Celebrating the stars

Celebrating the stars

Walking across the stone bridge, I look towards the setting sun over the western end of the lake - to our left. I pause to take it in and, in these dusk hours, my eyes struggle and allow imagination to fill the gap.

The wise old woods, stretching out to the east on the other side of the bridge, could be the bursting rainforest arcing over the Amazon river. With its tall and diverse canopy, it leans out from the banks of the lake and over the shallow water, reminding me of that forest at the other end of the Earth.

Stepping off the other side of the bridge, we follow the path up the slope and onto the hill. When the sky is wide enough we venture off the path to find a grassy spot to lay.

A cloudless night is what we seek, but that means a chilly night, not just a starry one. Like the clouds, we know the moon will not show its face tonight, making it all the darker.

The last of the sun's light has been captured by the horizon. Now we must be patient. Torches off - we must let our eyes adjust.

The first stars start to appear - small dots that prefer not to be seen, unless out of the corner of our eyes.

The old faithful Plough (or the 'saucepan' or 'big dipper') is one of the first recognisable shapes - or asterisms - to appear. So we use it to locate Polaris - our north star. Misunderstood to be one of the brightest in the sky, actually, Polaris is tricky to locate without the Plough to guide you. We follow the line made by Dubhe and Merak - the two stars that make up the saucepan edge, opposite its handle - and find Polaris in its path not far away.

North - that way!

Otherwise, there are still few to see, and the group dive into chitter chatter, impatiently gazing up.

Now Cassiopeia - a Queen on her throne - appears. This Queen lies in the band of the Milky Way, so it helps us find the plane of our galaxy pouring across the sky in a stream of stars.

Following the Milky Way higher into the sky brings us to Cygnus - the Swan. This constellation is one of those that most closely resembles its Earthly namesake. This large, winged creature dominates a large portion of the sky.

The brightest star in Cygnus is Deneb, which marks the position of the great Swan's tail. Deneb is worthy of a story. So I begin.

Leaning back, looking up...

Leaning back, looking up...

Deneb is one of the most luminous stars in our sky. As a blue 'supergiant', it is also one of the biggest. In fact, it is 200 times larger than our Sun. It is huge and it is hot.

When it reaches the end of its life, Deneb will explode in what is known as a supernova. At that moment it will generate incomprehensible amounts of energy and form new materials, before blasting them out into interstellar space.

Only in these explosions are the heavy metals like gold and silver, all the way down to iron, made. Supernovae are special as not all stars generate them. In fact, the Sun, our star, is too small to create a supernova.

But we are dependent on those explosions all the same. Our Sun and our planet are formed from the materials blown into space from past supernova. Some of that material would have been gold, but what we use today is not from then. It has come to us more recently.

We reach for coins in our pockets, or feel rings on our fingers or in our ears, and ponder where that metal has come from. Mined? Yes. Before then? The ground, or the Earth's crust. And before then?

Imagine a bombardment of comets and asteroids crashing down to Earth, early in its life, like an astronomical storm. These brought a huge amount of metal of various kinds with them. These materials were then churned over in the potted and scarred crust of our planet for millions of years before we resurfaced them later.

So from a star like Deneb, flying on its huge white wings above us, we have star dust in our pockets.

With new ideas and understanding, we watch for a while longer. Celebrating the celestial scene above us.

With passing time and growing darkness, the Milky Way becomes milkier and clearer. Through binoculars, we look closer and find stars upon stars upon stars...

Questions and answers raise only more questions, as we wonder at how we are connected to these far-away furnaces in ways we had never imagined.


You may have noticed this post is slightly different to the others on this blog. It recalls a night sky session I led during one of the two summer camps run by Action for Conservation this summer. AFC's mission is to bring the magic of nature into UK schools, inspiring a youth movement committed to conservation and to the earth. The photos in this post are also courtesy of Action for Conservation.

Stream of senses

Stream of senses

Red squirrel stand off

Red squirrel stand off