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Spot the stars this winter

January 2017

The New Year has opened with lots of lovely pictures in the media of our night sky, and especially of Venus showing particularly brightly near the moon.

Stars have always caused wonder and with some open skies forecast for the next few weeks as the mid winter cold hits the UK, there could be some wonderful opportunities for star gazing.

With around 4,000 twinkly stars sparkling in our skies throughout the year, stargazing is a wonderful outdoor activity for all ages including grandchildren and can even be enjoyed by people with limited vision thanks today to powerful and affordable binoculars.

The first thing of course for successful stargazing is to get away from light pollution. This phrase didn’t exist when we were young, but today recent research shows that 83% of the world’s population lives in areas of false brightness. The figures in Europe are the worst, where 99% of Europeans live under skies that are around 10% brighter than their natural state. This means all stars will look muted in the sky.

So of course a most important aspect is to find your nearest “dark” spot. There is now an official Dark Sky Discovery network which has taken on the task of highlighting naturally dark areas.

The National Trust offers lots of information on star gazing and suggests the very best spots in the UK to see all the glories in the night sky around us.
These include:
Allan Bank and Grasmere in the Lake District.
Broad Haven beach in Pembrokeshire
Carding Mill Valley and Long Mynd, Shropshire
Divis Mountain, Northern Ireland
Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland
Toys Hill, Kent
Morden Hall Park, London
Dunkery Beacon, Somerset

But there are many many other great spots to can find all their suggestions here.

And for many of us who simply want to see the basic nearby stars to our earth, then a nearby park or even the bottom of the garden can work as long as it is away from street lights and other electric lighting.

Weather for stargazing is of course vital; it is no good struggling to the top of an isolated hill far from artificial light only to be met with thick cloud cover or even low lying mist which covers the clear sky above. The sky is actually clearer on cold winter nights. This is because the earth’s atmosphere is not as hazy or moisture laden. Cold air has less capacity to hold moisture, and so crisp dry winter nights offer better views of the skies than the warmer summer months.

The web is full of good sites offering local weather forecasts, but be prepared to abandon plans at the last moment when unexpected weather comes in.  Another aspect to think about is the cycle of the moon, many say the best time to stargaze is just before a full moon. 

Finally of course there are the basic preparations...standing or sitting still on a cold night means you can lose heat quickly, so keeping warm is essential.  A good torch and knowledge of your route are also vital of course.

You can have a lot of fun stargazing on a clear night without any equipment at all, but a decent pair of binoculars can of course make things even more exciting.

And then you need the information...just the names of the planets is a good start but a little more information about what is up there can really spark interest.

There is predictably lots of information on the website to get you started. Here at Laterlife we have been looking at the following sites just to give us some basic ideas about what it is all about:
Young Stargazers

Some people start by simply recording the name of the star they have spotted.  Then they can progress to the names of constellations, or the patterns stars make in the skies…and before a night is out, many people will have become hooked on an exciting new hobby!

Stargazing can be carried out all over the world and of course in the southern hemisphere you can spot very different stars from those we can see here in the UK. Many recognized sites offer telescopes and experts to help you make the most of your stargazing.

Best international sites for stargazing include:

Southern California’s Mojave desert and areas.
Find out more at Sky's The Limit

Pic du Midi in the French Pyrenees.
Find out more at Dark Sky

Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
Find out more at Love Big Island

Stargazing can be a fun one off entertainment or a long term hobby…and with some clear winter skies promised, this could be an ideal time to give it a go.

For a detailed list of star gazing and astronomy websites, visit Dark Sky Discovery.

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