How to view the Milky Way in Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 September 2019

Astronomer Martin Whipp admiring the Milky Way above the new Lime Tree Farm Observatory near Grewelthorpe.

Astronomer Martin Whipp admiring the Milky Way above the new Lime Tree Farm Observatory near Grewelthorpe.


Don’t give up on the deckchair just yet. Sit back and enjoy autumn’s party in the skies.

Ready for action on a clear night - Lime Tree Farm ObservatoryReady for action on a clear night - Lime Tree Farm Observatory

We're in prime stargazing season, when the long days of summer give way to properly dark nights and the weather is still relatively benign.

What is more we have the majestic Milky Way directly overhead in the late evening, looking at its very best. So if you have never seen this glowing river of light (over 80% of Brits can't see it from where they live) then this is the ideal opportunity.

Venture near areas of light pollution and it quickly vanishes, but from really dark locations it is unmistakable and can stretch from one horizon to the other.

Fortunately here in Yorkshire there are a host of prime locations to get a grandstand view.

Astronomer Martin Whipp pictured inside Lime Tree Farm Observatory near Grewelthorpe.Astronomer Martin Whipp pictured inside Lime Tree Farm Observatory near Grewelthorpe.

Favoured areas include parts of the North York Moors, especially Dalby and Cropton Forests, near Pickering, and the northern Yorkshire Dales, home to some of England's most pristine skies. Upper Nidderdale is also a good spot.

Last year I staged a starry vigil in the village of Keld, in spectacular Upper Swaledale. Many of those joining me that night had never seen the Milky Way before and the cloudy conditions suggested that state of affairs might continue.

But lo and behold the sky cleared and there it was - a shimmering band of light, full of detail, with dark dust lanes!

There was a collective intake of breath and as I explained that the light was caused by millions of faint stars, resolved only with binoculars, and was part of our very own spiral galaxy, the sheer spectacle clearly took precedence over my scientific explanation! I'll be back at Keld this September to try and repeat my success with another star party.

So here are a few tips for spotting the Milky Way. Choose a moonless night and a dark location. Both national parks and Nidderdale AONB have excellent dark sky information on their websites with suggestions on where to go.

Let your eyes become adjusted to the dark, so don't use white torches (although red ones are fine). Then look directly overhead where the Milky Way is at its brightest as it streams through the constellation of Cygnus the Swan (sometimes called the Northern Cross). Once you get your eye in you will be able to trace its path across the sky.

The Milky Way is not the only attraction of our dark skies this season. With a wee bit of patience you will also see many more shooting stars than during summer and fortunately we have a couple of wonderful meteor showers to look forward to. The Orionids peak on the night of October 21/22, but you can see them a week either side of this date, but in lower numbers. They are caused by tiny bits of debris left behind by Comet Halley entering the Earth's atmosphere at 148,000 mph and burning up. Expect to see one every few minutes given a bit of luck.

Don't bother with any fancy optical equipment, all you need to do is relax in a deckchair, use your eyes and look high in the south east after dark. The later the better and a glass of prosecco is an optional extra. The other shower is the Leonids, on November 17/18, this time caused by Comet Tempel-Tuttle, but it's a little less favoured as a waning moon will be in the sky.

Yorkshire's starry skies are proving a big attraction and both national parks have projects running to protect and promote them. Over the past 18 months volunteers have been compiling a detailed map of our best spots using special light meters. The park authorities have also strengthened their advice on the need to avoid unnecessary light pollution, which is good to see given the spread of painfully bright white LEDs.

There are also exciting developments at Limetree Observatory, near Grewelthorpe, in Nidderdale. The public facility, opened four years ago on land owned by philanthropic farmers Peter and Irene Foster, has launched a fundraising drive to build a £25,000 planetarium on the site.

The plan will see one of the farm's existing barns converted into a multifunctional space for talks, demonstrations, indoor and outdoor crafts and a six-metre diameter immersive planetarium.

So no matter if it's cloudy, you can still enjoy a journey through the cosmos. The venue has become incredibly popular with novice stargazers, who have access to a giant telescope, lovely dark skies overhead and the expertise of a dedicated team of experts, all of them volunteers.

It's just one example of how stargazing interest is soaring in Yorkshire. 

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