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Friday, 18 April 2014

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The perfect place to see the stars in Cumbria

Wait until it’s dark tonight, step outside your front door and look up at the skies.

Northern Lights photo
Northern Lights:

Think you can see the stars? The chances are you won’t have seen the half of it.

The night sky, when seen at its fullest extent, is one of the most breathtaking, awe-inspiring sights to be seen.

Yet much of the time it’s almost invisible. The modern world has so many street lamps, car headlights and other artificial sources of brightness that they create a permanent background glare. There are few places where it is really dark enough for the stars to stand out in all their glory.

An estimated 70 per cent of us have never seen the Milky Way.

You really need to find somewhere remote and miles from all that background light to see it properly. And as Malcolm Morris explains: “Once it’s seen it’s never forgotten.

“You’ll see tens of billions of stars in a band that crosses the sky, which you can’t seen in any built-up area.

“Lots of people look up at the stars and think they’re seeing the Milky Way, but it’s not until they actually see it in its naked form that they realise how spectacular it is. It’s quite a sight.”

Thousands of Britons are discovering the fascination that the night skies can bring. The streaks of blue, green and red light that appeared in Cumbrian skies last week – the phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis – will have brought renewed interest. But even before that light show, the enthusiasm was already growing.

“Britain has more amateur astronomers than anywhere else in Europe,” Malcolm adds. “I’m not quite sure why that is but it’s become a big pastime.”

Maybe it’s because it’s cheap. “Some astronomers have some very hi-tech equipment but you can start with something simple.

“I only have a very basic pair of binoculars and they’re enough to see the moons of Jupiter and groups of stars you wouldn’t see with the naked eye.”

But what is needed most of all is a clear, dark sky, free from urban light pollution, where the stars can shine through at their brightest. And Malcolm knows just the place. It’s where he works.

He is project manager for Low Gillerthwaite Field Centre in the heart of the Ennerdale valley. It has been named as a “dark sky discovery site” by the International Dark Sky Association, which campaigns against the light pollution spoiling our view of the skies. It is the only designated site in north-west England.

It is ideal because the valley is only lit by the moon and stars. “There’s none of that terrestrial glare in Ennerdale,” he points out. “There are no street lights at all and we are surrounded by mountains. The nearest town is Whitehaven, 30-odd miles away and behind the hills, so we don’t get any light from it.”

He gives an example of the contrast. “There’s quite a dark spot near Leeds where you can see five or six stars in the constellation Orion. In Ennerdale you can see 25 or more with the naked eye.”

So tonight, tomorrow and on Monday stargazers are being invited to come to the field centre and see it for themselves.

“It’s not a structured event,” he stresses. “There’s no set programme to it. Absolutely anyone can come.”

There will be maps of the sky on the walls and astronomers around to answer questions and explain what to see and where to see it. Hot soup will be laid on.

The centre will open each day at noon but the proper stargazing will of course take place once darkness falls, and anyone who wishes to stay overnight can come along and book a bed at the centre’s usual rates of £14 for adults and £10.50 concessions. The phone number to book is 01946 861229.

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, had many of us looking upwards early last week. The phenomenon happens when particles from the sun hit particles from earth and release energy, which creates the bizarre streaks of coloured light.

Countries close to the Arctic Circle are where it’s most commonly seen but last week there were sightings reported in Keswick, Whitehaven and across the Solway Firth.

What are we going to see this weekend?

“You’re very lucky in the north,” says Dr John Mason of the British Astronomical Association. “In the south there are masses of people so masses of light pollution.

“But in Cumbria, once you get away from the lights of Carlisle, you’ve got a better view of the sky all year round.”

Look to the east and you’ll see the planet Jupiter fairly easily with the naked eye. “Jupiter is the fourth brightest object in the sky at the moment, after the sun, the moon and Venus,” says Dr Mason.

“Venus is only visible between 5am and 7am at the moment but you’ll see Jupiter at about 10 o’clock in the evening.

“You don’t need a dark area to see it but it will be much clearer in a dark sky. With binoculars or a telescope you can also see its cloud belts, four of its moons and maybe its red spot.”

Nearby – or at least nearby as it appears to us – is the star cluster the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters.

“It’s a beautiful star cluster,” says Dr Mason. “Directly overhead is Cassiopeia and to the south you’ll see Pegasus.”

Pegasus appears like four corners of a box, and in its top left-hand corner you might just see a faint, misty patch which is Andromeda, the nearest big galaxy to ours.

But it’s our own galaxy, the Milky Way, which is the most spectacular sight.

“We are in the ‘suburbs’ of the

Milky Way,” explains Dr Mason. “It is like a huge disc and we are on the edge of it, so we can see most of it as a huge arc in front of us.

“It will be moving across the sky from west to north-east as soon as it begins to get dark. All along it, if you look through binoculars or a telescope you will see really nice star clusters. That’s something special – and you’ll only see it in a clear, dark spot.”

But be warned: all that glitters is not necessarily a star.

“You’ll get satellites and spent rockets for about an hour, an hour and a half after sunset,” the astronomer warns. “Shootings stars, meteors are very fast – they’re over in the twinkling of an eye, maybe less than a second.

“If it looks like it’s moving relatively slowly across the sky, then the chances are it’s a satellite.”

Dark sky discovery sites have been designated in Scotland for the past three years and the first selected was Galloway Forest Park.

There are many good stargazing spots within the park. Caldons Wood, Loch Braden, Loch Doon and the car parks at Clatteringshaws, Glentrool and Kirrougtree visitor centres are among the best.

On Tuesday and Thursday next week, and on Tuesday, October 23 and Friday, November 2, staff there will be leading informal “tours of the sky”looking at the wonders visible from the forest.

The tours begin at 7pm and cost £3 per person. Places should be booked in advance by calling 01671 402420.

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