Light pollution from towns and cities turns the night sky orange and obliterates all but the brightest of stars. Away from this ‘sky glow’, you’re reconnected to a stargazing culture that stretches back to the beginning of human civilisation.
Although local councils are now turning off street lighting to minimise light pollution to help promote darker skies, you need a truly dark location away from the city glow to really experience the night sky – and our universe – in all its glory.
That’s why our beautiful forest locations offer just the place for a night spent gazing at the stars.
So, here you are: standing – or sitting – in the forest on a clear, starlit night, eyes trained on the skies above. Stargazing is one of the simplest, but greatest, pleasures of life and one of the unforgettable highlights of a Forest Holiday. We’ll share how to make the most of this opportunity. The best time to head out is a cold, clear winter night – so wrap up warm and bring plenty of hot drinks with you.
So, what kit do you need? Not much! Because of the darkness of our forest locations, you can see many of the wonders of the night skies with your naked eye, although they’ll will need a good 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Any bright lights (such as from your torch or smart phone) will set them back again. You can reduce this effect by putting a red filter on your torch.
Binoculars are cheaper, easier equipment to get hold of than a telescope, helping you to see the skies from anywhere. Look for ones with glass lenses and if you can get anti-fogging ones, even better. What about those ‘deep sky objects’ we hear about? That’s the stuff that's not our solar system or stars - it's nebulae, star clusters, and distant galaxies.
A nebulae is an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases.
If you have a smartphone, The Night Sky app is fantastic. Turn on your GPS, point your phone at the sky and it’ll identify exactly what you’re seeing. Set it to night vision though – remember the 20 minute adjustment time if you get too much light. And if you’ve gone phone-free in the forest? A good old star chart has been doing the job perfectly well since long before apps! Just set the date and time to show you what’s in the night sky.
So, you’re all set and ready to go. What are we looking for out there? When you find your spot and your eyes have adjusted, the first thing to locate is Polaris, the Pole Star, which is always due north. Once you have this in your sights you can gradually work out other constellations, which are groups of stars that have been named based on the shapes they suggest. Most of the main ones, such as Orion, are from the Greek myths, giving us a connection back to the mythology that has long been associated with the stars.
Starting with our own solar system, you should be able to identify Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Then look out for star clusters such as the Seven Sisters, and galaxies such as Andromeda and our very own Milky Way. If you’re very lucky you could see a shooting star or meteor. August and November are particularly good months for shooting stars! On a good night, all the above will be visible to the naked eye, although binoculars or a telescope (when you’re back home) will improve the view.
Have you noticed how the night sky changes from night to night, season to season and even from dusk 'til dawn? Remember, on earth we’re constantly moving. The earth is rotating on its axis and it’s orbiting the sun, along with (but at a different speeds) the other planets in our solar system; meanwhile, the stars are fixed. During the night, as we rotate, we gradually change our angle of vision. Over the course of a year, as we orbit the sun, we edge around roughly one degree per day. That's why a star chart is useful. It can show us what to look for and when.
Nothing beats the feeling of wonder, the sense of your own connection with nature and the universe or the excitement of an unexpected sighting. The ‘big one’ – although they’re all ‘big ones’ the first time you spot them! – is the chance to witness the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights.
2013 was a year referred to as ‘Solar Maximum’, when the activity on the sun's surface peaked during its 11-year cycle. This meant a greater chance of eruptions, known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), which eject billions of pounds of plasma from the sun's surface. If the earth is in the firing line, this electrically charged plasma interacts with the earth's magnetosphere and causes spectacular light shows around the poles. Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be located in Scandinavia to witness these light shows; Scotland and even some parts of England have witnessed sensational sightings, with many amazing photos captured just this year, as far south as Cornwall!
The skies are ready for you in all their glory. Picture yourself, binoculars in hand, viewing the night sky from a woodland clearing or the edge of the forest, the complete darkness punctuated by twinkles of light that you can now confidently identify. Good luck, stargazer!
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