Dark Skies, Stargazing and Storytelling – Guest Blog

Below is a guest post, co-written with Soo Hammond of Top of The Woods, an eco luxury camping and glamping site in West Wales, where I run storytelling and astronomy evenings. This post was originally published on Top of the Woods’ website.

Dr Alice Courvoisier runs the Top of the Woods – Dark Sky Safari where she shares her life-long passion for the ancestral stories of the stars and the modern scientific discoveries the stars have inspired with our camping and glamping guests.

Pembrokeshire is one of the best stargazing places across the UK and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park boasts eight nationally recognised ‘Dark Sky Discovery Sites’.

At Top of the Woods campsite, there is low light pollution and you will on a clear night have the best chance to see and explore the dark skies for star constellations, the Milky Way or maybe something else!

Top of the Woods has also been named the best campsite for stargazing and one of the UK’s most loved campsites on the internet based on research by Just Kampers.

Camping under the stars. Top of the Woods image.

The Galaxy, stars and storytelling.

All the individual stars you can see at night belong to our galaxy.

When you look at them, you might be tempted to join the dots and form patterns and shapes. Various cultures have done exactly this and have populated the sky with stories of animals, people, and objects.

Most of the groups of stars, or constellations, we inherited in the West come from Ancient Greece. For example, if you look towards the southern horizon after sunset in the winter, you will see Orion the Hunter followed by his loyal dogs.

Orion the Hunter and his dogs. Image Copyright Bob Moler.

The constellation of Orion is recognisable by the three bright stars of his belt framed by a large rectangular shape. At the top left corner is the red supergiant Betelgeuse and at the bottom right is the blue-white supergiant Rigel. Stars do have different colours depending on their surface temperature.

One of Orion’s dog is the constellation of the Great Dog. It contains the brightest star of the night sky, Sirius, which lies 8.6 light-years away (so the light it emits takes over 8 years to reach us) and is a close companion of our Sun.

Can you find Orion in this picture ? A little clue, see if you can spot Orion’s belt!

The constellation of Orion. Image credit: Akira Fuji.

The constellations that we can see at sunset from a particular location depend on the season, and stars have been used as time keepers and seasonal markers. The Ancient Egyptians for example based their agricultural and ceremonial calendar on the yearly motion of Sirius in the sky.

Summer skies – The Milky Way

In the UK’s summer evening skies, we do not see Sirius nor Orion, but we get the best views of the Milky Way, the ribbon of light that stretches across the sky.

The Milky Way over Pentre Ifan, ancient burial chamber in North Pembrokeshire. Visit Pembrokeshire, Image Copyright

The Chinese call it ‘the Great River in the Sky’, but for the Greek, it represents the spilled milk of the goddess Hera. Down it flies the beautiful constellation of Cygnus, ‘the Swan’. Another Ancient Greek legend says it was Zeus the God of the Sky who disguised himself as flying swan, to win over the love of Leda, the Queen of Sparta and mother to Helen who sparked the Trojan War.

Artist’s conception of what Cygnus’ figure looks like, against the backdrop of stars that make up the constellation. Image Credit: Wendy Stenzel (first published on NASA Kepler website).

Some constellations are visible throughout the night and throughout the year, such as the Plough (part of the Great Bear) and the Little Bear at UK latitudes.

These constellations are close to the North Celestial Pole located by the North Star at the tip of the Little Bear’s tail. Using these stars for navigation, you can always find your bearings on a clear night.

Free to use, Image Copyright

Not just stars out there to see when you are camping!

Of course, there are other objects to be seen: planets; deep sky objects such as Andromeda’s galaxy (best viewed through binoculars); many star clusters; artificial satellites criss-crossing the sky; and, who knows, perhaps the occasional UFO.

The Moon could be there, ever changing and ever stunning, but its shine overpowers the light of many stars, so for stargazing, times when the moon is waning or in the few days following the New Moon are best.

Then in mid-August come the shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower, a treat to watch and an experience not to be missed!

Top of the Woods, Image Copyright

If you want to see the best stargazing and why everyone is talking about Top of the Woods, why not come and stay this year! – check out our availability here.

Don’t forget to book your Dark Sky Safari with Alice & let her share her love of the stars with you.

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