Whenever you get the chance on a clear night, stop for a moment and cast your eyes upwards for a real sense of perspective...
Image of the 'Elephant's Trunk Nebula' taken by Richard Randall. See the fascinating Q&A with Richard to look at more of his incredible photography.
In this busy world, so full of distractions that are right in front of our face, it’s sometimes easy to forget that we, in fact, all live on a spinning rock in a universe containing…who knows how many stars, planets, asteroids and meteors, maybe even other life forms. Looking up at the sky at night used to be what humans did to answer some of mankind’s biggest questions, and early cultures identified celestial objects with gods and spirits (it is believed that the first astronomers were actually priests). Calendars have often been set by the positions of the sun and moon and incredible, almost impossibly complex, or massive, ancient structures constructed such as Stonehenge or even, it is suggested, the great Egyptian Pyramids, to align with the stars.
These days, there are still an impressive number of observatories in the UK, many open to the public, offering a wonderfully detailed view of the night sky and an up-close encounter with the blanket of stars that are not always visible to the naked eye. This is a fantastic and fascinating way for adults and children alike to engage with astronomy and to gain a little perspective of what’s really out there.
The Amateur Astronomer
Of course, you don’t need multi-million-pound equipment to become immersed in the stars and to enjoy night-time stargazing. With either a fairly inexpensive personal telescope, or simply just your own eyes, on a clear evening and at the right location, you can expect to be completely blown away by the number of stars that you can observe from the ground, here on the third rock from the sun! The best conditions are, of course, when there are as few clouds in the sky as possible, a nice clear evening. Any time of year is great, obviously summer offers more enjoyable conditions for sitting or lying still for any period of time, but visibility (or transparency, as it is known) actually improves during the colder months when there is less humidity or dust in the air.
Choosing the Location
As for choosing a suitable location, one of the main factors according to NASA (who, let’s face it, know a thing or two about space!) is darkness:
“To begin with, you need dark skies away from city lights to see more stars. This is especially true if you want to be able to see the Milky Way. There are many more faint stars in the sky than bright ones, and only the brightest stars and planets are brilliant enough to see in bright, urban skies. The reason for this is light pollution – stray light from urban areas scattered into the night sky”
As well as avoiding light pollution from big cities and towns, another factor that can help budding astronomers see more stars is the landscape. Open views all around is ideal, and not being in a valley or surrounded by mountains.
The Lizard Peninsula
There are many spots around the world popular with stargazers, and Cornwall has always been high on the list of favourite locations to observe the night skies, particularly its most southerly peninsula, the famous Lizard. Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, and being tucked away in a breath-taking and sparsely populated corner of Cornwall, the Lizard is not troubled by light pollution at night (its nearest town of any size is Helston, with a population of around 12,000 people; hardly a bustling metropolis!). Being in such a rural, coastal location, the Lizard at night is quiet and dark, and its topography is flat – in other words, perfect for stargazing. In fact, this spot is so perfect for connecting with outer space, that in 1962, the iconic and impressive Goonhilly Earth Station was built there. Goonhilly Earth Station has been the pioneering home of satellite communications since 1962 and it continues to be recognised as a premier ground station of choice for the world’s major satellite operators, and has expanded its services to include lunar and deep space communications.
Polurrian on the Lizard offers the perfect base from which to launch your own stargazing adventures, with its uninterrupted, panoramic views of the night sky and secluded location. More experienced astronomers can pack up some provisions such as a telescope, camping chair, blanket and hot drink and explore the Lizard to find your ideal spot, or you could sit out on the terrace on a clear night, maybe with a beer in hand, and simply cast your eyes skywards.