The Ranger was privileged to get an invitation to a special party on the Isle of Wight this weekend. Astronomy enthusiasts from across the south-east of England know that the south-west part of the Isle of Wight has some of the darkest skies in the region – and because of the nice weather it also has the advantage of a good chance of a clear sky.
Brighstone holiday camp on the south-west coast has a great outlook over the unlit English Channel, and the bulk of the downs to prevent the light from the mainland leaking over. It really is pretty dark down there so I was delighted when Dr Lucy Rogers of the Vectis Astronomical Society used Twitter to invite me to come and see this important part of the Island’s natural resource for myself. This was no public meeting either, a star party is where the astronomers are on their own territory – so as a neophyte I was lucky to get such a well-qualified guide to introduce me to this extraordinary event. I brought along as companions Cat and the junior Rangers Bill and Jack, all of whom like me were intrigued to find out what it was about. We’d had strict instructions about how to arrive without our headlights shining over the fields, and when we did roll up we were amazed to see the whole holiday camp was in darkness, except for a very few dim red lights scattered about. As our eyes adapted we realised that there were many dozens, if not hundreds of people there, with a huge variety of astronomical equipment pointed up at the sky. Astronomers obviously learn soon enough the etiquette of social interaction in near-darkness, and the vital importance of not tripping over guy-ropes and tripod stands. We were in sore need of such instruction, so luckily our hosts soon came over and explained how it all worked: then an amazing tour began. It’s hard to describe the excitement and mystery of a star party. Doubtless seasoned astronomers take it all in their stride but to me there was a delightful element of the theatrical in this twilight world. Having not seen the site or met the people in daylight, we had no idea what or who to expect. Dr Lucy and her partner #Stephen proved to be the ideal guides – we felt very privileged to be given the VIP treatment as we were taken round to meet the astronomers set up around the camp, and picked up a few other Twitter-based visitors as we circulated. We also got some top-class astronomical coaching from talented science writer Dr Lucy who had an uncanny ability to enthral her little audience without even being able to see them. Several times we had to be called away from some exposition of hers for the inconvenience of actually looking through a telescope to see the real thing. At the risk of starting the sentence with “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” I saw with my own eyes the glowing dust clouds in the Orion nebula, four moons of Saturn around their beringed parent, the arc of the Milky Way and much more.
Later on we visited the ‘imagers’ – astronomers who use long exposures and careful tracking to take pictures of things the eye cannot see, such as the massive pinky-red Rosette nebula and the three galaxies in the constellation Leo known as the Leo Triplet – the very image we saw being created by imager Richie Jarvis is at the top of the page. Eventually the younger members of the party began to succumb to the cold, and maybe the thought of a cosy bed; so we had to reluctantly drag ourselves away. As we picked our way carefully through the darkened camp young Jack – who within 5 minutes would be sound asleep in the warm car – was still talking excitedly about Saturn. ‘That was the most amazing thing I have ever seen!!’ he said, without hyperbole. We older ones were too cool to speak so plainly – but he was right. Here’s an entire arena of the natural world that can rival any biodiversity for the ‘wow’ factor – and as ever, the best place to see it is right here on the Isle of Wight.