One of the great joys of being a dark sky guide is using good optical equipment to allow participants on our stargazing sessions to see detail in things that are only visible to the naked eye as points of light.
Venus and Jupiter were obvious in the twilight, and Sirius had vanished into the murk just above the horizon to the south, when Jane arrived for our Discover Stargazing session. Sarah and Jodie arrived a few minutes later and we began our exploration of the night sky, starting with the Moon and the two impressive clusters in Taurus, the Hyades and the Pleiades. Using pointers, particularly in Cassiopeia and The Plough, to locate other objects in the sky is always good fun and lets people start to make sense of what can often be a daunting amount of stars when it’s a clear evening at a good dark sky site, and the number of satellites passing over comes as shock to everyone, but the real star of this session was Jupiter. The fourth brightest object in the solar system, more than 300x the mass of the Earth, taking nearly twelve years to orbit the Sun and with a surface temperature of -108C, Jupiter is an impressive planet. Without going to extreme magnification we could still see bands on the surface of the planet and three of the Galilean moons. Hard to believe but, including the four Galilean moons that are large enough to be seen through binoculars or a telescope, Jupiter has 67 moons. There’s an awful lot of stuff up there, and we can’t see most of it!
I collected John and Pam from home in Cullercoats and we drove up the coast. As we ate our picnic lunch in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, we could see Gannets diving offshore, beyond the rafts of Common Eider that were surfing the gentle swell. Kestrels were seen throughout the afternoon and a real ‘from the car’ bonus came in the shape of three Roe Deer. As so often happens as we approach the winter, wildfowl dominated the birdwatching. As well as the Eiders, with males resplendent in their breeding finery, Teal, Mallard and Goldeneye looked at their best. As a Grey Wagtail perched on a mid-stream rock, and fish swirled and leapt from the water, a male Kingfisher perched on a branch overhanging the river, flocks of geese peppered the sky wherever we were, and a flock of Greylag Geese began to flush as the search and rescue helicopter passed noisily overhead. Whooper Swans looked as stunning as ever, flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover swirled in the stiff breeze and, as dusk approached, Pink-footed Geese began arriving to roost. Flock after flock of Pink-feet appeared out of the gloom, announcing their imminent arrival with their yapping calls, eventually in near darkness when they were just a black speckling against the dark grey brooding clouds.
Tuesday was our first Druridge Bay Discover Stargazing session and six enthusiastic participants enjoyed views of the Milky Way, the Plough, Cassiopeia, Arcturus, Cygnus, plenty of satellites, and even naked-eye views of the Andromeda Galaxy – 2.5 million light years away, and heading towards us at more than 100 km/s, but light travels at 299792458 m/s so we don’t have to worry about it just yet 😉 Probably the most interesting observation was of a satellite crossing the sky from east to west, almost as bright as the ISS.
So, conclusions from our first Druridge Bay stargazing session;
Even close to the former industrial heartland of Northumberland, and close to the county’s population centre, you can still have a great dark sky experience 🙂
It can quickly turn bone-chillingly cold once it gets dark 😉