Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Ulster's best spot for gazing into the heart of the universe

Orion The Hunter
The constellation of Pegasus, named after the winged horse of Greek mythology
Leo the Lion

Go outside and look up into the night sky. Can you see The Milky Way?

There's a good chance you won't – because so much of Northern Ireland's sky is obscured by light pollution.

If you live in Belfast, forget about using a telescope to explore The Milky Way, The Great Rift, The Double Cluster or the Andromeda galaxy – our nearest galactic neighbour.

All you will see is the Moon, possibly the odd planet and a clutch of the brighter constellations such as The Plough or Cassiopeia.

However, while we may not have the deep darkness of the Australian outback, it doesn't mean we have to miss out. This spring Northern Ireland is to get its first Dark Sky site – a place well away from street lighting where people can drink in the glory of the night sky.

In April, Lough Neagh Discovery Centre at Oxford Island will be launched as the first Dark Sky site and there may be more to come, according to Terry Mosel, spokesman for the Irish Astronomers' Association (IAA).

He says you might be able to get a good view of The Milky Way in west Fermanagh or up on the north coast, but most places are near a conurbation where that distinctive orange glow filters upwards and outwards.

The beauty of Oxford Island is that it offers dark skies but is also relatively easy to travel to.

There are three classes of Dark Sky sites: the first is at the level of darkness of the Australian outback, and can't be found anywhere across Europe.

Oxford Island would be at the third level, and only three places in the UK are categorised at the second level.

"You can see The Milky Way at Oxford Island, which most people in Northern Ireland don't see," Terry said.

It's also a good way to see other galaxies such as the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest neighbour and home to 200 million stars.

"It's a chance to see the glories of the night sky," Terry says.

The IAA is also looking at setting up more Dark Sky sites across Northern Ireland which may include the prehistoric Beaghmore stone circle in the Sperrins, but that will take discussions with landowners and the local council.

BACKGROUND

From a city centre location we might see about 100 stars with the naked eye. Under a really dark sky we can see over 1,000 stars and our own galaxy, The Milky Way, stretching across the sky. The International Dark Sky Association officially recognises large areas in countries around the world as Dark Sky places for their low levels of light pollution and good public access, including Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park and Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve in the UK. The Dark Sky Discovery Partnership's growing network of sites pinpoints the best spots in the UK to see the night sky.

Your chance to observe Jupiter and the Moon in vivid detail

Tonight is your chance to get a closer look at the Moon – and the planet Jupiter.

Queen's University is inviting members of the public to use powerful telescopes to look at two of the biggest objects in the night sky. In association with the BBC, as part of Stargazing Live 2014, the free event takes place from 6pm to 9pm in front of Queen's landmark Lanyon building.

Professional astrophysicists from Queen's and amateur astronomers from the Irish Astronomical Association will be on hand to help locate the planets and explain what is being seen.

Visitors can view huge craters and mountain ranges on the Moon. As Jupiter rises, participants can gaze at the clouds of a planet 11 times the diameter of the Earth and 318 times as massive. Also visible will be two of Jupiter's four largest moons – Europa and Callisto.

Dr Chris Watson, lecturer in extrasolar planets and low mass stars at Queen's, said: "Even though Jupiter will be almost 400 million miles away at the time, this enigmatic gas giant is so large that we will still be able to clearly see clouds in its atmosphere, along with its two largest moons."

If inclement weather leads to the event being cancelled, a public lecture will be held instead by world-leading astronomer, Professor Alan Fitzsimmons from Queen's Astrophysics Research Centre.

He will give a talk about the Northern Lights at 7pm in the Larmor Lecture Theatre at Queen's.

There is no entry fee for the Moon and Jupiter watch. If the talk by Prof Fitzsimmons takes place, seats will be limited and people must register in advance at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1Fa0DeYIjHJ2QRJjQbjUkpvLLNV8SR0g6M5yJen9gSIg/viewform

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