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Jo Stewart Smith enjoys an evening star gazing on Exmoor

By This is NorthDevon  |  Posted: April 02, 2009

  • INTO THE DARK: The night sky at Haddon Hill. Picture: David Brabban

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AS I step cautiously into the darkness at the side of the pub, Julie Buckingham, a member of the North Devon Astronomical Society guides me to the huge telescope.

"Would you like to see Saturn?" At least I know which end to look through, I think! But I have to climb a step (difficult in the dark) and look through the side. And then "Wow" I almost fall off the stool in excitement.

I usually know something about the subjects I cover, but in astronomy, I've never gone beyond gazing in wonder at the stars.

My dad taught me the shapes or constellations. I know the easy ones — Cassiopeia the W, the Plough or saucepan and Orion with his belt. And I've enjoyed pointing them out to my kids. So on the way to the Blue Ball pub at Countisbury and the first event set up by Exmoor National Park to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, I ask the kids what they know.

Daughter Holly pipes up: "One side of the Plough leads in a straight line to the North Star — the brightest star."

A little knowledge is dangerous they say, so I won't reveal more for fear of muddling you. Holly came the closest, but on virtually every question we asked ourselves — it turned out we were wrong.

I almost fell off the stool in excitement because Saturn really does look like a planet, just like those rice paper 'flying saucer' sweets. It even has rings, although tonight we are looking edge on, so they stick out of its side like arms.

For the first time, I've seen Saturn with my own eyes (with a bit of help from the telescope). But once you know where it is, (under Leo's tail this month) you can find it with the naked eye and see the rings through a good pair of binoculars.

It takes an event like this to lift the scales from my eyes, because Saturn, our second largest planet has probably been there for all to see, well, since there were people. And as many of you may know, Saturn is the only planet whose rings can be seen clearly from earth. The rings are made up of zillions of particles of ice and dust, orbiting it, like the earth orbits the sun.

Clouds come and go, taunting us, then a shout goes up as another astronomer finds Orion's Nebula. By Orion's sword arm is a cloudy smudge on the sky, just visible to the naked eye. Through the telescope it's a scattering of tiny pinpricks of light. We are witnessing the birth of new stars.

As it's cloudy, we head in for a presentation and a drink. Of many facts about Saturn, two stick in my mind. Saturn is so huge it would span the distance between the earth and the moon. And 2009 was chosen as the International Year Of Astronomy to celebrate 400 years since Galileo first looked through his telescope. Incredibly, Galileo also found Saturn's rings — though he wasn't much better than me, to him they looked like ears.

We're given the choice of more talks or more stargazing.

We're all bitten by the bug now, we want to see more tantalising deep sky objects. Apparently these include everything outside our solar system. The skies have miraculously cleared and our guides, like magicians, reveal the Seven Sisters, the Beehive cluster and throw a couple of galaxies into the mix. I'd probably believe whatever they told me.

As Emma Dennis from Exmoor National Park explains: "We're incredibly lucky in North Devon to be able to find dark skies. On a satellite map of light pollution in the UK, Exmoor clearly stands out as a black hole."

She's been lent a special camera with a fish-eye lens to survey the night sky as part of an awareness campaign. The park hopes to achieve international dark sky status. This recognition of how good Exmoor really is, will help tourist outlets that want to market dark sky holidays and anyone keen to keep light pollution at bay.

As Emma covers an intrusive night-light, she adds we can all help with little things: "Like fixing security lamps so the light spills down where it's needed, rather than up into the sky."

And it's not just Exmoor. The society has two permanent telescopes, one at West Buckland school, the other at Burrington. Out where I live, between the moors, lying on the trampoline, seeing who can spot the most shooting stars is a favourite summer pastime.

A month or so ago, we kept seeing a brilliant light low in the sky, visible before the other stars. A space station — so the word went around. Wrong again. This was Venus. The space station tracks across the horizon in a straight line like a satellite, within 10 minutes.

As the evening draws to a close, I joke that in the short time we've been there Orion has inconsiderately moved. Yet of course it's the earth that's moving.

As a reward for my persistent questions, I'm treated to a magical tour of the stars. Using a green laser pointer, which can penetrate the depths, an astronomer can take you flying around the sky, like Aladdin on his carpet, drawing the pattern of the stars, as they revolve around the North or Pole star.

Holly was right, one edge of the Plough does point to the North Star. But Sirius the Dog Star, is the brightest.

I'm determined to learn one more constellation. Stuart Bartlett, my guide suggests Leo. His laser outlines the sickle-shaped head and shoulders, then the lion's haunches. I resolve to find Leo again tomorrow night.

I encourage you to go to one of the many events celebrating the International Year of Astronomy — lift the scales from your eyes and get at least one fact right to pass on to your children or friends.

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