Stargazing in Hampshire

PUBLISHED: 06:04 05 December 2019

Dark skies at Idsworth in the South Downs National Park Photo: SDNPA

Dark skies at Idsworth in the South Downs National Park Photo: SDNPA

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How the South Downs National Park Authority has ensured it is still possible to see the Milky Way twinkle over Hampshire

Dark skies over the River Meon Photo: SDNPADark skies over the River Meon Photo: SDNPA

Did you know, on a clear night the Milky Way and Andromeda can be seen with the naked eye? What's more you can see these galaxies from here in Hampshire.

In May 2016, after three years of dedicated research, the South Downs National Park was awarded Dark Sky Reserve (bronze level) status, putting it on the stargazers' map - alongside other British Dark Sky Reserves Exmoor, Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia National Parks. The special status, awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association, a US-based non-profit organisation, means the Dark Sky Reserves will be protected from light pollution, so that present and future generations will be able to gaze at the distant stars and galaxies and ponder life - without the glow of street lights.

Given its location in the south of England, so close to the unforgiving glow of the Solent, the park is surprisingly dark. Especially when you consider that 110,000 people live in the National Park and 1.97 million more live right on its doorstep.

"Most of the other national parks are predominantly in rural areas," explains South Downs National Parks lead ranger and dark sky lead, Dan Oakley. "No one lives there, so they can do the dark sky assessment from hilltops, but because so many people live in and around our national park, we weren't sure if we were dark enough.

Dan Oakley, Dark Skies lead at South Downs National Park Authority Photo: SDNPADan Oakley, Dark Skies lead at South Downs National Park Authority Photo: SDNPA

"Instead of taking data from hilltops, we took it from the road every five seconds and we did that in the entire national park (that's 1,600 sq km), and beyond. We took around 30,000 measurements! It was a lot of driving at night and you can only do it when there is no moon and no clouds in the sky and, as you can imagine, we don't often get those conditions in this country - so it meant dropping everything and going out at 9pm and driving all night.

"We made the case that we're not going to be the darkest, or the biggest, but we are the most cared for, because we have such a big population who wanted to do something about it. Our application for Dark Sky status was very people-focused."

Being able to see the Milky Way and other astronomical objects are part of the Dark Sky Reserve status. Fortunately for Hampshire, we can see an awful lot! "All year round is pretty good," says Dan. "But later on in the year, as darkness approaches earlier, you have better access and the weather is better too - as you need nice cold stable air."

Ram's skull on Butser Hill under the dark skies Photo: SDNPARam's skull on Butser Hill under the dark skies Photo: SDNPA

During the autumn months, Cygnus (the swan) is one of the most recognisable constellations and contains the brightest star, Deneb. You can also see the Andromeda Galaxy, with the naked eye - a giant spiral galaxy. "The best thing is, you can come home from work and go straight back out again - you don't need to wait until 2am! By December it's 6.30pm onwards," says Dan.

"From February, you'll see Orion (the hunter with his belt) - which is really prominent in the south. Follow the line of the belt and you'll come to what we call the 'Harry Potter' constellation - because it's a big V-shape in the sky for Voldemort," laughs Dan.

Once you reach Taurus' head - you'll see a small group of faint stars - the Seven Sisters of Pleiades cluster. "On a really dark, clear night you may see Orion's nebula - where new stars are being formed before your eyes!"

If you really want to blow your mind, Dan recommends looking up at the Milky Way - home to our solar system and several hundred billion stars. "My general rule of thumb, is to get away from the big cities. If you can, get north of the scarp slope of the Downs - as they act as a natural filter and it will get rid of some of the light pollution. That's where you'll see the Milky Way twinkle! You can spot the dust lanes too. That's when people start to have proper 'wow' moments, when they realise they are looking at their universe and Milky Way! And it's only half an hour down the road…"

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