What can you see in Suffolk's night skies this spring?
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
The days are getting longer now, the twilights slowly stretching out. It won’t be long before the sun will never sink 18 degrees below the horizon and twilight will stretch from sunset to dawn.
I go out in the garden in the blue hour, when the sky is shaded by residual, indirect sunlight and darkness is beginning to rise, with just a band of peach at a horizon partly obscured by trees, sheds and blocks of houses. The birds are quietening. I’ve missed the scribbling ball of noise that comes with the call to roost, but in the trees that fringe the allotment behind my house I can hear a song thrush.
Phew-woo, phew-woo. There’s a pause, then a torrent of cut-glass notes. A trickle of whistles, hiccups and flutes, each phrase repeated, as Robert Browning said, “Lest you should think he never could recapture/The first fine careless rapture!”
I pile wood into the fire pit and put a match to the tinder. To the west, Venus, so brilliant throughout winter and early spring as its orbit brought it closer to earth, is still lantern-bright, its thick, reflective atmosphere obscuring its sunlit crescent. I wait for the flames to catch, fanning them as my dad did with childhood barbecues, and then head back inside.
It is dark by the time I come out again a few hours later. The fire has died down to glowing embers, which offers warmth but none of the flames that might hamper my night vision. I can see that Venus has shifted in the sky, or rather, the earth’s spin makes it look like it has. The shepherd’s star now hangs in the north west, with the constellation of Auriga, the charioteer, above.
Below Venus I can just see the club of Orion emerging from the orange fuzz of streetlights that are due to click off in the next few minutes. The winter hunter is in slow retreat, sloping off to hemispheres new and taking the weather with him.
I sit and look around slowly, trying to find familiar points in the sky. There the asterism of the Plough, the stars on the edge of the saucepan pointing towards the North Star, the lodestar of Polaris. The stars have always been important for humans, both as a means of navigation (the word ‘lodestar’ means a star that guides a ship), a clock, a calendar and even a way of understanding our own existence.
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And for me, in the interminable weeks of lockdown, the stars have been given renewed meaning, telling a story of passing time, but also expanding my horizons far beyond the four walls of my house, the daily run and the occasional fear-laced shop. In the stars, there is evidence of the earth’s continual turn, the blessed normality of the swinging of the seasons.
But there is something else too. As I look up, I think about how many other people are looking at these same stars, their retinas processing light that has travelled for thousands of years across space, a light as old as the Romans, as us. The sight of satellites, skimming at an even pace across the dark sky, have even been a source of comfort. The presence of technology designed to bounce internet signals, radio waves, TV signals, has become a more basic beacon of human presence. They help the largeness, the weirdness of that giant word ‘pandemic’, become that much smaller.
It’s getting cold, even with the fire. There is just a hint of moisture in the air, I can see that the stars are slightly fuzzed, the brightest ringed by a hazy aura. The street lights click off and I pull the collar of my coat up and turn east to where Cygnus is stretching out, one wingtip scraping across the moss-covered slates of my house.
Nearby is the harp of Lyra, from where the Lyrid meteor shower – the burning dust shed from Comet Thatcher – takes its name. Although the shower is close to its peak, I’m still not expecting to see one. But after just five minutes, a meteor drops, gannet-fast, flares brightly, and then is gone.
While comets were once seen as bad omens, signs of plague, shooting stars have more positive associations – change, good luck. I close my eyes. It certainly seems like a good time to make a wish