Move over Brian Cox: A starry night of astronomy under England’s darkest sky
A sparkling visit to the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland which is at the forefront of the astronomy craze.
I am gazing out 1,500 light years away at something that only a handful of people on this planet have ever seen. At least, I would be, if I hadn’t knocked the telescope out of focus. Currently, all I can see is a confusing mass of stars, as though I have just been punched in the face.
With the enthusiasm of a teenage boy, 47-year-old astronomer Gary Fildes climbs a ladder and realigns the 20in telescope.
“There will be three stars at the bottom of the eyepiece,” he says, in a thick Sunderland accent. “If you look at the middle one, there should be a black shape above it – that’s what we’re looking for.”
Still, I see nothing.
“Try looking away from the stars, but still managing to keep them just in your field of view,” he continues patiently.
I strain my eye to the right and suddenly, as if a fly has appeared on the end of the telescope, a smudge appears.
“I can see it, Gary,” I shout.
“Phenomenal, just phenomenal,” he applauds. “That is the Horsehead Nebula. We are really lucky to be seeing it – only 5 per cent of astronomers do.”
“Wow… why is it called the Horsehead?” I ask, emboldened by my discovery.
“Because it looks like a horse’s head,” he says. My shoddy grasp of astronomy saps all the vigour from his voice – and when it comes to the director and founder of the Kielder Observatory, that takes some doing.
The observatory is on a hill overlooking Kielder Forest in Northumberland, near the Scottish border. It stands at 383m, at the end of a steep track and under the darkest skies in England. The Northumberland National Park Authority and Kielder Water Development Trust are launching a bid to the International Dark Sky Association to have 400 square miles of the area protected.
There are currently only 12 designated dark sky reserves in the world, which impose strict rules on light pollution. If successful, Northumberland would become the third largest after Big Bend National Park in Texas and Mont Mégantic in Quebec.
To build on the revival, Sir Andrew Motion, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, is this weekend launching Star Count 2013. By getting members of the public to record the number of stars they can see, organisers of the two-week event – supported by The Daily Telegraph – aim to find out where our light pollution hot spots are. There are now so many of them that it’s estimated that 85 per cent of the UK’s population has never seen a truly dark sky.
Designed by architect Charles Barclay, it looks like a space-age Swedish sauna. Inside is a small room heated by a wood-burning stove, two open-roofed observatories and an observation deck. A group of amateur enthusiasts sit swathed in jackets. Fildes and his volunteers host numerous public observation events here, as well as inviting groups of students with whom he debates quantum physics “until it comes out of his ears”.