On a clear night, the dark night skies above Cranborne Chase AONB offer you a unique view of galaxies millions of light years away. That means that the light you see was created when humans were only just evolving. This guide will help you to organise a fun-filled star party, whether it’s just for your family or for your whole community.
Even though we can say that we are in one of the darkest places in England, light pollution from surrounding towns can have an impact. Locations with a lot of nearby outdoor lighting can also spoil your view of the night sky. However, you shouldn’t have to travel far to find a place to hold your party. Many people are happy to turn off their lights for a few hours, even the council. It is worth asking, as this can lead to a transformed view and it will mean that you are much more likely to see the Milky Way.
Try and find a flat, open space with a good view of the night sky. Remember that some of the best objects might be closer to the horizon.
Finally try and pick a date when the moon is at its smallest as its brightness drowns out many stars - unless of course you would like to observe our closest celestial body.
Your eyes are the most essential tool you have. They are free to use and on a clear night you will be able to see at least 3,000 objects - which isn’t bad. Try and take a comfortable chair that leans back, or a bean bag, so that you can gaze for long periods without straining your neck. It will take at least 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, so avoid staring into a car headlight or using your mobile phone. Red light is fine to find your way about, so you will need to ensure that you use a bike lamp or a torch with a red sweet wrapper placed over the top.
Good quality binoculars can also give you a deeper insight into the night sky, revealing many stunning objects. Even a moderate form of power (ie, 7×50) reveals seven times as much information as the naked eye can see, plus you will be able to explore the surface of the moon and the moons of Saturn.
The most common complaint, and the thing that puts most people off stargazing, is getting cold. It is easy to underestimate how cold it can be, even in the summer, when standing still at night. Take lots of layers, including a hat and scarf, plus several blankets. Layers can always be taken off and it will make a massive difference to your enjoyment of the night.
Hot drinks and good snacks are also a vital part of the experience. Check out our website page 'Stargazing essentials’ for a fuller guide.
Starting out in astronomy can be tough. With thousands of objects above you where do you start? Once you have got to know one or two key constellations, however, such as Orion, you can learn how they point to others and thereby build up your own road map of the night sky. Star charts really help and be downloaded from our dark sky guide. Planispheres are also brilliant, allowing you to accurately line up the date, month and time to what you can see. You can either make your own or buy them ready made.
There are also a number of mobile apps available, with Stellarium regarded as one of the best. However, be careful not to ruin your night vision. Look for apps which have a night mode which displays the sky in red light. Using this you can identify objects, such as the Space Station and other satellites, as well as your favourite celestial bodies.
On any clear night you are sure to be wowed by the night sky, but theming your party around a meteor shower is popular. The best-known ones are the Perseids in August, the Orionids in October and the Geminids in December. At peak times and in optimum conditions, tens to hundreds can be seen each hour. There are many websites and apps which provide information on meteor showers, including: Time and date website, Meteor Shower Calendar. Here is a list of the best ones in the UK:
|Meteor shower||Approximate peak|
|Quadrantids||December 27-January 12|
|Eta Aquarids||May 5-6|
It is always fun being out at night, but with bags, spare clothing, equipment and low levels of lighting, accidents can happen. As a rule make sure you have as much red lighting as you can and ensure that you are safely parked and away from moving vehicles.
In our Dark Sky Guide there is a list of good places to stargaze, but feel free to choose your own. If you aren't planning to look at the night sky on your own land always seek permission from the landowner first.
We have teamed up with the Wessex Astronomical Society to put on events. There have among their ranks numerous fantastic and enthusiastic astronomers who can bring along telescopes, a mobile planetarium and give talks suitable for all ages.
We would love you to tell us how you got on and share your stories with us.