The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) announced today it has designated two new International Dark Sky Places in the UK, including one representing the largest land area of protected night skies in all of Europe. This brings to six the total number of IDA International Dark Sky Places in the UK, second only to the United States.
IDA is proud to recognise Northumberland Dark Sky Park and Coll Dark Sky Island for their exceptional efforts in helping preserve and promote dark night skies over Britain. I have worked with both of these areas as a dark skies consultant, advising them on the process of achieving dark sky status. To date this puts the number of dark sky places that I have been heavily involved in to five; more than anyone else in the world, I think!
The reasons for these areas seeking dark sky status are many and varied. Off-season winter astronomy tourism is one main driver, while for councils the economic and environmental benefits of night-sky-friendly zero-waste lighting are paramount. Northumberland County Council have recently announced an investment of £24million to refit all public street lights in the county to energy efficient LED lights, fittings which pay back the initial investment within 6-8 years through reduced operating costs, and which have a significantly reduced carbon footprint, due to their efficiency and the fact that no light is wasted – it all shines down to the ground where it’s meant to be, rather than into the sky.
Northumberland International Dark Sky Park
A UK National Park and adjacent forestry plantation encompassing nearly 580 square miles (1500 km2) of public lands in northern England, Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park are the first IDA-recognized International Dark Sky Park consisting of two independent parkland units.
Once at the frontier of Roman Britain where Hadrian’s Wall repelled Pictish invaders, Northumberland International Dark Sky Park now serves as a bulwark against the incursion of harmful light pollution into one of the darkest locations in England.
With today’s IDA announcement, National Parks UK and Forestry Commission England adds dark skies to their portfolio of protected natural resources including the largest manmade woodland and reservoir in northern Europe. Kielder Forest provides Britain with 200 million board feet (475,000 m3) of timber annually.
The dark night sky attracts an increasing number of visitors to the region. Kielder Observatory, the UK’s largest and most active public observatory, widely promotes local astronomy events and activities. “Dark skies and astronomy have become a passion in the area,” according to Heidi Mottram, Chair of the Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust and Chief Executive of Northumbrian Water.
As both Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park began to vie independently for IDA recognition, it quickly became evident that two heads were better than one. “It made perfect sense to work together to protect one of our greatest assets and make it available to more people,” Mottram said.
Park officials hope that protecting dark skies through the promotion of responsible outdoor lighting will increase the allure of Northumberland as a tourism destination.
“Becoming a Dark Sky Park will reinforce the status of Northumberland as an unspoiled destination offering a true sense of tranquility and wildness – a tonic in this day and age,” said Tony Gates, Chief Executive of Northumberland National Park.
Coll International Dark Sky Island
A sparse population and geographic isolation make the night skies over the Isle of Coll among the darkest in Europe. The island adopted a quality outdoor lighting management plan to ensure Coll remains dark for many future generations of residents and visitors.
Coll lies about six miles (10 km) west of coastal Argyll and hosts just over 200 residents. It attracts dozens of bird species according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which owns an extensive reserve at the west end of the island and hosts one of Coll’s recognized night sky viewing sites on its land. Nature tourism in part draws thousands of visitors to the island each year.
“Achieving dark skies status will be great for the island in many ways,” Julie Oliphant, hotelier at the Coll Hotel, explained. “Not only will it ensure that any future development on the island is done in a way that protects Coll’s natural and unspoiled beauty, but it will also help promote winter tourism.”
Fred Hall of the Argyll and Bute Council echoed the sentiment. “The Isle of Coll is a unique island in many ways, not least of which is its beautiful countryside and sea views but also the lack of light pollution,” he said. “I can think of no better island in the inner Hebrides to gain the Dark Skies accolade.”
Northumberland is IDA’s thirteenth International Dark Sky Park, while the Isle of Coll becomes the world’s fifth International Dark Sky Community. They join four existing International Dark Sky Places in Britain: Galloway Forest Park in Scotland, Isle of Sark in the Channel Islands, Exmoor National Park in England, and Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales.
If you’re interested in gaining dark sky status for your area, then get in touch!
Yesterday Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) brightened suddenly, meaning that it’s now visible to the naked eye – just.
According to astronomer John Bortle Comet ISON brightened from magnitude +8.5 on Monday and +7.3 on Wednesday, to +5.4 on Thursday, meaning that it is now visible to stargazers without the aid of binoculars or telescopes – although those devices will help!
You’ll have to be determined to see it, as it rises in the east just before dawn, so an early start is required. At the moment it’s not spectacular, although some astronomers are still holding out hope that it might become the Comet of the Century as was predicted earlier this year. We’ll need to wait and see whether it continues to dramatically brighten. If it does then it may be visible high in the night sky in December.
How Best to See Comet ISON
Here are three simple steps you can take to maximise you chances of seeing this comet.
1. Find somewhere dark with a clear eastern horizon
Although it is now a naked-eye object, any light pollution in the sky will make it next to impossible to see, so head to your local dark sky site. If you don’t know how to find one then have a look at this light pollution map of the UK to give you an idea. In general you want to make sure that any nearby town or city is behind you, so head to the east of any populated are. You’ll need a flat horizon too – east coast is ideal – as hills and trees will block your view. At the moment the comet is still low in the sky when twilight brightens the sky making it impossible to see.
2. Keep an eye on the weather forecast
There’s no point heading out if it’s cloudy towards the east, but just because it’s raining when you go to bed doesn’t mean that it will still be raining at 6am. Check local weather forecasts for predicted cloud cover before dawn.
3. Find Mercury and Spica
The planet Mercury rises around 6am, and at that point the star Spica, in the constellation of Virgo, will be only a few degrees above the horizon. Comet ISON lies above and to the right of, approx. 10° higher than Mercury in the sky. Here’s a simple finder chart for approx. 6am.
There’s a great piece in Guardian Travel today about stargazing breaks in and around Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park. The article was written by Kevin Rushby, who visited the park earlier this year, and who I took out stargazing on a beautiful night.
It really is an amazing place, and on a clear winter’s night you can see thousands of stars, the Milky Way, shooting stars, nebula, galaxies, satellites… and much more.
But for most people the night sky is a confusing place, and having a guide to lead you around is an ideal way to begin stargazing. (Ahem! A good guide book is handy too…) I run regular stargazing weekends and evenings at a number of hotels near Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park (and one down in Exmoor!) over the course of the winter. Here are the dates for the weekends I have planned for this coming winter:
1-3 November 2013 Selkirk Arms Hotel, Kirkcudbright
29 November – 1 December 2013 Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart (SOLD OUT)
6-8 December 2013 Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart
31 January 2013 – 2 February 2014 Yarn Market Hotel, Exmoor
28 February – 1 March 2014 Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart
28-30 March 2014 Selkirk Arms Hotel, Kirkcudbright
I also run bespoke stargazing nights at Glenapp Castle, Ballantrae.
This post is based on a great article by Bob King on Universe Today, titled “Observing Alert: Rare Triple Transit Of Jupiter’s Moons Happens Friday Night (Oct. 11-12)”. Read that article to get the whole story!
UK stargazers can see a rare triple transit of three of Jupiter’s largest moons in the early hours of this Saturday 12 October 2013.
Every so often one of Jupiter’s largest four moons – the Galilean satellites Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – passes directly in front of the planet Jupiter casting a shadow which can be seen as a tiny black dot through even a modest telescope. This weekend three out of the four Galilean moons are casting such shadows, and from the UK you can watch the whole thing unfold between 0412 and dawn twilight, which occurs between 0600 and 0630 for most of the UK, depending on where you’re observing from (southern stargazers will have an earlier dawn brightening than their northern counterparts).
Here’s the timetable of events, based on the timings in Bob King’s article:
Saturday 12 October:
0412 BST Callisto begins to cast the first shadow
0424 BST Europa adds a second shadow
0532 BST Io adds the third shadow, and the triple transit will last until the sky brightens.
Jupiter will be high in the south-east at this time, in the constellation of Gemini. You won’t struggle to find it; it will be the brightest thing in the entire sky, shining at magnitude -1.8.
The gas giant planet Uranus, the seventh planet in our solar system, reaches opposition today at 1558 BST (1458 UT), meaning that this is the best time of the year to find this elusive planet.
Opposition is the name astronomers give to the point at which a planet is directly opposite the Sun in the sky. This means that the planet rises as the sun sets, gets to its highest in the sky at midnight, and sets again when the sun rises, meaning that it’s in the sky all night long.
The exact instant of Uranus’ opposition this year occurs on 3 October at 1458 UT, but Uranus moves so slowly against the background stars that there will be ideal observing conditions all month long.
Uranus was the first planet to be discovered after the invention of the telescope. It was first seen in 1781 by Sir William Herschel. The reason it hadn’t been seen before was that it is not a naked eye planet… But actually it is. At opposition tonight Uranus shines at magnitude 5.8, which is right at the edge of what’s possible to see with the naked eye. You’ll need really dark skies to see it, and perfect eyesight too, but even if you can spot it without a telescope it will only look like an incredibly dim star. Through a telescope you might make out a tiny blue-green disk, only 10% the diameter of the much nearer and much larger Jupiter.
To find Uranus look for the constellation of Pisces high in the south at midnight UT, or 1am BST. Uranus rise to between 30° and 40° above the horizon, depending on your viewing location in the UK. Here’s a handy finder chart (courtesy of Stellarium):
Today, 22 September 2012, marks the moment of the Autumn Equinox. At 2044 UT (2144 BST) the Sun will cross from the northern hemisphere sky to the southern, and we’ll begin the slow approach to the Winter Solstice on 21 December.
The equinoxes (one in spring and one in autumn) are the two instances every year when the Sun makes that crossing from north to south and vice versa, and they’re commonly thought to be the days when day and night are equal length, but they’re really not, for reasons I’ve outline before:
- astronomers measure the timings of equinoxes, sunrises and sunsets based on the middle point of the Sun’s disk in the sky, so when you read a sunrise time it means the time that the centre of the Sun’s disk rises above the horizon. For a few minutes before that time the top of the Sun’s disk will already have risen, giving “daylight”.
- Even before this happens the sky is lit up by the Sun below the horizon, and we experience twilight. Most people would think that the sky is bright enough to call it “daytime” long before the Sun pops above the horizon, during the phase of civil twilight.
So today, even though day and night are said to be equal on the equinox, the “daytime” (i.e the start of civil twilight) started about 0630BST in Glasgow (where I am) and will end this evening around 2000BST, giving me 13.5 hours of “daylight”. (Londoners will have from about 0615 until 1930BST, or approx. 13.25 hours of “daylight”).
The day this year where I have exactly 12 hours of “daylight” (i.e. between the morning start and the evening end of civil twilight) is 11 October and this day is called the equilux. (In London the equilux falls on 12 October).
Last night a bright nova was discovered in the constellation of Delphinus. It’s bright by nova standards: you normally need telescopes to see novae but this can can be seen with the naked eye – just! – and is easily spottable through binoculars. At the time of writing it has been observed at magnitude 6.3 by Koichi Itagaki, of Yamagata, Japan, and at magnitude 6.0 by Patrick Schmeer, of Bischmisheim, Germany. This means that under dark skies, free from light pollution, with good seeing conditions and good eyesight, it’s within the limit of human eyesight. If you’re in a city though, or if your eyesight isn’t perfect, you’ll need binoculars.
UPDATE 16/08/13 at 1525UT
The British Astronomical Association e-bulletin 00757 is reporting that observations have been submitted to the AAVSO database suggesting the Nova Delphini 2013 has brightened to magnitude +4.5, making it an easy naked-eye object from rural and many suburban sites.
UPDATE 17/08/13 at 0630UT
The AAVSO light curves suggest that Nova Delphini 2013 is dimming, and is currently at magnitude +4.9. This is still naked eye under dark skies and an easy binocular object from cities but get outside as soon as it’s dark and clear; it’s going to keep dimming and soon won’t be naked eye.
UPDATE 18/08/13 at 1430 UT
Although it has dimmed slightly from its maximum brightness of +4.4 magnitudes, it has stayed at +4.9 magnitudes for almost two days now, meaning it’s still naked eye.
UPDATE 22/08/13 at 1330 UT
Nova Delphinus 2013 has dropped below +5.5 magnitude, and will probably drop below human eye detectability in a few days time (it’s already a non-naked-eye object except in very dark sky sites).
Here are some finder charts for the nova, produced using the excellent (free!) Stellarium package.
Your first task will be to locate the small constellation of Delphinus. Luckily, that’s really easy at the moment. It’s high in the south around midnight (SE in the evening), and right next to the prominent stars of the Summer Triangle. The brightest stars in Delphinus make up a tiny diamond shape in the sky. Got it? OK, here’s where it gets a little trickier.
Step 1: Find the diamond shape of Delphinus, shown in the lower left portion of this star chart, with the bright stars of the diamond α, β, γ, and δ labelled (along with ζ nearby).
Step 2: Draw a line from the lower left star of the diamond, δ, past the upper right star, α, but missing it slightly to the “left” of α. Continue for approx. five times the α-δ distance. Here you’ll find another four stars in a diamond of almost exactly the same shape and orientation as (albeit slightly smaller than) the bright diamond of Delphinus. These stars are all really faint. Their magnitudes are marked on the chart above, and they’re all at the very limit of naked eye visibility. Use binoculars if you can’t see them directly.
Step 3: Continue your line onwards, through the lower left star of this fainter diamond to the upper right star, and now take an approximately 45° turn to the “right”, past a very faint star (magnitude 7.85) to the new nova!
(The bright star in the top left of this star chart is 29 Vul, magnitude 4.8)
Nova means “new”, a term coined in 1572 by astronomer Tycho Brahe after he discovered a “new star” in the constellation of Cassiopeia. But these stars aren’t new at all. In fact their brightness is a result of a giant explosion on the surface of a dead white dwarf star.
White dwarf stars form when small stars die and collapse down into a much smaller volume. If there’s another star nearby then the gravity of the white dwarf star can draw some hydrogen gas from the surface of its neighbour onto its own surface. This gas builds up until there is a sufficient quantity of it that it undergoes runaway nuclear fusion, igniting, flaring off, and temporarily brightening the otherwise very faint white dwarf.
No one’s quite sure how this new nova will develop. It might brighten further, or it might begin to dim over the course of days or weeks. All the more reason to get out an find it as soon as you have clear skies. Happy nova hunting!