Winter and its run-up, with its colder, crisp, dark nights which draw in earlier, is many a stargazer’s favourite season.
Astronomy enthusiast Robert Lenfert from Stonehaven, whose preferred star-spotting location is the Cairngorms, describes winter as “observing season” because the darkness gives us so much time to enjoy this magical pastime and to get familiar with the skies above us.
“The air is so much colder and less humid in winter,” he says. “And that increases transparency. When you’re looking at the sky it’s like looking through the earth’s atmosphere as if you were looking through a stream or river; you want it to be settled and clear, which is more likely in winter.”
This year the skies are particularly exciting, with this month (October) and beyond due to play host to certain ‘star shows’ such as the Orionid meteor shower, which will peak around the night of 20th/21st. These showers are balls of ice and dust which, when released in a ‘shower’, look spectacular and light up the sky; basically, it’s nature’s answer to fireworks.
Where is the best place to stargaze in the Cairngorms?
Robert’s favourite spot is around the A939 at Crathie, any spot by Glen Muick and the SnowRoads between Braemar and Spittal of Glenshee. He will often head up there in his van or car and “stay up all night looking at the stars until I crash out”. “You’d be amazed how quickly time goes by,” he says.
The nearby Tomintoul and Glenlivet area of the Cairngorms National Park has been awarded the prestigious ‘International Dark Sky Status’, so is one of the best places in the whole of the UK to star gaze.
For more suggestions of where to star spot in the Cairngorms, see this blog: Top tips for spotting the Northern Lights in the Cairngorms
What should you look out for stargazing in the Cairngorms?
As well as the Orionid (mentioned above) which is due to light up our skies at the end of October, look out for one of the regular winter showers of meteors “The Geminid” which will peak around 13th December, while the “Quadrantids” peak on January 2nd.
Robert particularly loves spotting ‘nebula’ and other galaxies. Nebulas are clouds of ionised dust in space that produce a glow.
The skies are so dark in the Cairngorms that, unlike most other places, you can see nebula just using binoculars. Brighter nebulae like Orion’s Nebula (given the reference M42) or even the Andromeda Galaxy (M33) show up easily under dark skies.
An obvious ‘spot’ especially for the amateur is the Milky Way, which stretches from horizon to horizon and is a blurred band of light made out of clusters of stars. Watch a while and you’re bound to see a shooting star (just remember to make a wish upon it!). Once your eyes have adjusted to the dark, you’ll be able to see some structure within the Milky Way, such as the ‘Great Rift’, which is a band of dust obscuring the stars towards the centre of our galaxy.
As Paul Haworth, amateur astronomer who captured the astronomical phenomenon of a meteor streaking across the sky recently, says, the Cairngorms’ northernly latitude and pristine skies make it a perfect place to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. This is when charged particles from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field to stunning, shimmering, coloured effect causing “dancing curtains of green, red and purple light towards the north”.
As Paul explains, the winter sun is getting more active, which should mean aurorae will be seen more frequently. He recommends using a free app called AuroraWatch, that will tell you when a show of the northern lights is more likely, updated in real time.
What equipment do I need to stargaze in the Cairngorms?
You don’t need a huge telescope to witness these wonders (though as you do more stargazing, you may find yourself buying one!). A great way to start is to buy a pair of binoculars.
The wonderful thing about using binoculars in the Cairngorms, where the skies are so dark, is that they behave like a much larger instrument in these ideal conditions; in urban areas, for example, the view might be six inches, but this rises to as much as 12 inches range in a dark sky. You can also easily use them to spot wildlife and landscapes, with no set up time.
“Because the skies are so dark here in the right spots, even binoculars show a tremendous amount of stars, nebulae and galaxies,” says Robert. “But even simple stargazing with the naked eye is still awe-inspiring. The skies in the Cairngorms are simply some of the best in the UK for stargazing.”
Of course, you can buy equipment to enhance your experience and what you can see, but this then involves carrying quite heavy equipment at times. For instance, Robert uses the 20″ dobsonian telescope, which weighs 75kg and is just over 2m tall. But he recommends the 8″ to 10″ Dobsonian as a much more portable and affordable (£275-£470) ‘starting point’ to take astronomy further. The views through it are “simply jaw-dropping at times”, he says, but the carrying, especially to remote spots, can be back-breaking because his telescope weighs 75kg!
How can I make it even more of an adventure stargazing in the Cairngorms?
If you’re brave enough, and wrap up warm enough, then you could consider winter camping in a remote spot in the Cairngorms, as Robert relishes. One of his favourite spots is next to Loch Muick but, if the stars are shining brightly, don’t expect to get much shut eye!
How can I motivate myself to get out into the cold on a winter night in the Cairngorms to watch the stars?
For Robert, that’s easy to answer. “It’s something very special to be able to see the stars and many of us have lost touch with what a really good night sky should look like,” he says. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to see night skies like in the Cairngorms with rising light pollution so I say if you’ve got the opportunity go, take it now!”
Top Stargazing Tips:
-Wear lots of layers and bring a hot flask
-Don’t look at your phone as this will mess up your night vision
-Use a red torch to preserve night vision
-Download apps such as Skyview, Sky Safari and Stellarium or consider buying a magazine such as Astronomy Now or Sky at Night, which will tell you what to look out for each month
-If you do use apps, then you can get a red filter app for your phone too which helps your night vision
-Pick a crisp, clear night when the moon is not too bright
-Make sure you know where you’re heading in the dark and someone knows where you are
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