April!
To the sky. December is the month of the annual Geminid meteor shower – a stunning light display of very bright shooting stars, reaching a rate of about 100 per hour at its peak over 13-14 December. As a bonus, this year’s peak coincides with a New Moon which means conditions for seeing are ideal! No equipment needed – other than possibly a blanket and a warm drink – just find somewhere dark, tilt your head back, and give it some time.
If there is one night that I’ve got everything crossed for it to be cloudless, it’s 21 December, the winter solstice. 2020’s longest night had better be a good one, because it plays host to the unrivalled planetary highlight of the whole entire year. Planetary giants Jupiter and Saturn will appear just 0.1 degrees apart – which means that you can view both, at once, through even a modest telescope! I’ve seen both, many times, through our ‘scopes at the observatory – both awe-inducing; even with binoculars on a clear night you can make out Jupiter’s stripes and Saturn’s rings. Trust me when I say that the chance to see both at once, with magnification, is simply not to be missed.
If you are still looking for a Christmas (or New Year) present for that stargazer in your life, then there’s one telescope I recommend this year! Island jeweller Fay Page has designed stunning telescope and star charms, available in silver or gold, which celebrate of the work of COSMOS. £5 from every purchase will go towards the observatory, and will hopefully help us ensure we have everything in place to open, safely, however it may be, next year.
However you choose to celebrate this year, I hope you have a fantastic time and the stars shine brightly for you! Thank you for all your support this year and we can’t wait to welcome visitors back to the observatory in 2021. Keep looking up!
Check out Fay Page’s Dark Skies collection here: https://www.faypage.co.uk/collections/dark-skies
It’s been a quiet season for us at the observatory, feeling strange not to open our doors every week to welcome in visitors to gaze on our Scilly skies. As I’ve written previously, we made the decision as a committee of volunteers to remain closed to the public this season, as it was clear that physical distancing within the site wasn’t possible.
If there’s any consolation for would-be visitors who missed out on a trip during the summer holidays, then it’s cloud! I can count on one hand the nights of good seeing we’ve had on St Martin’s during August. The peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower – a veritable light show in our dark skies – happened behind a sheet of cloud. Perhaps it’s payback for the fabulously clear skies we had in June and July. These made for some photographic beauties of Comet Neowise. (See the corker of a shot by James Faulconbridge, one of the new owners of the vineyard here on St Martin’s, turning the Daymark into a giant Roman candle!)
Shifting from Summer into Autumn always fills us astronomy folk with gleeful anticipation, as the nights draw in and the astronomy ‘season’ starts in earnest. On St Martin’s we’re sticking with naked eye astronomy for now, though I’ll update you with news as to our reopening plans as and when.
Ideally, this is the perfect time of year for gazing with nothing more than a pair of binoculars. If you’re after a rewarding area of sky to explore, look no further than the area between summer triangle constellations Cygnus and Vega. There are several open clusters of stars that you’ll pick up with a pair of binoculars, plus beautiful double star Albireo – with small magnification you can pick up the stunning contrast between its yellow and blue stars. Start off on Stellarium before heading out, or just lean back and scan the sky and see what you can find!
Looking East, Mars is now lovely and bright as it rises after darkness falls. It’s known as the red planet but really rather more… salmon paste (at least to me! See what you think). The surface of Mars is rich in iron oxide, our rusty neighbour. Who will get there next?
It’s also a super month for conjunctions – objects coming together in the night sky. The Moon and Mars get close and personal at the start of the month in the wee small hours, followed by Saturn and Jupiter floating above the waning Moon, at the slightly friendlier time of about 8pm, as September draws to a close.
As we face yet more uncertainty to come, I find myself returning to the certainty of vastness inherent in astronomy. While we might be one tiny blue dot in a vast universe, there’s hope in Carl Sagan’s famous words, ‘somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known’. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, we hope you can find some wonder in your night sky.
If there’s been one constant over the uncertain last few months, then it’s our beautiful night sky. There’s something timelessly reassuring – and vast – about astronomy that makes it a perfect lockdown tonic. Our Sun’s nearest star – Proxima Centauri – is just over 4 light years away. Nothing travels faster than light. 4 years travelling at the speed of light equates to a mere 24 trillion miles or so (St Martin’s, in comparison, is a dinky 1.5 miles long… or so).
We’ve been lucky to have enjoyed some stunningly clear Scilly nights here over the last few months. We’ve all been following government guidance about avoiding public gatherings, so there have been no observatory meetings. Astronomy – in our community – is a friendly and collaborative pursuit. There’s something special about joining with others to wonder at our night sky together. It’s worth remembering that without this shared joy, and collective effort, we wouldn’t have an observatory to begin with!
At this time of year, Scilly stargazing is for certified night owls. We’re in the lightest part of the year so you need to be up pretty (very) late to get a good look-in. That said, pre-dawn skies are particularly rewarding. My teething 9-month-old must be a born sky-watcher! We’ve witnessed several beautiful conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn due south east.
In the late night sky, from darkness onwards, try to locate the Summer Triangle – three bright stars – Altair, Deneb and Vega, each of which is the brightest star of its constellation (Aquila, Cygnus and Lyra, respectively). Tilt your head back and look straight up for that one – 11pm onwards.
We’re glad that visitors are able to return and appreciate these wonderful skies with us. However, the St Martin’s Observatory won’t be open to the public for the 2020 season. Our Tuesday evening and Friday afternoon sessions will resume in 2021.
Using a telescope under guidance is a close-proximity activity. It's not possible to maintain physical distance within the warm room or domes, and therefore we're not currently able to guarantee a safe experience for our visitors or our volunteer team.
The good news is that our Scilly skies are still just as pristine and the nights - if shorter - are still wondrously dark! We'll endeavour to post regular updates about what you can see in the Scilly night sky – please join our Facebook page (type in ‘COSMOS Scilly’ and we’ll be there).
We can't wait to welcome you back to the Observatory soon. Keep well, and keep looking up. And as challenging as 2020 has been so far, don’t forget - without the dark, we’d never see the stars.
A version of this article appears in Scilly Now & Then magazine's March/April 2020 edition.
Spring is on its way! Clouds begone! You don’t need to have a brain the size of Stephen Hawking’s to know that clouds plus stargazing equals zero. I won’t go on (again) about the weather; a let-up will be welcome.
One rare but utterly lovely clear night last month, a group of us ventured up to the observatory, as naturally we are wont to do when the opportunity arises. Partly this was administrative: I’d had word that our smaller telescope was playing up and wouldn’t point where it was supposed to. If a go-to telescope doesn’t go-to where it’s supposed to go to, it’s a) a problem and b) annoying. You can’t easily solve alignment issues during the daytime when you’d like to, nor on a cloudy night as you need to be able to actually see to verify the celestial objects you’re supposed to be looking at. None of us that night wanted to tinker, we wanted to be wowed. And gladly there ends the non-anecdote, as said telescope was fully functional. Nothing is ever perfect in our corner of amateur astronomy (we're all learning rapidly), but workable is a huge relief. In any case, after being underwhelmed by bright Venus (it’s so bright that, even with a filter, magnification doesn’t add much), we set our sights on some lovely deep sky objects, including our nearest galaxy, Andromeda.
A galaxy is - to cut a long story short - a big old group of stars bound together by gravity. Think of them as cosmic super-factories, creating on a grand scale. Ours is the Milky Way, comprising some 250 billion stars, our Sun one of the distinctly average thereof. But the Milky Way is only the second-largest in a cluster of some 50 other galaxies known as the Local Group. I say group, we’re pretty far apart. Andromeda’s the nearest to us and that’s a tidy 2.5 million light years away from Earth. (That would be approximately 23,651,826,000,000,000,000 km... to ground you, a walk around the entire coast path on St Martin's comes in at less than 10km.) The whole of the Local Group spans about 10 million light years across (don't make me write it). There’s nothing like astronomy to put you in your place!
There’s a particularly interesting patch of sky on view right now, known as the Realm of Galaxies, less fantastically as the Coma/Virgo Supercluster. It’s the galactic heartland of the Local Group, and now is a very good time to go on that deep sky tour you’ve always fancied. Sadly you won’t see galaxies with the naked eye – you’ll need a decent-sized telescope.
Located between constellations Virgo and Coma Berenices, you’ll find this richly populated region in the Eastern sky after 10pm. Locate Spica, Virgo’s brightest and distinctly blue-hued; to its left find Bootes’ brightest, orangey Arcturus (incidentally an ageing 7.1bn old red supergiant). Join a line between the two and then imagine a point forming the tip of an equilateral triangle above – this points to the area of the Realm of Galaxies. If you don’t have a telescope, you’ll just have to make do with imagining the many worlds out there. Still: humbling.
If you’d like to join us (and our telescopes), the observatory on St Martin’s is open again from April. Regular openings are Tuesday nights, 8-10pm, and Friday afternoons, 2-4pm. We recommend booking in advance so email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to come along.
This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's February 2020 edition.
I would say a belated Happy New Year, but so far 2020 brings little let-up in cloudy night skies. It’s fair to say that this winter’s been pretty dismal for stargazing on Scilly! We can only hope for more clement Spring skies as we’re all itching to get the telescopes pointing up, up and away.
Cold comfort, then, that clear night skies reveal such jewels at this time of year. The rich fabric of sky has some corking treats for stargazers of all abilities. Orion, Auriga, Gemini, Taurus…the Pleiaides: what we lack in visible planets, we gain in some tantalisingly easy-to-identify constellations. (That is unless they’re all wondrously hidden by a layer of dense cloud.)
Ever the optimists however, we Scilly stargazers seize every fleetingly clear moment and are, as always, rewarded for our efforts. You don’t even need to stay up too late!
Stunningly bright planet Venus graces our evening skies in the early part of 2020; spy the south-western sky from dusk until about 2 hours after sundown. Ancient civilisations knew Venus as the morning star or evening star – so dazzling is she and only ever visible either just to the side of sunset and sunrise, and the brightest object in the night sky after only the Sun and the Moon.
Not a star at all, Venus is in fact, in proportion, remarkably similar to our Earth. It’s thought that once (a mere billion or few years ago) she may have had a climate similar to ours. Named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty (and as an aside – the only planet named after a female), alas she is anything but lovely. Venus’ world is a could-be cautionary tale of global warming gone mad. Her atmosphere is made up of 96.5% carbon dioxide and temperatures average a toasty 462 degrees Celsius, making her the hottest planet in the solar system, despite not being closest to the Sun. Add to this that standing on Venus would be the equivalent in pressure to being 1000km underwater on Earth. So inhospitable is Venus that we know very little about her – most missions have overheated and the longest surface landing lasted less than 24 hours before the craft failed. Let’s admire this ‘beautiful’ planet from afar and let her give us impetus to protect our own Earth’s climate before it’s too late.
2020 is another exciting year for the COSMOS team, our second year of opening regularly to the public and welcoming more new and returning visitors. St Martin’s is also hosting the inaugural Scilly Dark Skies Week in October this year – which will be packed with special talks, workshops, island events and guided stargazing. If you’ve never visited in October, we can’t give you more encouragement than this! We’d love you to join us; Click here for more information.
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!
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!