Astronomy is my perfect escape – the ultimate outward bound activity.
I’m not a scientist or mathematician. In fact I feel a bit of a fake trying to explain the workings of the cosmos to a novice. My background is in the arts and I work in PR – but as I’ve discovered, that’s no bar to enjoying stargazing adventures.
And adventure is a good word – a sense of it infuses anyone with an interest in astronomy, whether they aim to push back the boundaries of knowledge, simply admire the beauty above, or get to grips with the latest hi-tech imaging gear, which has transformed what amateurs can achieve.
Star Trek was right, space really is the final frontier, even when your launchpad is a back garden in Barnsley. The question is not so much why do I look at the stars, but why most people never bother. After all, the sky is all around us, so why avoid it?
It probably reflects badly on the baleful and worsening effects of light pollution, which means that even on the clearest nights, you’ll be lucky see more than a handful of stars from the centre of say Sheffield, Hull or Leeds, compared with a few thousand from the darkest parts of Yorkshire. The vast majority of people have never seen the Milky Way and when they do, they think it’s a cloud.
But give folk a chance to look through a telescope, or be shown the constellations, and they jump at it. I organise public star parties and thronging crowds testify to a deep latent interest from young and old alike.
My first telescope came mail order via the Daily Express in the 1960s and was the biggest load of junk you ever saw, plastic and springs. A nightmare. But a couple of more useable instruments followed and with a regular wage I spent the gobsmacking sum of nearly £2,000 back in 1994 on what my open-mouthed friend exclaimed was “a bloody scientific instrument!”
That telescope – called a C8 – has been with me ever since, bearing the scratches, scars and dents of numerous outings into the wilds. It’s shown me galaxies millions of light years away, breathtaking views of the planets and revealed the death throes of stars in all their gory glory. You see once the astro bug bites, you end doing crazy things.
My fever to see ever more “stuff” and probe deeper into the Universe led to the purchase of a mammoth telescope, 14ins in diameter and weighing in at 50 pounds for the tube alone. Neighbours cast a nervous glance when I first erected it in the garden.
Then there’s the search for the ultimate dark sky. That quest has taken me far and wide, enduring temperatures as low as minus 13 degrees centigrade, and strange encounters with wildlife.
Astronomy becomes both raw and elemental when setting up your telescope on a 7,000ft peak in Arizona where signs warn of mountain lions in the vicinity. Or under the brow of the MacDonald Observatory in Texas where the snorting of javelina – a kind of wild boar with attitude – pierces the silence and sends a shiver down the spine.
Just as spectacular, but less disconcerting, was an evening spent near the Keck Observatory on Hawaii – a clutch destroying automobile climb up the steepest of mountain roads alighted at 9,000 feet where I spent a few hours driving a computerised telescope around the sky.
What does the sky look like from these places? Pretty good!
Instead of the depressing orange glow, the sky is nearer velvet black onto which the Milky Way is brightly etched. You can see elusive phenomena such as the Zodiacal light, a glow caused by light reflecting off the same space particles that made the Earth and outer planets. So plentiful are the stars, that familiar constellations seem lost in the firmament.
But my quest to escape light pollution doesn’t always mean reaching for the passport. The northern Dales from Hawes up is possibly the darkest part of Yorkshire and on a crisp moonless night can offer a marvellous view. The forests of the North York Moors including Cropton and Dalby – my own dark sky destinations – are not to be sniffed at either, while places like Kielder, Galloway and the Scottish Highlands are another step beyond.
Memories of outings to these places with the telescope loaded into the car brighten even the cloudiest of nights. A trip to Dalby Forest 10 years ago readily springs to mind. A bit like a train-spotter, I collect galaxies, faint ones, big ones, fat ones. So far I’ve seen about 800 – a drop in the cosmic ocean.
These star cities are the same kind of object as our own Milky Way and it was only in the early 20th century that we finally realised their true nature and just how far away they are. To see them well, or even at all, dark skies are often a must. On this particular night my log reveals that I reckoned an obscure, dim galaxy called NGC4570 looked “quite nice” through the telescope, with pretty elongated arms. On reflection “quite nice” seems an odd choice of words to use – “wow” or “awesome” might be better. For this little, feeble fleck of light, 45 million light years away, comprises billions of suns, and many more planets. The odds are that somewhere in this fuzz there is intelligent life – perhaps an alien is looking back at us trying to make sense of it all.
This night I totted up 25 new galaxies, a few planetary nebulae (dying stars) and a couple of comets. Not bad after a stressful day at work. Then the world turned upside down.
The entire forest landscape was ablaze with light – no noise, just light. It was 1.30am and I felt totally naked and exposed – what on earth was going on? My heart beat rapidly as nervous hands gripped the telescope tripod. After a few seconds darkness returned and my blessed anonymity was restored.
Only the following day was the mystery solved. This extraordinary event was caused by a chunk of space rock exploding high in the atmosphere. The object had been tracked from North Wales across England and is thought to have burnt up somewhere over East Yorkshire. Unless you were up, you missed it.
Things like that happen more than you would think. Spy satellites scoot across the sky in close formation giving rise to UFO reports and some things – such as a “shooting star” accelerating and tracking a passenger jet (yes, I saw that) – defy any explanation I can give.
So here’s my plea to everyone. The next clear night wander into the garden, look up and spend a little time getting to know your celestial neighbourhood. Go to a star party and have a look at the clouds on Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. You know you want to, so why not?
And one more thing, switch off the security light, or point the thing down.
Let’s not wash out the stars – they really are beautiful and have the ability to take us all on an adventure.
In tomorrow’s Yorkshire Post the songwriter, author and poet Mike Harding reveals his love of hill walking.