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Top tips and best places for stargazing in Hampshire

PUBLISHED: 17:18 13 April 2015 | UPDATED: 17:18 13 April 2015

Photo: Digibloc

Photo: Digibloc

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The skies above our county are littered with constellations – you may even spot a planet if you know where to look! But if you don’t know Polaris from Uranus, fear not, Jenny Shipway, Head of Winchester’s Planetarium is here to point us in the right direction

NebulaNebula

According to the UK Dark Sky Discovery partnership, the UK has some of the largest areas of dark sky in Europe. Even from the centre of a street-lit city you may be able to see 100 stars with the naked eye. Head out to the countryside, away from light pollution, and on a dark night you can see over 1,000.

Dark Sky Discovery sites have been springing up across the UK, with 108 locations nominated by local groups and organisations for being accessible, with good sightlines and relatively low light pollution, offering the best conditions to gaze at the galaxy, on a clear night.

Luckily for us, two of these spectacular stargazing sites are right here in Hampshire at Butser Hill in Queen Elizabeth Country Park and the car park at Winchester Science Centre & Planetarium.

But what exactly are we searching for when we look up? Jenny Shipway, Head of Winchester’s Planetarium explains what can be seen in our Hampshire skies this time of year: “This is your last chance until Christmas to have a good look at the constellation Orion, which is now setting not long after the sun. You will need to look towards the South West to spot him. Look out for three stars close together in a line, with a box of stars around them. The three stars in the middle are imagined as Orion’s belt around his waist, the other pairs are his shoulders and knees.

“One of his shoulder-stars is the red supergiant Betelgeuse; a huge and ancient star over 100 times the width of our sun. It is slowly running out of fuel and one day will explode so spectacularly that it will look as bright as the full moon from earth.

“Also, if you look down from his belt, on a dark night you might be able to make out a fuzzy patch. This is a vast cloud of gas and dust (a nebula), incredibly far away from us. You can see this cloud because within it, gravity is squeezing up gas to make new stars. Some of these new stars are lighting up the nebula from within. This is the closest place to us in space where new stars are being born.

Photo: DigiblocPhoto: Digibloc

“If you follow Orion’s belt up and to the right, it points to a beautiful cluster of young stars, barely 100 million years old. These are the Pleiades (or Seven Sisters), and are still close together after having been born from the same nebula. This star cluster is a great target for binoculars if you have a pair, as there are many more stars than can be seen with the naked eye.”

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Top tips for budding astronomers

Orion Nebula - Photo by VistaOrion Nebula - Photo by Vista

• Wrap up warm, go outside to the darkest place you can (even if this is just in the shadow of your house) and look up!

• There are so many things you can observe just with your own eyes. Some things, like meteor showers, are even better without optical aids. Winchester Science Centre has a free beginners’ stargazing guide that can be downloaded from the website, and there is a lot of other useful information available from the internet.

• If you want to have a practice in the warm, then look out for the presenter-led Simply Stars planetarium show at Winchester Science Centre, which is perfect for beginner stargazers. This often runs in holiday periods.

• If you want to see further, then consider buying binoculars or a telescope. Binoculars are great, especially for children, as they require little set-up and have a wide field of view, meaning it is easier to find objects. Buy binoculars with big, wide ends which will capture lots of starlight - an aperture of at least 50 is best. You will be amazed by how much more you can see - moons around Jupiter, clusters of hundreds of stars and even, faintly, other galaxies.

• If you are thinking about buying a telescope, it is best to save up and invest in good quality model. Be prepared to spend at least £150 to get something worthwhile. Remember also to budget for the mount - if you have a wobbly tripod then even a good telescope will be of no use! Be prepared to spend a significant amount of time learning how to set it up - it’s a sad fact that many telescopes end up unused when people are unable to get them working immediately.

• Think about what type of objects you are most interested in observing, and see if your local astronomy society has any events you could attend to ask them for advice on what is best to buy. Make sure you know what to expect - your telescope will not be able to produce images like the Hubble Space Telescope, but will bring gasps of amazement from anyone observing the Moon or Saturn for the first time.

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About Jenny Shipway, Head of the Planetarium

“I’m unusual in the planetarium world,” explains Jenny, “as I had no interest in astronomy as a child! I never really appreciated how it connected to 
my life.”

A love of science saw Jenny train and work as a biochemist, before moving into Science Communication: “I found work in a mobile planetarium and fell in love with the magical atmosphere they can create.

“I had to learn astronomy for my job, but quickly became fascinated and started reading more, attending lectures and talking to experts. Every time a child asked a hard question I would go home to research the answer!

“I think my late arrival in to the world of Astronomy is, strangely, a benefit, as I can remember the process of learning the concepts, and the excitement of discovery. It’s wonderful to watch others taking their first steps on that journey.”

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