Rural Matters

Locking Down and Looking Up

Not only does the Campaign to Protect Rural England concern itself about countryside and the communities who live there but is also involved in helping to preserve the quality of the night sky over Dorset and other parts of our country

With the current lockdown, people are largely confined to their own home and will no doubt be spending rather too much time gazing at their TV, computer or smartphone. An alternative, if the skies happen to be clear one evening, is to wrap up warm, step outside into the garden and have a good look at what can be seen in the sky. Now that the Christmas lights are safely stowed away for another year, you should have a good opportunity to observe a dark night sky, weather permitting. A pair of binoculars or small telescope and guidebook will help you identify anything of a celestial nature.

Every night there is usually a planet visible, recognisable in being bright and not twinkling like a star. Since planets wander across the sky, they sometimes appear close together as happened with the Grand Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that took place in mid-December. Good views were to be had from Stourton Caundle and other parts of the Blackmore Vale on Sunday 20th shortly before the planets reached their closest on the 21st. Earlier, the crescent moon also shared the spectacle in a triple conjunction as shown in the image below taken by Michael Mattiazzo, an astronomer friend.

Other times when the moon is absent, a myriad of stars can be seen and what you might easily mistake for a cloud is in fact the faint glow of the Milky Way, our galaxy of stars seen edge-on stretching across the sky. Do wear sensible clothes and boots to stay warm, find a convenient easy chair. Remain outside for at least 10-15 minutes so your eyes become properly ‘dark adapted’. I can guarantee that you will also witness the occasional ‘star’ moving silently across the blackness: one of many ‘man-made’ satellites launched into space and orbiting the earth. You might also catch a view of a shooting star or meteor.

So let’s all be mindful of the natural spectacle visible from our doorstep every clear night. And if you have to have a security light, make sure it’s of the motion-sensitive variety that switches the light on only when necessary. To preserve our view of the heavens will require future housing developments to have ‘full-cut-off’ street lighting so no light is directed into the sky. A curfew time may also be adopted after which streetlights are automatically switched off to save energy and to avoid light pollution thereby protecting the natural environment.

Dr Richard Miles

Dark Skies Adviser Dorset CPRE

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