By Richard Darn, astronomer and dark sky hunter.

Surely there is no more beautiful time of the year to be out under the stars than Autumn? This is the prime stargazing season in the Lake District, when the long days of summer give way to properly dark nights and the weather is still relatively benign. What’s more we have the majestic Milky Way directly overhead in the late evening, looking at its very best. 

A recent survey by the Campaign to Protect Rural England revealed that the Lake District is one of the top three darkest national parks in England, whilst in the east of the county the North Pennines ranks as the nation’s starriest area of outstanding natural beauty.

That matters a great deal.  

From a town or city you will see only a handful of stars, but from our patch it’s more like 2,000, along with the Milky Way, shooting stars and even the elusive Northern Lights. 

So let’s begin our stargazing tour with the Milky Way

Around mid-evening it runs directly overhead so is perfectly placed for observation.  Choose a moonless night and look for a band of light traversing the sky.  Once your eyes become dark adapted (and that could take 20 minutes) you should be able to trace its path through famous constellations like Cygnus the Swan (cruciform in shape and sometimes called the Northern Cross) and the zig-zag Cassiopeia.

Use binoculars and you will discover its gossamer glow is produced by millions of faint stars.  This striking feature is one arm of our own galaxy, which we call the Milky Way, a vast spiral shaped swarm of 200 billion stars, of which our day-time sun is a member.  Because we live within this awesome structure we only see a fraction of its true scale.  Incidentally, the Lake District is a great place to try your hand at Milky Way photography. Even a 20 second exposure with a tripod mounted camera will suffice to capture some of its beauty.

But it is not the only heavenly attraction this season as we also have a couple of wonderful meteor showers to look forward to.  The Orionids peak on the night of 21/ 22 October, but you can see shooting stars a week either side of this date, but in lower numbers. They are caused by tiny bits of debris left behind by Comet Halley entering the Earth’s atmosphere at 148,000 mph and burning up. Expect to see one every few minutes given a bit of luck.  Don’t bother with any fancy optical equipment, all you need to do is relax in a deck chair, use your eyes and look high in the south east after dark.  The later the better and a glass of prosecco is an optional extra!  The other shower is the Leonids, on the 17/18 November, this time caused by Comet Tempel–Tuttle, but it’s a little less favoured as a waning moon will be in the sky.  

Even with your naked eye you will be surprised by how far you can see.  For example, just below the constellation of Cassiopeia is a truly extraordinary object, the Andromeda Galaxy. It appears like a hazy glow to the naked eye, but using binoculars it reveals itself as a disc of light, brighter in the middle, with fainter arms. This is a completely different galaxy to the Milky Way, perhaps a tad larger, and so distant its light takes 2.5 million years to reach us.  

Andromeda galaxy

A much nearer phenomenon is equally amazing and could grace our skies this Autumn. 

The Northern Lights are caused by energetic particles blowing in from the sun and interacting with the Earth's magnetic field.  We can’t predict when they will occur with any great certainty, but we can get a few hours notice by using an app for smart devices.  Amongst the most popular (and both with free versions) are apps called Glendale and My Aurora.  You'll get an alarm if there’s a chance of seeing a display from your location.  Each year we have a handful visible from Cumbria and dark locations with a good northern horizon are needed. 



This is magical time of year so please explore and enjoy our astonishing Lake District starscape! 

Events coming up

Autumn is a great time to get out and stargaze. The North Pennines Stargazing Festival is being held in various locations from 23 October – 3 November; ideal for half term family fun.


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