It was dark. A cold wind whipped the last of the leaves from the trees. With a torch beam to light our way, my guide led me down a curving gravel path to a shed at the bottom of his garden. Once inside, we hardly heard a sound.
This garden shed is no ordinary storage space for bikes or tools. With a pull on an outside rope the whole roof slides open to reveal innumerable pinpoints of light glistening in the night sky.
My guide, Mike Alexander has studied the stars since 1969 when his early interest was sparked by blurry black and white pictures of the moon landing shown on televisions across the world. A book on astronomy at Christmas 1971 led to further study and a desire to keep learning more.
‘I just had to find out about the stars, the planets and whatever else is up there,’ said Mike.
Now the Galloway Astronomy Centre, run jointly by Mike and his wife Helen, attracts visitors who also want to know more about what is up there. Their cottage can accommodate a small number of paying guests usually on a Bed and Breakfast basis though some guests prefer to arrive in time for dinner as well. ‘We organise everything around our guests’ needs,’’ said Mike.
‘If we have a group of absolute beginners who may not be able to recognise the shape of The Plough in the sky, I’ll happily start there, very slowly. ‘Then I’ll explain the origin of constellations such as Leo the Lion or Aquarius the Water Carrier which are groups of stars that appear as tiny bright dots in the sky alongside umpteen other tiny bright dots. The constellations don’t readily make shapes looking anything like the descriptive names given them by the ancient Greeks so they can be difficult to pick out.
‘Then using the Centre’s telescopes, I can point out other wonders of the night sky such as planets, the craters of the moon, ring of Saturn, or the moons of Jupiter.
‘Looking much further into space our stargazers might be able to see the distant clouds of gas where new stars, perhaps one thousand light years away, are forming at this very moment.
‘We may even be able to pick out other galaxies that are several million light years away!’’
Mike points out that the Galloway Astronomy Centre is unique in Scotland. ‘I don’t just leave our guests to play with a telescope. I’m there with them in the observatory, guiding them across the night sky.’
Like a teacher pointing at a blackboard, Mike uses a laser pen to shine a beam that appears long enough to pick out individual stars. From them he can then trace the shapes of constellations.
Mike readily acknowledges that people who may be interested in observing the night sky often assume they’ll need expensive equipment and especially a large telescope to get started. But that’s not the case.
First of all, prospective stargazers need to get to a place where it’s dark enough to actually see the stars. Then with the naked eye they’ll be able to see millions of heavenly bodies and a few passing satellites. A pair of relatively inexpensive 10x50 or 7x50 binoculars will help even more, along with a good star map.
Not so long ago, our ancestors would have been aware of the night time sky. Today it’s good to know there are still places where we can be amazed by this nightly wonder.
Dark Sky Park
Galloway Forest Park lies a few miles north of the Galloway Astronomy Centre. A number of measurements have been taken there, in different parts of the park, to assess the light pollution, or more accurately, the lack of light pollution.
These measurements prove that certain areas of the park are especially dark and are particularly good for observing the night sky. It’s worth noting that only a few sites in the world have been given this dark sky grading.
As the population of Galloway is small, with most people living in a few largish towns and lots of small villages there’s not overly much light created. So it’s reasonably easy to find areas where the sky is dark. These parts of Galloway are also fairly accessible, unlike other parts of the world where people have to travel a distance to get away from the light sent upwards from buildings, city streets or shop fronts.
For further information: The Galloway Astronomy Centre
Tel: 01988 500594
WWW.Galloway Dark Sky Park