What can you see in the night sky over the Lake District?
So, the clocks have gone back, the nights have drawn in and summer is already starting to feel like a distant memory. But, at the Three Shires Inn, we like to focus on the positives and one good thing about winter is that all those long, dark nights are good for stargazing.
We have very little light pollution here in our corner of the Lake District. This means on a clear night you can get some truly spectacular views of the stars. We caught up with local astronomer Stuart Atkinson for some advice on what to look for.
As well as being a lifelong student of celestial bodies, Stuart runs an outreach education project sharing his knowledge with local schools and community groups. He has also written nine children’s books about astronomy and space travel, most recently ‘A Cat’s Guide to the Night Sky’.
So, Stuart, what are your tips for stargazing over the Lake District?
“Stargazing can be great in Cumbria, because we have so little light pollution in some places. The problem is that clear nights are fewer and further apart than in other parts of the country. When it is clear you can find places where it’s nice and dark. Langdale is great because there are not many people around there. Because of all the hills you might not see some of the stars that are lower in the sky, but you will see the rest strewn with stars.
“The sky changes slowly through the night. The stars go around the Pole Star and they rise and set like the sun does. Through the year we see different skies in different seasons, because as the Earth goes around the sun we see different parts of the universe.
What stars will we be able to see?
“At this time of year the summer stars are setting in the west as it gets dark and the winter stars are rising in the early morning. The Milky Way is bright in the sky and still really prominent. Not as good as it was in August, but it’s still there. Mars is at its best for 15 years at the moment, it’s really blazing in the sky. It’s not red, it’s more like an orange colour. If you remember the sweets Spangles, it is like an orange Spangle in the sky!
“When the sky gets dark, if you look to the south west, you will see two stars which are actually Jupiter and Saturn. In the morning you will see Orion coming up. It’s now starting to climb up before sunrise and will be highest in the sky around Christmas.
“In the summer you’ll see the summer triangle of three bright stars Deneb, Vega and Altair, with the Milky Way running right through them. You’ll see the Plough in the north, like a big spoon of stars. If you look to the north east you’ll see the ‘w’ of Cassiopeia and Perseus too.
“If you were in the Langdales in about December looking to the south you would see Orion, blazing in the sky. At the centre of the constellation of Orion you can see Orion’s belt; three blue stars close together.
“You’ll go from that down to the lower left to the bright star Sirius, like a diamond flashing away in the sky. Go to the upper right of Orion’s belt and you’ll see a v-shape of stars called the Hyades star cluster and beyond that the Pleiades star cluster. The winter sky has lots of very bright colourful stars. The summer doesn’t have this so much, but the Milky Way is much better in summer. Every season in the sky has got its highlights. Summer is good for the Milky Way, clusters and nebulae, winter mainly for big, bright stars that jump out at you.
What are the best conditions for stargazing?
“Get out somewhere dark! Even passing traffic can make a difference. It takes half an hour for your eyes to get used to the dark, so if you go out somewhere and a car goes past you are back to square one.
“The best skies in Cumbria come after a downpour because the air has been scrubbed clean. If you get a good snowfall, then go out the night after, the sky is clear because there is no heat rising up and the air has been cleared.
“Just enjoying looking up. Don’t worry too much about the science of it. You might see satellites going over, you might see shooting stars; it’s a beautiful thing. Over lockdown people have rediscovered the night sky because they have been stuck at home. People have stood in their gardens at night and I think they have found astronomy in a big way. Sales of telescopes have gone through the roof.
“You can spend a fortune on equipment if you want, but you can also just stand in your garden and see these galaxies and planets with the naked eye. Everybody started off in astronomy as a kid in a garden looking at the sky. Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox, they started off knowing absolutely nothing and just looked at the sky and learned.
“Start off just looking. Learn the sky. Then think about using binoculars to zoom in a bit. They will show you Jupiter, star clusters and craters on the Moon. Then think about getting a telescope. If you try and shortcut to a telescope too quickly then it can just be expensive and confusing. You don’t learn to drive in a Formula One car, you start slowly and build up. If you do that then astronomy is a lifelong hobby and the sky is your friend.”