Need some space? Stargazing tips from Norfolk astronomer Mark Thompson

BBC crew and Norfolk Astronomer Mark Thompson, pictured, prepare for Stargazing Live 2014 at Kelling

Norfolk Astronomer Mark Thompson, pictured, preparing for Stargazing Live 2014 at Kelling Heath Holiday Park. - Credit: Antony Kelly

The long winter nights can be hard, and even harder in a lockdown, so why not utilise them?

Peace and reflection are what we can all do with at the moment, and stargazing could be the perfect remedy. 

Norfolk-based astronomy broadcaster and author Mark Thompson, co-presenter of BBC Stargazing Live, is the ideal person to give us a crash-course in studying the night sky.

Hindringham Hall with star trails. 

Hindringham Hall with star trails. - Credit: Colin lewis

"In the middle of summer, it doesn't get properly dark, the sun is still below the horizon, but it is quite close to the horizon.

"So you are getting much more time to look at the night sky in the winter, whilst also tending to get clearer, crisper sky. The warm muggy evenings in the summer have a dampness in the air, which has a big impact on what you can see.


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"The Plough is one of the easiest things to find. It is part of the larger constellation Ursa Major. It is the saucepan with the big handle and you can always see it - it is one of a group of stars which are always above the horizon.

Wells-next-the-Sea view of the night sky.

Wells-next-the-Sea view of the night sky. - Credit: Alex Lyons

"In the winter, you can see Orion, which rises in the east and then can be seen in the west.

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"If you find Orion, it has three stars which make up its belt. Orion represents a hunter in the sky, and just below its belt, there is a fuzzy blob, where stars are being formed, called a stellar nursery.

"You can see Mars: if you look south, around 9 o'clock, you will be able to see a red star for the next few weeks. You don't need any telescopes or binoculars, you can see that just using your eyes.

"The constellations can be quite hard to find, but you can download apps which help you to find your way around the sky, which have GPS in them. You simply hold them up to the sky and they show you what you are looking at." 

Mr Thompson said our eyes take up to an hour to adjust to the darkness, seeing more and more in the night sky.

Due to this, Mr Thompson suggested setting your phone to night mode or red light, allowing your eyes to stay adjusted.

If you cannot quite get your head around the fact that what you are looking at is not actually there anymore, Mr Thompson said to think of it like this: "If you were stood a light year away from me right now and I took a selfie, wrapped it up in a marble and rolled the marble towards you, by the time it gets to you, that selfie is a year old and I have aged." 

The Milky Way above Happisburgh lighthouse. 

The Milky Way above Happisburgh lighthouse. - Credit: Alex Lyons

For those in town and city centres, you are not missing out. The main obstacle is buildings, so as long as you get up high for a vista, you will still be able to see things.

Out in the fresh, silent air at night, can be a sort of meditation.

Mr Thompson said the movement of the universe around us gave perspective.

He said: "The tiny speck of dust which is the Earth, which is our home, is going through a bit of a tough time at the moment, but when you consider the scale of the universe, things come and things go, and it gives us a sense of reality.

"Seeing the regular rise of the sun, the moon and the stars gives me a sense of peace, that things are still carrying on as normal."

Mark Thompson will be doing more lockdown astronomy sessions via Twitter, guiding you through the night sky in real time as he tweets. Follow @Astronomer_Mark and keep an eye on #FamilyStargazeWithMark.

So, don your coat, blanket and thick socks, pick up your flask (to go with your space-related chocolate bars of course), and relax, whilst you watch the world turn, round and round and round...

Thought I'd brave the cold and make the most of a clear (ish) night. (17/12/20)Little Snoring Chur

Little Snoring Church with 20 minutes of star trail. - Credit: Colin Lewis

Blakeney at night.

Blakeney at night. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Matthew Dartford


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