Celebrating our star-studded skies with two weeks of talks and events

A starry range of activities is heading our way in celebration of the South Downs National Park becoming the world's 12th International Dark Sky Reserve in 2016.

The South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) is highlighting our breathtaking night skies with a Dark Skies Festival from February 9 to 25.

SDNPA senior media officer Jo Glyde said: “We think our star-studded skies overhead are as valuable as our beautiful rolling landscapes and, with properly dark skies in the South East of England under threat, this is a statement that the skies of the South Downs are worth protecting.”

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As two million people live within five km of the National Park, our International Dark Sky Reserve is one of the most accessible in the world and, Jo said, needs to be cherished: “Light pollution is a big issue. It not only wastes energy, costs money and impacts on wildlife, it can even affect our health – for example, by disrupting sleep. It also stops people from enjoying the night skies.

“We’re taking steps to protect and enhance our dark skies through the Local Plan.”

The SDNPA’s dark skies map shows the national park’s darkest spots, including Dark Sky Discovery (DSD) sites, which boast good quality dark skies. Accessible and open to the public, they offer excellent opportunities to star gaze.

One such is the National Trust’s Bignor Hill car park, just by the South Downs Way. Recently approved as the eighth site in the National Park. it has been classified as “Orion class” because people can see seven of Orion’s main stars with the naked eye.

SDNPA lead ranger Dan Oakely said would-be star gazers should check the weather, take binoculars and wrap up warm before heading into the Downs: “Try to find somewhere nice and dark, such as DSD sites, or be adventurous. You need to get about two miles from any well-lit places - ideally north of the scarp slope of the South Downs, as they act as a pair of sunglasses and filter out the sky glow that hangs around low southern skies - and give your eyes 20 minutes to adjust.”

This time of year is ideal for spotting the Orion nebula in the low south-western skies and the Andromeda galaxy, our ‘nearest neighbour’ at 2.5 million light years away.

Dan said: “See if you can find the Milky Way - go somewhere nice and dark, give your eyes time to adjust and you’ll see a ribbon above your head, with an underlying structure and dust lanes.”

For more information, see https://www.southdowns.gov.uk/enjoy/dark-night-skies/

Dark Skies Festival events

The South Downs Dark Skies Festival incorporates a wealth of events in Chichester and Arun districts.

As some are weather dependent, the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) advises people check its website and social media before heading off.

The festival’s free, flagship event is ‘Stargazing South Downs’, for all ages at Midhurst Rother College on Saturday, February 10 from 4pm to 9pm. In addition to stargazing, it includes indoor talks and activities, a chance to meet some night-loving wildlife, plus astrophotography ‘how to’ sessions at 4.30pm and 6pm and a practical outdoor session at 7pm.

Chichester’s South Downs Planetarium is hosting shows on various topics from Sunday, February 11 to Sunday, February 18 and its organisers note that booking is essential. Tickets cost £7 and topics range from the Northern Lights to alien life on distant worlds.

From Thursday, February 15 to Saturday, February 17, we are invited to ‘cycle the solar system in the South Downs’ on Centurion Way, Chichester. This ‘fun 4.5km bike tour of the planets’ takes place along the well-known cycle path at 10.30am and 2pm daily. Booking is essential, at a cost of £5 for adults and £2.50 for children.

RSPB Pulborough Brooks is hosting a stargazing party on Friday, February 16 from 7pm to 9pm and invites visitors to experience the nature reserve by night with some warming hot chocolate. Again, booking is essential at a cost of £5, or £4 for RSPB members.

Stargazing activities take place at Amberley Museum on Saturday, February 17. They include daytime craft sessions from 10am to 4pm and stargazing from 4pm to 7pm. Evening-only tickets cost £5, with advance booking advisable.

Monday, February 19 brings a stargazing and night hike with the National Trust at Harting Down from 7pm to 9.30pm. Tickets costs £5 for adults and £3 for children and booking is essential.

Finally, the Goodwood estate is hosting a stargazing event on Thursday, February 22 from 6.30 to 9pm. This is a free event and booking is not required - details of the exact location will be on the festival website nearer the time.

Information about these and all other festival events is at http://www.southdowns.gov.uk/enjoy/events/dark-skies-festival-2018/

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