Stephen’s hints and tips on Forest of Bowland stargazing;
The Forest of Bowland AONB is an ideal place to visit if you want to escape the light pollution of town to do some stargazing. Getting away from urban lights makes a massive difference in what you can see in a clear night sky. I myself have visited Bowland many times over the past ten years, since taking up astronomy seriously in 2010. In 2015 I witnessed the amazing Aurora Borealis from close to the Grizedale Reservoir (see images). It is also possible to see one of our nearest galactic neighbours, the Andromeda Galaxy from Bowland, as well as see our own galaxy, the Milky Way, which looks like a glowing band across the sky. Late summer is the best time to go Milky Way spotting in Bowland, as the galactic plane of our galaxy stretches across the sky and overhead. Look out for the large group of stars high in the sky called the Summer Triangle. The Milky Way runs right through this, easy to see pattern of stars.
There are several areas within the AONB that are designated Dark Sky Discovery Sites, which means that steps have been taken to protect the night skies from light pollution within these areas, such as fitting dark sky friendly lighting to buildings, as an example.
Beacon Fell Country Park, Slaidburn Village Car Park, Crook o’ Lune Picnic Site and Gisburn Forest Hub are all Dark Sky Discovery Sites within Bowland. All of these sites have easy access and great views of the sky.
My advice for anyone wishing to travel to the Forest of Bowland, or anywhere dark and remote, is to go with a friend or arrange a group. The last thing you want to do is trip over in the dark, potentially hurting yourself and having nobody around to help. The most important thing I did which really helped me learn the night sky was to join a local astronomy society, and that was Blackpool & District Astronomical Society.
The society holds regular star parties, of which are attended by a number of seasoned astronomers who are always willing to help newcomers to the hobby. It was by attending many of these star parties that I slowly began to learn how to connect the stars and learn how everything moved through the night sky. Now I run my own astronomy photography workshops up and down the country, as well as presenting talks to various astronomy and photography societies.
I have compiled a list of hints & tips to help you with your stargazing.
- Let your eyes adapt to the darkness by avoiding looking at lights for about 15 minutes. This will enable your pupils to open up more, and as such gather more light and enable you to see many more stars.
- Avoid looking at your phone whilst stargazing, or at least turn the brightness right down. Astronomy apps such as Stellarium have a red screen feature, which you should use to help keep your night vision
- Try to avoid a bright moon if you want to see faint objects, such as the Milky Way, distant galaxies & nebulas. The glare of a bright moon drowns out all but the brightest stars. Time your stargazing for a moonless night, which will enable you to see many more stars and possibly the Milky Way
- Use a red light instead of a white light torch. Red light options are now widely available on head torches.
- You can pretty much see the Milky Way all year, but the best time is late summer into early autumn, from August to October when it rises high in the evening sky. It looks amazing overhead with the brightness from star clouds looking like clumps of cotton wool in the night sky. The bright central core region of our galaxy skirts the southern horizon during this time. You may be able to spot the Milky Way in mid summer, but twilight affects the night sky from May to July, so it can be tricky.
- Try to orientate yourself by finding the North Star, Polaris. You can find it by using the two pointer stars on The bowl of the Plough asterism, which is always visible somewhere in the night sky (see image). Once you have done this a few times it will become easy to locate Polaris. The Plough appears in different parts of the sky at different times, but these two stars will always point towards Polaris.
- Eyeballs are best for general stargazing, but if you want to see a bit further, a set of compact binoculars would be ideal. Look for a pair of binoculars which have a fairly low magnification such as 7-10×50.
- If you want to try to photograph the night sky you can do that in a variety of ways. A digital SLR camera is the most popular type to use for astrophotography, but compact cameras using the Micro 4/3rds system are more than capable. Even modern mobile phones are now able to do long exposures, enabling you to create star trail images. Make sure to use a tripod and a remote shutter release.
- Timing is important for seeing what you want to see. As a general rule, late summer is best to see the Milky Way, but if you are in Bowland in mid Winter you will see the magnificent constellation of Orion, with it’s famous belt of three stars and the Orion Nebula which sits just underneath. You may even be lucky enough to see the diffuse star clouds of the Winter Milky Way which runs right across the top of Orion. The Winter Milky Way is a very spectacular sight, but fainter and less structured than in the summer, so you need ideal conditions to see it.
- There are several excellent astronomy apps to help guide you through the night sky. The main one I use is Stellarium, but there are many others available such as Photo Pills, Sky Safari and Star Walk. Make sure if you use an app that you don’t rely on it too much as this will hinder your ability to learn the night sky. Use the app to find a constellation, or other object, then look at the subject with your eyes. You can even sketch it out to help you remember it better.
You can follow my astronomy photography channel on YouTube, where I do vlogs, tutorials and reviews.