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Dark sky stargazing

There are few better places than your local canal to find a clear view of the dark skies above. That’s why in November, we held our very first ‘Let’s Stargaze!’ event at the top of Foxton Locks.

Looking at the Milky Way at night from the canal, along the Foxton Locks.

Far away from the light pollution of the city, in deepest, darkest Leicestershire, Waterfront braved the cold weather to meet space experts, astronomers and photographers alongside almost 200 keen stargazers eager to learn more about how to read the skies. As dusk fell over the country lanes leading up to the locks, the signs weren’t looking good. Storm Debi was bringing in yet another wave of rain. But miraculously, the strong winds parted the clouds just as we reached the Foxton Locks, revealing a sky heavy with stars.

In an atmosphere reminiscent of bonfire night, an excited crowd of people wrapped in bobble hats, scarves, and wellies, were already queuing up outside a dark field, with the welcome smell of fried onions, burgers and hot sugary tea heavy in the air. But our eyes soon adjusted to the dark to see a fascinating range of telescopes from the Peterborough Astronomy Society and exhibits from Leicester’s National Space Centre.

As excited children donned VR headsets to search for exoplanets or looked down a microscope at iron meteorites that are billions of years old, Charlie Isham from the National Space Centre shared her tips for watching the stars from the roof of your narrowboat, the canal towpath or on a night-time walk with the dog.

“I’d start by looking north, where you’ll generally always find the plough or, to give its proper name, the constellation of Ursa Major,” says Charlie. “From the top of the bucket, it’s easy to star hop by letting your eye follow a straight line to the bright North Star, Polaris, which always sits above the North Pole. From here, there are many circumpolar constellations to explore. A star gazing app which you simply point at the sky from your phone is a really easy way to find your way around the stars.

The Plough and Pole Star constellations, with a line between to show how to find the Pole Star.

My favourite constellation in an eastern winter sky is Orion because, again, you can use his belt to point to other stars like Betelgeuse or Bellatrix, both of which are quite famous. And just below the belt, you could find Orion's Nebula, the closest example of a star-forming cloud, to Earth, which is sometimes possible to see with the naked eye.

The Orion Constellation, showcasing Bellatrix, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Saiph, and the Orion Nebula

In the summer, you can’t really miss the Summer Triangle, which are among the brightest stars in the sky. Just look east as night falls. By midnight, it will be right above your head and to the west before dawn.”

The Summer Triangle, showcasing Vega, Deneb, and Altair

By now, crowds of excited youngsters were queueing up to see Jupiter in the eastern sky and the rings of Saturn to the south through the powerful telescopes provided by astronomers like Chris Beer.

“I’ve just been showing people Jupiter, a planet 600 million miles away, and all its Galilean moons. The planets are pretty easy to spot at any time, but the advantage of a new moon night like this is that you get really dark skies. So choose a night by the canal when the moon is barely visible and if you give your eyes time to adjust, then you might be able to see the Seven Sisters to the left of Jupiter or even Andromeda, the only galaxy you can see without optical aids…”

The Andromeda Galaxy in dark space

As the clouds and rain came in again, we gave up on star gazing for a while and joined astronomer Phil Adams, as he gave a fascinating talk on the history of the telescope. Chatting with us afterwards, however, Phil admitted that for him, telescopes are not the be-all and end-all.

“It’s about what we see. A telescope is just a tool to look at what’s in the night sky. I can have a very pleasant night just recognising the constellation without one. I would definitely advise that people join a local astronomy society like ours before they go out and buy expensive equipment because there’s so much you can see with just a dark sky above a canal and your own eyes.”

Just before the last of the crowd drifts away, there was another break in the cloud and time for a final quick astrophotography lesson from Glen Tilyard and the National Space Centre’s Josh Barker.

The starry night sky above Foxton Locks, with water flowing into the canal from the left

Glen explained that the dark skies above canals are perfect for taking photos of the stars, the Milky Way, galaxies or nebulas with an SLR camera. “We're looking at things that are so dim, you actually can’t see them. So really what you're doing is pointing your camera into a dark piece of sky, taking exposures for minutes or even hours. And then you can use photography software to bring your images to life and expose that very small amount of data you’ve captured in the lens. Last week, I was showing people at a camera club how to take shots like this. Once I showed them where to point their camera and what settings they needed people were immediately getting amazing pictures.”

But as Josh later showed me, you don’t necessarily need a fancy camera to take a stunning shot. Simply set your modern smartphone on a cheap tripod, and the clever technology will automatically adjust to night vision and give you 30-second-long exposure to help you capture the Milky Way in wonderful detail.

Talking to everyone from young children to keen astronomers to enthusiastic amateurs that night, it was clear that a shared fascination with the stars had brought all of us all together to see the stars by water. As Josh explained, “I love that these are the stars that all humans see. What my Auntie in America can see, I can see too. It’s a reminder that we’re all here under the same sky. Regardless of what we think or how we act, in the face of the stars, it’s good to remember how small our differences really are.”

Last Edited: 20 December 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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