Hampshire skies to be lit up in the winter months
PUBLISHED: 10:35 15 November 2016
Forget fireworks, over the next few months Hampshire's dark skies will be lit up with the red supergiant star Betelgeuse and a meteor shower with up to 100 shooting stars per hour. Natalie French discovers how to see nature's own display
There is something soul-soothing about gazing up at a star-littered sky. A good reminder of how small and insignificant we are in the universe. But if you want to know exactly what to look for as the dark nights draw in, Jenny Shipway, Head of Education & Planetarium at Winchester Science Centre is happy to share her wisdom.
“Look north to spot the saucepan shaped constellation, which will be found relatively low in the sky at the start of the night. Follow the last two stars to find the North Star, which is positioned above the North Pole and so is always seen in the same position in the northern sky. Every day and night, the Plough circles this star as our view turns as the Earth spins us around. Follow a line from the handle of the Plough and through the North star to find the constellation Cassiopeia high in the sky, its stars marking out a ‘W’ shape that represents vain Queen Cassiopeia, from ancient Greek mythology.”
As winter arrives and the nights get darker, we move into Jenny’s favourite time of year for stargazing.
“We get to look into a particularly beautiful area of space which is hidden by the Sun in the summertime. Keep your eye on the South East – as the winter moves on we will see the gorgeous constellation Orion coming into view, being easily visible to the South by Christmas. Or if you want to see it in November, just stay up late for an early peek! Look for three stars close together in a tilted line, with a great box of stars around these. The three stars are Orion’s belt, the others marking his shoulders and knees. You can also spot the red supergiant star Betelgeuse in his shoulder (it really does look red!) and a vast misty cloud of gas – the Great Orion Nebula – just below his belt.
“Rising earlier than Orion, to the right along the line of his belt, look out for the Pleiades (aka Seven Sisters). This is an unmistakable group of stars clustered extremely closely together in the sky. Those with good eyes might spot six stars in this group, but binoculars will show many more – in fact there are over a hundred young stars here, all born from the same nebula 100 million years ago, in the time of the dinosaurs. The stars are moving through a gas cloud, giving them a misty appearance.”
Mid-December is the best chance to see shooting stars and make sure you highlight December 13 in your diary, advises Jenny: “The Geminid meteor show is famed for its bright and slow moving meteors which can peak at 100 per hour, although this year the bright Moon will make faint meteors hard to see.
“The light of a meteor is created as a small piece of space-rock pushes through the air as it falls to Earth. Showers occur when our planet moves through an area of space crossing a trail of debris that has fallen from a long-gone comet or asteroid,” explains Jenny.
“If you can’t make it for the Geminids, there are other meteor showers on the night of January 3 (the Quadrantids) and the nights around April 23 (the Lyrids). Meteor showers are always best viewed after midnight.”
Into the New Year, you will have the chance to spot our solar system’s biggest planet. “From the end of January, Jupiter will return to our evening skies,” says Jenny, “It will be unmissable in April, as by then we will be as close as we can be to it, looking at the planet’s fully lit face while it is high in the sky. Look for a really bright ‘star’ towards the south.”
If you’re wondering where the best place is to stargaze, Hampshire has three Dark Sky Discovery sites at Old Winchester Hill, Queen Elizabeth Country Park and the car park at Winchester Science Centre. “It’s my favourite location,” says Jenny, “as we are positioned over a hill from the city, the skies are dark enough to see the Milky Way on a clear night. The public are welcome to enjoy this view from our main car park, which is a designated Dark Sky Discovery site.”
The New Forest boasts some of the darkest skies in the South East, according to the CPRE Night Blight report, making it another great spot for stargazing, or you can check the Dark Sky Discovery map for ideas. Alternatively, to find the darkest spot near to you, Jenny suggests: “simply standing in the shadow of a tree, away from nearby streetlights, and letting your eyes adapt for 20 minutes can allow you to see many more stars than you might expect to see. If you have binoculars with wide ends, then turn these to the sky and you will be amazed!”
Jenny’s top tips
• For total beginners, the Science Centre create a free downloadable Stargazing guide each month. This will help you find some easy constellations, planets and interesting stars. It also highlights events like meteor showers.
• You can observe a great deal with the naked eye, especially if you can find a dark site. But if you want to go further, binoculars with wide ends (aperture 50mm or 70mm) are a fantastic investment. These are great as they don’t require a lengthy set up and the wide field of view makes it a lot easier to find objects in the sky. If you’re set on a telescope, consider spending at least £250 and be sure to get an equally good mount to keep it still.
• For a head start in practical astronomy, consider a Stargazing class. The Science Centre runs “Getting Started in Stargazing” - an adult evening class where an experienced amateur astronomer gives an overview of objects that can be seen before the class moves outside to put their skills into practice.
• If you’re more of an armchair enthusiast, monthly Space Lectures bring the best academic speakers from around the UK to talk on topics from exploding stars to dwarf galaxies.
• Look out for public events and activities run by Astronomy Societies, or consider joining one to meet other enthusiasts . They are very welcoming and have members with a broad knowledge and interest.