There has never been a better time for getting to know the night sky. Star gazing has grown more popular globally as a pastime and the market has grown with it, with a plethora of optical equipment, books and apps to assist you in finding your first celestial object. It is an exciting moment and many individuals remember exactly the first object they viewed. For some, it is Saturn; seeing that wonderful, ringed planet hanging in space, is an unbelievable sight. For others, it might be the Moon; seeing those craters and maria (large, dark, basaltic plains) with high magnification feels like you are literally flying over the surface of our nearest natural satellite! Whether you use just your eyes, binoculars or a telescope, there is plenty to discover. Visit our news page to read our Dark Skies monthly guide and keep an eye on our What's On page for upcoming Dark Skies events. In the meantime, you can get started in the comfort of your own garden.
Allow your eyes to become accustomed to the dark – the term for this is dark adaption. It takes 20 – 60 minutes to achieve dark adaption, where certain chemical changes occur in the eyes. The retina of the eyes detect light through photoreceptor cells called rods and cones; the latter being important in detecting colours and are sited in the Fovea at the centre of the eye. Rods, however, are not colour sensitive but are more receptive to light. Cones are able to adapt to the dark very quickly but the more light sensitive rods take more time as the light sensitive pigment called Rhodopsin is produced. That pigment can be bleached out when exposed to light sources so it is a good idea to find a spot where there is no local light pollution. If you use a normal white light torch whilst studying the night sky, it will affect your ability to be properly dark adapted.
This is where a red light torch comes in. Rods are less sensitive to red light (below 650 nanometres), so it can be used as illumination during your outdoor session. There are properly filtered red light torches made for astronomy but a normal LED torch with a red light function should suffice. It is important to add that placing a red filter over a white LED torch as it may still be too bright and not filter certain wavelengths of light.
Once your eyes are light adapted, you will marvel at the sheer amount of stars and will be wondering how to make sense of it all! This has been the question asked by many people over millennia and to make sense of it all, humankind has created coherent patterns by visually joining up stars, called constellations. Use your planisphere or phone app to get to know the well-known constellations. It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the night sky before buying equipment which will magnify what you are seeing. Even with dark-adapted eyes, you will be able to see lunar features, star clusters, planets, nebulae, meteor showers and galaxies in more detail. There are ways that celestial objects can be found, through computerised mounts that can find and track targets but it is a bonus if you can learn to get round the night sky without such useful aids. There is a method used for improving your mental map of the night sky called ‘star hopping’.
The good news is that you can start viewing numerous celestial objects from the comfort of your own garden! However, if you live in a town or city, you will suffer from light pollution and some of the fainter objects will be harder to find but there are still hundreds of brighter celestial objects within your visual reach. There are many sites in the UK that have been recognised as having good quality, dark skies and more are being added every year. There may be one near where you live:
When you visit the Elan Valley at night, it is imperative to consider your own safety and the safety of others. Always plan and prepare before you set off. You could consider using a checklist like the one below:
- Make sure people at home know where you are and what time you are expected to return
- Consult the weather before setting off. Is your vehicle able to cope with icy roads, for example?
- Mobile phone for emergencies – please note that on the Elan Estate, mobile reception is very poor and mostly non-existent
- Bring food and warm drinks
- Bring torches and spare batteries
- Pack extra warm clothing and a sleeping bag – it can get very cold and windy on the Elan Estate
To preserve the unique, rich and varied natural heritage of the Elan Estate we would respectfully ask that you would observe the following guidelines:
- Please take your litter home with you
- Please do not camp on the Elan Estate
- Please do not light fires