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Contemplating the universe, Malham Tree By Ben Bush

If you think sunsets are amazing, try exploring the stars…

Friday 22 May, 2020, by Rima Berry

Here in the Yorkshire Dales we can see most stars in our villages as the orange ‘sky-glow’ from major towns is absent.

If you are lucky enough to have a garden, you can settle in a comfy chair and have the ultimate experience. But even if you have no garden, as long as you can see the night sky, you will be able to enjoy stargazing.

You don’t need a telescope or binoculars to navigate the night sky (though both add to the experience), just the naked eye and a sense of which direction to look in.

Top tips for stargazing from home

  • A torch is advisable for safety. Not just any torch, though, or your eyes will take longer to adapt to night vision. A red filtered light torch is best for adjusting the eye to darkness. These can be bought; however, it’s cheaper to put some red film over a normal torch or use a rear bicycle light. Red film sweet wrappers are fine, secured with elastic or tape. Save the sweets for eating while you explore!
  • Set up a comfortable viewing spot. Make it cosy and warm – with the window open it can get cold and draughty. Use cushions to rest elbows on windowsills.
  • Make a warming drink, maybe add some snacks (see above), the time will pass quickly once you start to explore.
  • Download an easy star chart. I am not an astronomer; I do like exploring, though, and doing ‘dot-to-dot’. Never too old. For me, exploring stars is all about patterns, connecting the dots, then hopping to the next recognisable feature.
  • Choose your time. A clear night gives the best views, with no clouds or rain. A bright moon, like a bright outside light, will make it hard to see many stars. The moon is beautiful; however, if it’s stars you want to explore, wait until the moon has dropped below the horizon, or is getting smaller (waning).
  • If there is unavoidable light in your field of vision, see if you can block it out with a barrier. Cardboard or paper painted black can work, anything in fact to act as a barrier against light.

Ready? Okay, you’re set.

Venus sets over Bolton Abbey (Ben Bush)

What will you see? 

First, give your eyes time to adjust to darkness; time to switch off the red-light torch. This may take a while, 20 minutes or so, but it is well worth the effort and you will see more. A warm drink helps to pass the time while your eyes adjust.

The Plough

Looking up high in the sky there is The Plough, also called the Big Dipper, one of the most recognisable star shapes in the night sky and easy to spot right now. It’s a pattern of seven bright stars looking like a question mark or a giant saucepan; not a constellation, but an ‘asterism’.  The Plough is in fact the rear end of the third largest constellation in the night sky – the Great Bear, Ursa Major.

Four stars form the square shape of the pan and three more stars form the handle. The Plough was used for centuries as an early test for eyesight. The middle star of the Dipper’s handle, called Mizar,  has a companion, Alcor. Those who can see the two stars unaided were assured that their eyesight was good.

The Plough is a very useful guide for locating other stars. The two stars of the pan furthest from the handle are called the pointers because an imaginary line drawn through them points to Polaris, the North Star. From the two stars (called Merak and Dubhe) follow a line upwards, about five times distance between Merak and Dubhe, to the next brightest star. That star is Polaris, the North Star and the tail of Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.

If you are looking north, east is to your right, west is to your left and south is directly behind you. Perfect!

I hope I have whetted your curiosity – finding the North Star or just for testing your eyesight the ancient way. Stay warm, observe physical distancing, and enjoy exploring night skies!

Rima Berry is a community and economic regeneration practitioner with local charity Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust. Rima has 10 years’ experience of co-ordinating volunteer delivery partnerships, producing national case study material and good practice guidance, and has led many rural study visits.

Rima is currently supporting the bid for International Dark Sky Reserve status for the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Star trails over Ribblehead Viaduct (Ben Bush)

More excitement for skywatchers in May

As well as a great opportunity to spot The Plough high in the south around midnight, and the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars together in the south east, there is a comet to look out for this month.

Comet C/2017 T2 (Panstarrs) is set to appear at its brightest from Earth around the middle of May after reaching perhelion (closest approach to the Sun) in early May. Comets are known for their incredible tails, created by the Sun’s radiation vaporising the comet’s volatile materials and carrying dust away with it. The comet won’t be visible to the naked eye, but can be seen using a pair of binoculars.

The new Moon tonight (Friday 22 May) makes for excellent dark sky viewing conditions – if the clouds stay away!

We are currently bidding to make the Yorkshire Dales an International Dark Sky Reserve – read more and pledge your support here.

Picture of Rima Berry

Rima Berry

Rima is a community and economic regeneration practitioner with local charity Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust.

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