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Stargazing in September: Viewing the universe in all its splendour

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It was a sultry August weekend in 1988, however the participants at a specially convened conference in Washington, DC, weren’t hot under the collar concerning the weather. They were determined to take motion against three serious threats to astronomy.

One problem was the quantity of junk accumulating in orbit across the Earth: every thing from defunct satellites to an astronaut’s glove. This space debris was a danger to latest missions, including the Space Shuttle and the forthcoming International Space Station.

A second strand had a powerful resonance with me personally, as my very own research had relied on sensitive radio telescopes. Radio communications were booming, and these powerful transmissions were drowning out the faint whispers of radio waves coming from distant galaxies and quasars.

However it was the third threat that hit the headlines, each then and ever since: light pollution. The uncontrolled spread of night-time lighting was illuminating the sky and stopping each skilled astronomers and casual stargazers from viewing the Universe in all its splendour.

American astronomer Dave Crawford led the campaign. Based on the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Arizona, he and his colleagues were viewing an evening sky that was aglow with stray light from nearby Tucson. Crawford founded the International Dark-Sky Association and rallied astronomers from world wide.

Inspired by the Washington meeting and by Crawford’s eloquence, British astronomers selected the fight against light pollution as our campaign for a National Astronomy Week in 1990, raising awareness within the UK for the primary time through articles, broadcasts and a petition led by the astronomer royal.

Our theme was “light pollution is the one sort of pollution that costs nothing to clear up.” The truth is, tackling light pollution saves money, because it reduces the quantity of electricity we use. Recently, the International Dark-Sky Association has calculated that the USA wastes $2bn a 12 months lighting up the sky; and researchers this side of the Atlantic have provide you with the same figure for Europe.

Environmentally, cutting light pollution is sensible too, not only by reducing the emission of carbon dioxide from power stations, but in addition because light pollution disrupts the lives of birds, bats, turtles and most other nocturnal species.

Britain’s Commission for Dark Skies carries on the campaign within the UK, and lots of local authorities across the country have gotten the message and are actually controlling outdoor lighting. They’ve arrange designated areas where lighting is restricted and dark skies are being preserved.

These are all approved by the International Dark-Sky Association, and fall into different categories. Dark sky reserves are large regions protected against light pollution, with a really dark core. Of 20 International Dark Sky Reserves worldwide, eight are positioned in these islands, starting from Kerry to Snowdonia and the South Downs.

Amongst our 4 International Dark Sky Communities, Sark stands out: this small member of the Channel Islands bans public lighting and all motorcars aside from tractors. And we’ve got eight medium-sized International Dark Sky Parks. They’re scattered from Land’s End to the Cairngorms, where the Tomintoul and Glenlivet Dark Sky Park encompasses the Glenlivet distillery – convenient for those cloudy nights!

What’s up

You may’t miss Jupiter this month, blazing all night long much more brilliantly than anything within the night sky bar the moon. The enormous planet is at its closest to the Earth on 26 September, and opposite the sun within the sky. Grab a pair of binoculars to view Jupiter’s 4 largest moons, continually changing their positions night by night as they orbit their parent world.

Above Jupiter lies a big square of stars, depicting the flying horse Pegasus, and better still the brilliant stars Deneb and Vega. Over to the north, look out for the W-shape of the constellation Cassiopeia.

The night sky at around 11pm this month

(Nigel Henbest)

The intense “star” well to the correct of Jupiter, and concerning the same height above the horizon, is the following world from the sun. Saturn is 20 times fainter than Jupiter, but still distinguished because it currently lies in a region of faint stars.

Each these gas giant planets are a treat if you see them in a small telescope. In addition to Jupiter’s major moons, you’ll be able to make out the stripy clouds within the planet’s atmosphere and the Great Red Spot, an enormous storm which will have been blowing for 300 years. Turn to Saturn for an unforgettable view of its magnificent rings.

I don’t normally mention the opposite two giants of the solar system on this column, as they’re faint and hard to see, but 14 September is a golden opportunity to identify the seventh planet, Uranus, when the moon moves right in front of it. Uranus is just visible to the naked eye, but with the moon’s glare you’ll need binoculars to discern the faint world. Keep watch throughout the evening, and also you’ll see Uranus disappear behind the moon at around 10.27pm (the precise time will depend on your location) and reappear at about 11.20pm.

Essentially the most distant giant planet, Neptune, lies opposite the sun on 16 September, but you’ll need suitable software to locate the planet and binoculars or a telescope to see it.

Still on the planetary front, Mars is rising around 10pm within the northeast, while Venus appears after 5.30am as the fantastic morning star.

Diary

3 September, 7.08pm: first quarter moon near Antares

8 September: moon near Saturn

10 September, 10.59am: full moon

11 September: moon near Jupiter

14 September: moon occults Uranus

15 September, before dawn: moon near the Pleiades

16 September: Neptune opposition; moon near Mars and Aldebaran

17 September, 10.52pm: last quarter moon

23 September, 2.04am: autumn Equinox

25 September, 10.54pm: latest moon

26 September: Jupiter at opposition

30 September: moon near Antares

Nigel Henbest is a passionate opponent of sunshine pollution. A founder member of the International Dark-Sky Association and Chairman of National Astronomy Week 1990, his latest book – ‘Philip’s 2023 Stargazing’ (Philip’s £6.99) – details all of the dark sky locations in Great Britain and Ireland.

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