Dark Sky Stargazing
We arrived in the dark and as soon as we drove away from the ferry port were treated to a sky full of more stars than we’ve ever seen.
Being on the edge of Europe means that the UK has some of the largest areas of dark sky in the continent and being on the edge of the UK means that we have one of the best areas of dark sky in the country and certainly one of the darkest in Europe. In fact, our night sky can get so inky dark that over 1,000 stars and planets can be visible with the naked eye. All you have to do is go outside on a clear night, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark and then look up. You can even see our own galaxy, The Milky Way, stretching across the sky. This is a privilege that so few people in our country have, so why not come here and let us share it with you.
The Best Spots for Stargazing
Of course you can simply switch the lights off in the cottage, or step out the front door! Or enjoy an evening in the wee Wildlife Stargazer tower in the garden. However, you can go a little further afield if you wish. I would recommend Salachan beach, or up Glen Gour.
When to Look at the Night Sky
It is best to look when the sky is completely dark, in the time window between 2 hours after sunset and 2 hours before sunrise. As we are pretty far North, this means that the best times of year to look are Autumn, Winter and Spring when the nights are long and dark enough. Also, the light from the moon can make it difficult to see the stars, so it is best to look when there is little or no moon in the sky. Given this it is best to check our local sun and moon times to decide when best to go out. You should also check the weather for when clear nights are forecast.
How to Look at the Night Sky
Use your naked eyes – You can see a lot with just your naked eyes. All you need to do is to give them 10-15 minutes to adjust fully to the dark.
Use a red torch – Once your eyes have adjusted to the dark it is very easy to lose your “night vision”. Avoid using and looking at bright lights. Instead use a red light, such as a bike light, as this doesn’t affect you night vision.
Stay warm – Clear, dark nights are often very cold, so wrap up warm. Wear plenty of layers, a hat and gloves. If you are going to be out for a while, think about using heat wraps or charcoal hand warmers.
Use Star Charts – Use a star chart to find your way around. These can be downloaded free from Skymaps.com. Alternatively, you can use a smartphone app such as Pocket Universe.
What to See in the Night Sky
Milky Way – The best way to see it is by looking directly overhead during autumn and early winter evenings and you’ll see this shimmering river of light streaming through the constellations of Cassiopeia and Cygnus.
Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) – They can happen at any time of the year, but the best time is the Autumn and Winter when the sky is really dark, with Autumn being better as it tends to have more clear nights. Check AuroraWatch UK or Aurora Alert for forecasts and alerts.
Stars and Constellations – Winter is the best time, when you can look to the south and see the grand constellations of winter: Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Perseus, Cassiopeia, Gemini, and Canis Major. These constellations are rich with stars and star clusters, with the most brilliant stars being Capella, Castor and Pollux, Procyon, Sirius, Rigel, Aldebaran, and Betelgeuse.
Planets – From March and the onset of Spring, the visible planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn grace our skies after sunset and during the night. First are Mercury and Venus in the west right after sunset, with Venus being the brighter of the two. Next is Jupiter rising in the east around midnight. Mars follows in the time between midnight and sunrise and Saturn appears in early morning.
Meteor Showers – They happen at predictable times throughout the year and are best seen when the moon is absent, which will change from year to year. Look out for the annual Quadrantids (January), Lyrids (April), Perseids (August), Orionids (peaks in October), Leonids (November) and Geminids (December). If you do try see them, then spend at least an hour outside doing so as they tend to happen in fits and starts. Check out Earthsky.org’s meteor shower guide for the best times to look.