Dark Sky Delights

Last weekend I had the enormous pleasure of visiting Kielder Observatory for the first time, and I cannot stop telling everyone I know (and admittedly a couple of strangers) to go!

 

 

I won’t pretend I know what I’m talking about, nor do I fully understand the concept, but I, like many others, am captivated by the natural phenomenon that is the aurora borealis. Typically an aurora is most often found in crystal clear, dark skies but some of you might remember in February this year when the aurora could be seen as close as Whitley Bay, despite the light pollution? I continuously kick myself for not being at home that one night of the year!

Every year, thousands of us travel far and wide to the Polar regions and beyond in the hope of seeing the elusive aurora borealis, but as Kielder Observatory’s resident astronomers Gary and Dan explained, you don’t have to travel too far from your doorstep to see them.

Having recently been awarded ‘Dark Sky Status’, Kielder is not only the first of its kind in England, but the largest Dark Sky Park area of protected night sky in Europe, and one of the largest in the world. Inspired by the work of local enthusiasts who regularly gave talks under Kielder’s incredible clear skies, Gary Fildes began hosting his own events and eventually set up the observatory to continue his research and with the hope of inspiring hundreds of us to look up at the night sky and actually understand some of what we see. Run entirely by Gary and a team of volunteers (Kielder Observatory is a registered charity), the observatory host an unmissable range of events throughout the year aimed at everyone from complete amateurs to seasoned astronomers, and tonight, was Aurora Night…

 

(Please note I do not own the credit to any of the above aurora images)

 

Our journey began almost 60 miles away, where we set off around 7pm to attend the aurora event (9pm-approx 12am). Unsure of what to expect, we wrapped up warm and piled extra blankets in the car before setting off into the fading sun. After a picturesque hour and half’s drive, I quickly came to regret being the designated driver in my little old Yaris…

There’s a reason the Observatory’s address is ‘Black Fell’, because to reach the observatory you have to go off-road and drive up a steep, stone covered hill for around 5/6 miles or so. Well, let’s just say my poor car couldn’t quite make the hill and we really weren’t sure we were going to make it to the top, nevermind home at 1am!

 

Thankfully we did make it to the top, and just in time to hear local astronomer Dan (sorry I can’t remember your surname!) tell us more about the aurora. His presentation had everyone hooked, despite being a complete amateur, at no point did I feel lost or confused as Dan explained that auroras are caused by electrically charged particles from the sun that enter our earth’s atmosphere, heading straight for the earth’s magentic poles (hence why you’re more likely to see them in the North and South of the world). I don’t want to give too much away, but some of the images of the aurora taken at Kielder were incredible and I couldn’t wait to get out there.

Before you all get excited, sadly we didn’t actually see the aurora that night, but nor did we really expect to.  This certainly didn’t spoil our evening, as we got to see the moon up close which was unbelievable, along with Mars, Saturn and a globular cluster of stars which was beautiful. As Dan explained, scientists have monitored the activity of the aurora and discovered that shows tend to appear in 11 year cycles. Sinnce we’re nearing the end of one, we’re almost overdue a spectacular show, hence why the Observatory are encouraging us all to try something new and possibly tick off something from our bucket lists.

 

That’s me at 1am in the morning in the ‘Chill Out Zone’ looking up at the stars, a really cool outdoor space with big chairs that you can lie back in and look up at the sky with a blanket. About ten of us were sitting in total silence just looking up at the wonders above.

I cannot recommend visiting the Observatory highly enough, it is a credit to the North of England and I will certainly be back in the autumn when the skies get even darker (although next time I don’t think I’ll risk trying to get my car up that hill!) You’ll find everything you need to know on their website, along with prices and how to book.

 

The Legends of the Lights:

  • Did you know the ‘Aurora borealis’, the lights of the northern hemisphere, means ‘dawn of the north’. and the ‘Aurora australis’ means ‘dawn of the south’?
  • In Roman mythology, Aurora was the goddess of the dawn, while during medieval times, the occurrences of auroral displays were seen as harbingers of war or famine.
  • The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin believed that the lights indicated the location of manabai’wok (giants) who were the spirits of great hunters and fishermen, while the Inuit of Alaska believed that the lights were the spirits of the animals they hunted: the seals, salmon, deer and beluga whales.
  • Many also believed that the lights were the spirits of their dead ancestors

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