It’s incredible what’s on show if we just stop for a moment and peer up at the night sky. On a clear night a carpet of far, far away stars shine brightly back at us. But more than just a pretty canvass, this beautiful array of sparkles peering out of deep space is a snapshot of natural history stretching back millions of years.
Having recently admired with wonder the appearance of the ‘super moon’ in our skies last month, I jumped at the chance to sign my girlfriend and I up to a ‘Night of Stargazing’ held at the Yorkshire Arboretum next to Castle Howard (pictured below) in the Howardian Hills – a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The evening started at 7.30pm, cost £12.50 a head and was held by the Scarborough and Ryedale Astronomical Society, concluding at about 10.30pm.
Around 50 people turned up; a mixture of families with small children, couples of all ages, a mother with her teenage son and astronomy buffs, some equipped with rather powerful looking, large telescopes.
We were given a talk which lasted for about an hour. It covered an introduction to astronomy and gave us a brief guide to some of the constellations of stars in the night sky.
There was some basic advice for partaking in stargazing: wrap up warm, find a spot where there is little light pollution, use ‘averted vision’ to look at more distant known spectacles as these often become clearer if your vision is focused instead on something else very close by, be patient and give your eyes at least 15-20 minutes to adjust to the darkness, and, use red light. An red LED light torch optimises our visual sensitivity. It counteracts other stray light sources so that it doesn’t interfere with our observations of the far off objects above us.
It was entertaining to hear some of the stories behind the constellations. The Seven Sisters is an impressive sight – seven bright stars clustered together which are also known as the Pleiades. Legend has it that seven sisters were bathing in a pool when an enormous hunter strode forward wielding a club. Scared, the sisters wailed for Zeus (the father of Gods and men in Greek mythology) to intervene and so he did, transforming them into doves. The seven rose into the sky and, out of fear, kept ascending until they reached the darkness of night above and were frozen in place as stars. A quick Google brings up different versions of the tale.
After the introduction we were served potato and leek soup and were then encouraged to gather outside where the astronomers among our number set up their telescopes.
Earlier in the evening clouds had threatened to scupper our chances of seeing much at all, but now, by 9pm, most of the clouds had blown over.
It took a while for our eyes to adjust, hearing owls hooting as we awaited for the necessary adaptation. All was pitch black now, bar a security light on the outside of the arboretum and a dim glow of light pollution off to one isolated spot which our hosts said was light emanating from Middlesbrough, reflected by clouds, north east of here.
Some minutes later and we were able to take in a whole vista of constellations. So often I’d gazed skywards and had no idea what I was looking at, bar The Plough or The Big Dipper as the Americans call it.
I always presumed that the North Star, or Polaris, was the brightest star in the sky – I’d been told as much before – but it’s not, and in fact it ranks only 50th in brightness in the northern sky. But its importance is as a navigational tool. It holds nearly still while the northern sky moves around it.
The North Star is easy to find. Locate The Plough and follow the two stars at the front of the ‘bucket’ of The Plough upwards and you’ll spot it. And this we learned, was the way to understand what you were looking up at. The night sky is a big map and once you learn a few of the brightest constellations, you can use these as points of reference to find others.
That night we saw the Pegasus Square, the Autumn and Summer Triangles, and, one of my favourite sights that evening, the Hercules Cluster, a concentration of about 200 galaxies some 500 million light years away.
We could clearly see the Milky Way – our own galaxy – stretched out above us in a hazy cloud like formation. It was particularly odd to look at something so vast that we can see ourselves as almost a separate entity, yet planet Earth is a part of it.
We heard how the speed of light is the equivalent of travelling around the Earth more than seven times in one second. So to think that the Hercules Cluster was 500 million light years away – given that a light year is, obviously, the distance light can travel in a year – was utterly mind-blowing.
Apparently if you gathered up every grain of sand on the Earth, you would still not have enough individual grains of sand to represent every star in our known universe. When you consider such things, it makes it very hard not to believe that, chances are, there are other planets with life not dissimilar to ours out there somewhere. We may just never find each other. And this is one of the joys of stargazing, the unanswerable questions, how it stirs your imagination and offers perspective.
The great thing is about astronomy is its accessibility. Anyone can do it. It doesn’t have to cost a penny and, if you’re so inclined, even a decent telescope will only set you back a couple of hundred pounds if you shop around. Just be sure to wear a woolly hat.
- If you fancy finding out more, recent TV programme Stargazing Live featuring Professor Brian Cox is great entertainment and you’ll find episodes posted on YouTube.
- And here’s Dara O Briain with some advice on remembering the difference between astrology and astronomy, because why not?