Dark Matters

The sky darkens as we set up the telescope for the Lyrids MeteorWatch on Barr Beacon in 2012.

I’ve noticed the nights drawing in, which for me means two things: the end of bat season, and the start of astronomy season.  The long, dark nights and cold, clear skies make for the best conditions for stargazing, and as usual, I’m holding a series of informal events on Barr Beacon again this winter.  In December 2011 I succeeded in getting Barr Beacon to be the first urban Local Nature Reserve to receive the designation of Dark Sky Discovery Site. There will be some among you who think that giving such a title anywhere in the West Midlands Conurbation is a bit of a misnomer, but I disagree.  You see, its the DISCOVERY part that is key for me.  Barr Beacon is far from what any sensible person would call a place of notable dark skies, as by and large the sea of lights to the south and west can, on cloudy nights, create an urban glow which can present a considerable obstacle to astronomy, even with telescopes.  But its height above the surrounding landscape makes it one of the best spots for stargazing, because of the AMOUNT of the sky visible, which on a cloudless night is really impressive!  And its worth remembering that some of the brighter objects (planets, constellations, etc.) are perfectly visible in urban areas – so if you’re new to astronomy and just want to get your stellar bearings and dip your astronomical toe in the water, you don’t need to travel to dark, rural sites and set up expensive equipment.  You can come along to Barr Beacon, bring a folding chair and a flask of hot chocolate, and enjoy the atmosphere and the sights through binoculars, telescopes and with the naked eye.  The following images were all taken at urban sites, including Barr Beacon:

Orion rising over Barr Beacon

The craters on the moon, taken through a telescope on Barr Beacon

The Orion Nebula, taken through a telescope at Barr Beacon

Saturn and its rings as seen from Cannock.

Having said all that, it is true that light pollution is a HUGE issue.  Light pollution seems to be, in many people’s minds, a concept from the 1980s we dismissed along with several other environmental concepts (when was the last time you heard someone talk about ‘acid rain’?), but it couldn’t be more relevant today.  There are several projects and websites devoted to the subject:

The Campaign for Dark Skies (be sure to scroll down and have a play with the Light Pollution Simulator!)
The Need-Less Campaign (There’s a really nifty Night Sky Simulator at the bottom of the page, plus posters and widgets you can use!)
LightPollution.org.uk
Save The Night’s incredible “Loss of Star Visibility” map

So, if you fancy coming along to any of the free astronomy events on Barr Beacon this Winter, you can find booking details here:

MeteorWatch: Taurids, Nov 4th
MeteorWatch: Geminids, Dec 14th
Stargazing Live, January 7th, 8th and 9th

…or you can ‘book’ by indicating your attendance on the WalsallLooksUp Facebook Page.

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