Exploring the night sky in Yorkshire during Spring
PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 February 2019
Making the most of the dense spring skies before the lighter nights of summer spoil the view
Spring is a stunning time to be out under the stars, making the most of the warming weather while still enjoying the lingering darkness of winter as nature stirs from its annual slumber.
In a few short months we will be overtaken by long summer days with no proper darkness at all, so we’ll see far fewer stars and hardly glimpse the Milky Way again until August.
Mid-winter saw the hour glass-shaped Orion standing proudly above the southern horizon, but that has now been replaced in the sky by the equally striking shape of Leo. To me it looks like the profile of a giant sphinx or, better still, K9, the famous metal dog sidekick from Dr Who.
Such constellations are, of course, simply random patterns of stars that we have fancifully constructed shapes around inspired by our own myths and religious beliefs.
For the Greeks, Leo was cast into the heavens after being killed by Hercules, while Orion was a great hunter. Of the 88 western constellations in the northern and southern sky, 48 were invented by the Greeks or appropriated from earlier civilisations such as the Sumerians. Other civilisations, like the ancient Chinese, also had their own starlore.
But why do we see different constellations at different times of the year? Well, it’s because we are, in effect, on a giant spaceship called Earth hurtling at 67,000 miles per hour around the sun in a year-long orbit. As we voyage through space, our night-time view of the universe changes, just as if we were looking through the window of a real spaceship watching the scenery change.
In spring, we are in an ideal position to view the very depths of the universe and spy hundreds of other galaxies far, far away. These vast star cities are similar to our own Milky Way, which has 200 billion stars including our sun.
Take a trip into the darker parts of Yorkshire with a pair of binoculars and you will see the brighter galaxies as a distant hazy glow. Use a telescope and you will see they are all different shapes. Ponder on the fact that their light has travelled for millions of years through space to reach you and you can’t fail to be both awe-inspired and humbled.
There are also a couple of things much closer to home that we can enjoy this month. On March 21st, we have the last supermoon of 2019, when we’ll be able to see the moon looking a little larger than usual as it comes closer to us. It’s interesting to note that our nearest neighbour can, in fact, swell and shrink by as much as ten per cent at its furthest and nearest.
We also have a lovely meteor shower to look forward to on April 21st and 22nd. The Lyrids, so called because they seem to emanate from the direction of the constellation of Lyra, will put on a show of shooting stars caused by tiny bits of space debris burning up in the atmosphere. These particles, no bigger than a grain of sand, have been left behind by Comet Thatcher, named after its discoverer, not the former Prime Minister.
My advice is to simply sit back and enjoy the view with your naked eye, but be aware that the moon will spoil the view somewhat after midnight.
Meteor showers like the Lyrids always look better away from light pollution. Unfortunately, our profligate use of artificial light means that about 80 per cent of people in Yorkshire probably can’t see the Milky Way from their home.
The rapid growth in the use of dazzlingly bright LED floodlights in particular poses a serious threat, spreading at an alarming rate across commercial, industrial and private properties and transforming the county’s nightscape. Not only do they snub out the stars, but research shows they deter wildlife and disturb human sleep patterns.
Both of our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are taking dark sky conservation seriously and working behind the scenes to collect data on the quality of what we can see. Many of the UK’s darkest areas – including the moors and dales - are supporting the Big Dipper campaign, encouraging people to position bright LEDs in such a way that they illuminate the ground and don’t spread over a large area, and are not left on all night.