STARRY, STARRY NIGHTS
The Northern Lights are blazing bright, and here’s the perfect spot to explore the galaxy
Put on hold that trip to Iceland or the upper reaches of Norway in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights — because the so-called Aurora Borealis has put on a show this week as far south as Cornwall.
And astronomers are predicting more of the same in the next couple of years as the sun becomes more active.
Even so, you need to pick your spot, and your chances of witnessing this glorious phenomenon are raised significantly if you head for the Northumberland Dark Sky Park — one of biggest parks of protected night sky.
When I checked in for a night of stargazing at the twice Brewed Inn, a hostelry alongside Hadrian’s Wall, near Hexham, the skies were the clearest they had been in two weeks and our guide, astronomer-photographer Wil Cheung, was very excited.
The pub, long frequented in the summer by walkers, has installed a planetarium and acquired the services of Wil.
During my visit, some 30 of us headed for 12 high-powered telescopes a ten-minute walk away. We glimpsed the rare comet, the one-kilometre-wide E3 (ZtF), 26 million miles away, which had not been seen for 50,000 years and would never return to Earth’s orbit again. And we saw Jupiter setting with three of its 92 moons; the Orion nebula; Sirius, the brightest star in the galaxy; and the beautiful Andromeda Galaxy, a mere two-and-a-half million light years away, with its 1,000 billion stars. As an unexpected treat there were three shooting stars.
Later, at the planetarium, we had a 30- minute screening which revealed details of our global space exploration (narrated by Rupert Grint, of Harry Potter fame).
Wil, who was inspired at the age of seven by watching Sir Patrick Moore enthuse about the galaxy on TV, aims to imbue people with a love of the universe. ‘I hope tonight is the start of your stargazing journey,’ he said.
We didn’t actually see the Northern Lights that night but we learned a lot about them. An aurora is formed by a solar flare erupting on the Sun, sending charged particles towards Earth which interact with our atmosphere to produce the stunning green and red colours that some have been lucky to see this week. Later, over a couple of cognacs, my friend Victoria and I joined another couple to reflect on all we had seen. ‘ this has been on my bucket list for years,’ said Helen, from Leeds. ‘I’m so grateful I finally made it here. the night has been incredible. to see not only the comet but three shooting stars. I’m keen to do it all again.’ the inn itself is rustic, with unimpeded views over the gently rolling countryside. And the staff are almost as enthusiastic about the stargazing as Wil Cheung. ‘ It’s added a special dimension to the place,’ the barman told me. ‘And it’s really popular.’
I can believe that. ‘Does anyone suddenly feel very small?’ A good question Wil had asked us at the end of the evening. the vastness of the night sky can make you feel very tiny indeed — and that’s no bad thing.