Join the hunt for Orion under dark winter skies

Orion and the night sky

Photo by Raymond McCrae

Visitors to the Peak District National Park are being encouraged to help identify 'dark sky sites' - places where there is minimal light pollution and stars are clearly visible - by searching out the constellation of Orion this winter. 

By recording the quality and location of dark sky sites within the park, it's hoped parts of it and the surrounding area could be put forward for international recognition as a Dark Sky Park.

The movement to identify, improve, expand and protect dark sky sites is growing, with St Agnes and Chapel Porth and the Carnewas and Bedruthan Steps in Cornwall recently granted special status by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council. 

In December, nearly 1,500 square kilometres around Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park was granted Gold Tier status and officially inaugurated as the Northumberland Dark Sky Park – making it one of the largest and best dark sky sites in the world. 

It joins the island of Sark, Galloway Forest, Exmoor and, most recently, the National Botanic Garden of Wales as designated dark sky sites – and the Peak District could be next. To take part in the new survey, evening walkers will need to download a sky quality chart, venture out after 7:30pm and locate Orion – one of the winter sky’s most iconic constellations. 

Orion is easily recognisable by his belt and sword (a line of three stars with three stars that 'hang' beneath it) while Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, will appear in January as a large bright 'star' to the left. You can find full instructions on the park authority's website.

"Visible towards the south during winter evenings, roughly midway between the horizon and overhead point, Orion is arguably the most beautiful constellation in the sky," explains Brian Jones, astronomy columnist for Ramblers' Walk magazine. "Its conspicuous pattern of bright stars is unmistakable and, once seen, unlikely to be forgotten."

Astronomy interpretation boardTo further help people appreciate the Peak District's dark skies, new information panels have been installed to give stargazers a guide to the night sky above. The Dark Sky panels, which will be changed with the seasons, can be found close to Arbor Low stone circle and Minninglow burial mound, where the position of the stars might have influenced our neolithic ancestors more than 4,000 years ago.

"The national park's night skies can be up to 15 times darker than nearby towns and cities," explains Peak District Dark Skies co-ordinator Sue Smith, "so the stars are much more visible here. 

"We hope people can use these panels to explore the universe and understand how the stars relate to these special landscapes."

Did you know? You can search the Ramblers online library for routes suitable to walk at night or in the evening.

If you're interested in night-time rambling, read about the Redditch Ramblers' torchlit walk and Exploring Galloway Forest by night (Autumn 2012 issue, members-only content).

Magazine of the Ramblers