January to March
The combined light from all the stars in our Galaxy combine to give us this stunning view that never ceases to humble me. I was lucky enough to enjoy a view like this from a boat on the English Channel when filming for this year's Stargazing Live show. Not only was the Milky Way visible, but so too was Venus, Jupiter and a multitude of glittering stars. Fortunately, you do not need to go to places as remote as the English Channel to get such wonderful views of the heavens.
One of my favourite observing locations is the Kelling Heath Holiday Park in North Norfolk. The site is big on being environmentally friendly but they do not just talk the talk, they most definitely walk the walk too. Thankfully for us astronomers, it is not just the wildlife they are trying to protect, but also the natural beauty of the night sky. They have a very carefully considered lighting scheme that is sufficient for people's safety but does not intrude on the view of the heavens.
In March each year, they go even further as they play hosts to the nationally acclaimed Kelling Heath Spring Star Party where astronomers from around the country gather over one weekend to enjoy everything that sparkles and shines in the night sky. This year the star party takes place over the weekend Thursday 27th to Monday 31st March. During the weekend, hundreds of amateur astronomers will arrive bringing not just the usual tents and caravans but telescopes by the hundreds will suddenly appear. Wander around the site at the dead of night and you will not be greeted by the usual sounds of nature disturbed by the odd snore, but instead you can expect to hear beeps and whirrs as motors move telescopes to carefully survey the skies. You will hear the banter and friendly chatter as old friends and new get together to discuss one common interest, the beauty of the Universe.
Star party goers this year can expect to marvel at sights of the winter stars as they drop low in the west while the stars of the spring skies start to rise up in the east. Orion, Taurus, Gemini and Leo are just a few of the beautiful constellations that will be seen.
It is not just the stars that are putting on a show this year though as three planets are nicely placed for observation over the coming months. Jupiter is very easy to spot as it is the brightest object in the evening sky, you can find it to the south just to the upper left of Orion the Hunter. Look to the east around 11pm and you will see a bright blue white star rising. This is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo and is known as Spica and to the north of it you will see a red star. That star is actually the planet Mars and turning even a small telescope to it will reveal a tiny red disk. Larger telescopes will reveal its white polar caps and even dark patches on the surface.
A couple of hours later and the most spectacular planet puts in an appearances rising in the east, Saturn. It is easy enough to spot in the early morning sky and is another bright object but if you are having trouble spotting it, it lies between Mars and the bright orange/red star Antares in Scorpius. Even through a bird watching scope you cannot fail to be impressed by the beautiful sight of the rings of what is without doubt, one of the most stunning sights in the night sky.
I have been to many star parties over the years but for me, the Kelling Heath events are the ones to make an extra special effort to get to. Not only are the staff very helpful but they go to extra efforts to get rid of light stray in the observing fields making for a fantastic dark field experience. If clear skies are with us this year, then it should be a very memorable event.