How to stargaze in the night skies of Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 September 2018

M31 the great galaxy of Andromeda imaged by Adrian Brown of Derbyshire & District Astronomical Society from his observatory in Alvaston

M31 the great galaxy of Andromeda imaged by Adrian Brown of Derbyshire & District Astronomical Society from his observatory in Alvaston

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From far away constellations to gas clouds, our night skies are bursting with natural wonders – if you know where to look... Viv Micklefield goes stargazing in Derbyshire

Milky Way over Magpie Mine, Sheldon, White Peak (c) James GrantMilky Way over Magpie Mine, Sheldon, White Peak (c) James Grant

The astronomer Carl Sagan is famous for saying that there are more stars in our universe than there are grains of sand in all the beaches on Earth. This might sound far-fetched but with a billion stars in our own galaxy alone, and an estimated billion galaxies, the numbers are mind-boggling. So the prospect of catching even a small glimpse of what’s out there in the night sky is fascinating.

For the amateur stargazer, however, knowing when and where to head for the best sights and what, if any, equipment is needed can be mystifying. A natural place to start is in one of the Peak District National Park’s designated dark sky areas.

At present, Surprise View above Hathersage; Parsley Hay on the Tissington Trail near Hartington; and Minninglow on the High Peak Trail at Pikehall are protected because of their lack of light pollution, and are all easily accessible from the roadside. Although not yet on the list, Ladybower and the Upper Derwent is another excellent spot. Indeed, head to any of these locations and all that’s necessary is a clear sky for the naked eye to see a jaw-dropping range of objects. As autumn nights draw in the Milky Way can often be found spanning the sky and giving a star turn above our heads. Meteor showers are not uncommon either, and well worth donning a few extra layers of clothing in order to marvel at. Whilst a comet is always worth dashing outside for.

According to Anthony Southwell, Derbyshire co-ordinator for the Campaign for Dark Skies and a member of Derbyshire and District Astronomical Society: ‘There are very few places across the UK that do not suffer from light pollution.’ Pointing out that back in 2015 Derbyshire, along with other authorities, trialled a dusk ’til dawn street light curfew, he continues: ‘A switch-off programme is still in operation in selected areas, as street lights are turned off at midnight.’ And, Anthony says, an accelerated use and retro-fitting of street lights that ‘direct light downwards, to illuminate the ground and not the sky’, would be welcomed.

Chesterfield Astronomical Society Open Evening at the ObservatoryChesterfield Astronomical Society Open Evening at the Observatory

Interestingly, during the switch-off trials the recorded levels of crime or accidents did not increase. There has also been research into the positive effect that dark skies have on mental health and wellbeing. The Council for the Protection of Rural England is another organization adding its voice to the debate on reducing light pollution. Although it needn’t be a barrier to stargazing.

‘Don’t be put off by astronomy even if you do live in a more light polluted area,’ says Mark Eustace, president of Chesterfield Astronomy Society, another of the county’s groups of interstellar enthusiasts that regularly meet-up. ‘It’s a case of understanding where to look and the right equipment to use. The higher up in the sky you go, the less of a problem light pollution is, although there will still be a yellow glow on the horizon.

‘One of the things that I 
enjoy looking at the most is the Sword of Orion which is visible with the naked eye and looks 
like a few stars. But when you 
use binoculars or a small telescope, you discover that what you’re actually looking at is a huge gas cloud.’

‘It’s a common misconception that you can’t see anything with the naked eye in a light polluted area,’ agrees Dr Andrew Thornett, chair of Rosliston Astronomy Group. ‘From almost everywhere, you can clearly see the Moon and planets. And as soon as you get a pair of binoculars then you can get to see a massive amount of detail, like the bands on Jupiter. Astronomy is addictive but it doesn’t have to be expensive.’

Milky Way over Arbor Low near Parsley Hay, White Peak (c) James GrantMilky Way over Arbor Low near Parsley Hay, White Peak (c) James Grant

According to Andrew, today’s technology makes it much easier for the novice to navigate around the night sky. Several mobile phone apps are available that instantly help to identify stars, constellations and deep sky objects. However, making even a small investment in some kit does open up a whole new world.

‘The furthest thing that you can see as an amateur with a backyard telescope is 2.2 billion light years away, that’s how long ago it emitted this light.

‘The thing that got me really excited at the beginning, was looking at Saturn, which is amazing when seen up-close. Often it’s the things you wouldn’t expect a telescope to see that capture the imagination. This summer, for instance, I saw noctilucent clouds for the first time after a friend called me up at 3.30am. Looking at this glowing filament in the sky really was like looking at something out of a sci-fi book.’

‘The world changes when you have a telescope,’ reflects Mark Eustace, whose favourite galaxy is called, rather enigmatically, M82, and is a mere 11 million light years away. Yet there’s an often overlooked object much closer to home, which is, he says, well worth exploring. ‘Because it’s there all the time, the Moon only gets attention if there’s a blood or super moon. When it’s a crescent moon there are 3-D craters and mountains visible. I personally think it’s a wonderful thing.’

Derbyshire & District Astronomical Society outside the Society's Flamsteed Observatory Photo Dr Mike LancasterDerbyshire & District Astronomical Society outside the Society's Flamsteed Observatory Photo Dr Mike Lancaster

Keen to make astronomy accessible to everyone, the 40-plus members in Chesterfield range in age from 17 to 70 years old. Whether they’re using their own equipment or taking a peek through their observatory’s fixed telescope with its 18-inch diameter lens, a south-facing sky regularly brings rewards.

Meanwhile, Derby and District’s astronomers use their high-powered telescope to see individual stars and planets, deep sky objects such as galaxies, nebulae, and even the occasional supernova. The Society’s Flamsteed Observatory at Brailsford is named after the first Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed (1646-1719), who was born in Denby and educated at Derby Free Grammar School, which was in St Peter’s Churchyard.

Astronomy is a heritage that, once explored, soon puts our own lives into perspective. As Andrew Thornett observes: ‘When you look out into the Universe, you get some idea of just how small and insignificant we all are.’

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