The Dark Side of the Downs

The nights are now drawing in, the days are getting colder, which to the South Downs International Dark Skies Reserve (IDSR) can only mean one thing…open season!

Designated in May 2016 by the International Dark Skies Association, the South Downs joins an illustrious family of UK and overseas reserves, parks and communities that protect intrinsic dark skies.st-hubertsBut what are dark skies? Simply seeing stars isn’t enough. For a site to be considered for special protection, you need to be able to see our galaxy of the Milky Way with your naked eyes. Although the entire National Park area is designated as the Reserve, the real dark skies can only be found in a central core in Hampshire and West Sussex that surrounds the towns of Petersfield, Midhurst and Petworth. In this core area, the Milky Way can be clearly seen and will twinkle in front of your eyes. If you managed to get to the right place at the right time, then you can even see galactic scale structures! These include the dark lanes of dust that obstruct our view of the central Milky Way, as well as some fuzzy deep space objects that tantalise the imagination.

This time of year marks the end of the bright summer nights and the setting of the centre of the Milky Way that sits low in the southern sky – an amazing sight. But as winter approaches and the night skies get earlier to view, some of the firm favourites begin to rise.

On a moonless night, just below the easy-to-spot “W” of the constellation of Cassiopeia, lies a little fuzzy, elliptical patch of sky.   If you give your eyes 20 minutes to adjust to the dark, eventually you will see that this little fuzzy patch is in fact the Andromeda Galaxy – our nearest neighbour, containing a trillion stars. Being able to see this galaxy is another indicator of being under dark skies – and there are plenty of spaces throughout the entire National Park that you can see this.

Andromeda galaxy (Steve Futcher)

Andromeda galaxy (Steve Futcher)

Orion Nebula (Simon Downs)

Orion Nebula (Simon Downs)

As we go into the new year, perhaps the best and most familiar constellation is Orion the Hunter. But give yourself a challenge!…instead of concentrating on the whole constellation, take a look towards the sword that dangles rather ominously between the legs. At the tip there is another little fuzzy cloud. However, this isn’t another galaxy, but rather a vast cloud of hydrogen gas called the Great Orion Nebula.

To see these sights, the best places are marked as Dark Sky Discovery Sites, which are easily accessible car parks across the South Downs. Seven are designated at the moment, with more to come, which from west to east are:

  • Intech Science Centre in Winchester
  • Old Winchester Hill
  • Butser Hill
  • Iping and Stedham Common
  • Devil’s Dyke
  • Ditchling Beacon
  • Birling Gap

However, don’t be satisfied with having to go to these sites – get out on the Downs and find your own place to view the night sky. Hill tops are usually good, unless of course they are wooded where the obscured view won’t be so great! Check the Dark Skies map for ideas.

South Downs Dark Sky Reserve - Biosphere section

South Downs Dark Sky Reserve – Biosphere section

Within our Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere region of the South Downs, darker spots can be found in the following places:

  • Truleigh Hill
  • Southwick Hill
  • Devil’s Dyke
  • Ditchling Beacon
  • Mount Caburn
  • Ouse Valley at Rodmell (YHA)

Here are some top tips to help you make the most of stargazing in the South Downs:

  • Check the phase of the moon to plan your trip – stargazing is best before a full moon
  • Take a blanket or mat to lie on
  • Wrap up warm
  • Take some snacks and a hot drink
  • Take a compass or use the one on your smart phone
  • Download a star gazing app to help you identify constellations and stars
  • Allow time for your eyes to adjust – this takes around 20 minutes so turn off any lights, torches and put your mobile phone away!

Lastly, if you want to try your hand at astrophotography then here’s some tips:

  • Use a manual setting with the exposure to 30s with an ISO of 1800
  • Use manual focus and use a tripod and a delayed shutter release.

It’s then just a case of practise, practise, practise, but you can get some easy results by just pointing the camera straight up.

One last vital piece of advice…..don’t forget to wrap up warm!

‘Dark Skies’ Dan Oakley
Lead Ranger, South Downs National Park Authority

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