“The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.” - Carl Sagan
There is something deeply magical about a truly dark night sky. Objects that you would strain to see or not see at all in suburbia populate every eye movement. Peripheral vision fine tunes to a state of high alert with ease. Observing rewards even before dark adaption. My visit to Ballycroy National Park in Co Mayo reminded me of so many holidays in the west of Ireland long ago when our children were young.
After a day of extreme foggy conditions across the whole country I was not expecting to see any stars at all. Shortly after my talk we went outside to check up on things. Even with some small lights on in the visitors centre the sky was mind-blowing. Ballycroy National Park
I had been introduced to Georgia MacMillan from the Mayo Dark Skies team by Professor Brian Espey Trinity College Dublin. Georgia subsequently invited me down to Ballycroy to give a talk about Astronomical Sketching. This was delightful, I decided to build the presentation on messier objects, comets and meteor showers sketched over the years. (Yes I did say sketching meteor showers) Back in 2006 and 2007 I had sketched M42 from my back garden in Bray. I captured a nice amount of detail in both efforts. However earlier this year 2016 I was commissioned to draw M42 for the BBC Sky at Night Magazine but was surprised that this messier object did not present with as much detail to capture as previously. Sky conditions being similar in all sketches, it became obvious to me that the culprit was increased light pollution. I wanted to express that point because I wanted my audience to realise how lucky they were to be living close to an Internationally recognised Dark Sky Park. Their M42 view would consistently be better than anywhere else on most clear winter nights. Some of my audience were not aware of what M42 was or where it was or indeed what goes on in such a complex nebula. My simple explanation went something like this . M42 is a nebula, a cloud of dust and gas so vast that is almost impossible to imagine. One of the few places we can easily see in the night sky within which stars are born and new worlds begin . We are looking back in time while also looking into a future humanity is not likely to ever witness.
When we went outside and Orion was popping over a distant hill, that was magic. To be able to point to M42 after just explaining it and showing some drawings was a real pleasure. A short tour of the sky for the by now cold group was crowned by three beautiful meteors flying from the Orion area across our collective field of view. Cheers and yelps of excitement left everyone with big smiles on their faces. The meteors were white, wide and at least 70 degrees long. They had a fluid/ paint like movement as if a brush stroke action had caused their fast appearance and termination.
In the slideshow you can see a photograph of the night sky from Galway city and one taken from Connemara south of Ballycroy Park. The difference is very dramatic. The Milky way captured near the dark sky park and the same view empty of stars over Galway City. Readings taken with a Sky Quality Meter (SQM) match the images. Also in the slide show are three drawings of M42. The 2006 and 2007 drawings have lots of detail even though they were sketched from my back garden in suburbia. However the 2016 M42 is not populated with as much nebulosity or structure as the other two much to my disappointment at the time.
We stand on the Earth and watch the night sky. Our bubble like invisible atmosphere allows us to temporarily merge ourselves with our true reality. We exist in space, we move through it all our lives. It's magnificent,it is indeed a privilege to witness it devoid of artificial lights.
The opportunities to educate and connect people with our collective situation in the universe are sadly receding in towns and cities. By protecting the night sky we offer ourselves a continued grip on some of the best human traits. Curiosity,Self Awareness,Responsibility.
Anyone with a mobile phone can get involved with monitoring the night sky here are the links for Citizen Science via iPhone and Android . Here is the link to Stars4All a light pollution initiative. Here is the link to Loss of the Night Network
Many thanks to Brid Colhoun ( Head Guide at the National Park) Georgia MacMillan (Mayo Dark Skies Team)
Ged Dowling( Mayo Dark Skies Team) . Thanks to Dr Ray Butler National University of Ireland, Galway and Professor Brian Espey Trinity College Dublin .