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Getting Started

When is the best time to watch dark skies?

Mid-summer nights don't get truly dark. So from early May to late July the sky may look beautiful, but you won't see many stars. During the rest of the year the only obstacles are the weather and the moon. The moon is a wonderful object to view with a telescope or binoculars, but its brightness makes the fainter stars hard to see. The starriest view of the heavens comes when the moon is out of the way – the so-called new moon period. Most diaries will tell you when this is.

The best time to view the moon is when it is in a partial phase, for instance the first quarter. You will be rewarded with views of craters and mountain chains cast into sharp relief by slanting sunlight. Planets are unaffected by the moon's presence and Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and Mars can all be observed when they are above the horizon.

Spring

The nights are still long and the weather is warming up so it's a great time to see brighter galaxies and planets like Jupiter and Saturn. The constellation of Leo dominates the southern sky.

Summer

You will see fewer stars around mid-summer, but watch out for ghostly night clouds that bare a ragged edge high in the sky. You will also see tantalising glimpses of the Milky Way to whet appetites for the months ahead. Watch out for August's Perseid meteor shower – one of the year's best. Truly dark skies return at the end of July.

Autumn

Together with spring this is prime viewing time. The nights are truly dark and the Milky Way is overhead in the evening, resembling a shimmering river of stars. Star clusters also look fantastic. Meteors showers like the Leonids can put on a good show in November.

Winter

The season of sparkling skies! The sky is often at its most transparent as temperatures dip. Glittering star clusters and magnificent constellations like Orion grace the sky, along with bright cloud of dust. Wrap up warm and the rewards can be amazing.

Equipment

Binoculars

You probably already have a pair of binoculars but if not, you don’t have to spend a lot to get a good quality pair that can help you enjoy many aspects of nature – not just the dark sky. Binoculars are very easy to use, light-weight and good for looking at the Milky Way, star clusters, bright galaxies and even the moons of Jupiter.

The best sizes are a 10 x 50 or 7 x 50. The first number refers to the magnification and the second the diameter of the two lenses which the collect light. Larger binoculars will show you more, but they become heavier and are more difficult to use without a tripod.

Telescopes

Telescopes give better views of planets and star clusters, but can be more difficult to use. They have a narrower field of view so finding objects can be tough at first. If you decide to buy a telescope keep it simple and portable to begin with.

Refracting telescope

A good telescope to start with is a very simple wide-field refractor type telescope (which uses a lens to collect light), on an equally simple, but stable tripod and mount called an Alt-Az mount – which allows the telescope to be pushed up and down and left and right.

Reflecting telescope

A more powerful but also simple to use telescope is a reflector on a Dobsonian mount. Instead of using a lens to collect the light, it uses a mirror. You look through the telescope at the top. Because mirrors are cheaper to make than lenses, you get more telescope for your money. This will not automatically track the stars, so it moves manually up and down and left and right.

Red torches

If you want to be able to see what you’re doing with your binoculars or telescope without reducing the darkness of the sky, you’ll need a red torch.

Preserving night vision is important when viewing the stars – you see so much more when your eyes are attuned to low light levels. It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to get adjusted, but white light destroys this in seconds and means you have to start again. In contrast, red light can be used without much of a detrimental effect. A red head torch is advisable.

Buy them from Bowlees Visitor Centre or other outlets around the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Where to watch the dark skies

You can stargaze from just about anywhere in the Durham Dales and North Pennines AONB. Below are some locations that will give you great views and a memorable experience.

Dark Sky Discovery Sites

There are lots of great places from which to observe the night sky. Use the interactive map to find those you’d like to visit. Most have off-road car parking, some have 24-hour toilets and many have restaurants and pubs nearby so you can combine your stargazing with a meal, or refreshments. At some, you’ll also find star maps.

Some of these places are so dark that they have been designated as Dark Sky Discovery Sites.

They all offer a slightly different experience, ranging from developed sites, like Hamsterley Forest and Bowlees Visitor Centre to remote places like Balderhead and Cow Green Reservoirs.

Dark Sky Events

A programme of stargazing events takes place at various locations throughout the Durham Dales and North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – search the events listing for details.

Dark Sky Accommodation

Several accommodation providers in and around the International Dark Sky Park offer stargazing weekends and provide information to help you enjoy star watching. Look out for this symbol, or search for Dark Sky Friendly Accommodation.

Additional Information

Websites

Stellarium – interactive planetarium programme, easy to use and shows the night sky realistically.

North Pennines AONB Stargazing site.k

Society for Popular Astronomy.

Green Witch – equipment supplier to Kielder Observatory

Ian King Imaging – equipment supplier to Kielder Observatory

Apps

Sky Week – regularly updated digest of what's in the sky.

Pocket Universe – plenty of features and star maps.

Google Skymap – identifies the stars using GPS when you hold up your phone to the sky.

Meteor Shower Calendar – tells you which showers are due and whether the moon will spoil the show.

ISS (International Space Station) Detector and ISS Spotter – both will alert you when the ISS is due to pass overhead.


Aurora Alert – predicts possible Northern Lights displays.

Monthly Star Maps can be downloaded free of charge

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