Stargazing with Jon Culshaw
Famous astronomer and impersonator Jon Culshaw is a regular visitor to the island of Sark and its observatory. Beyond his illustrious comedy career, Jon is one of the judges for Insight Investment Astronomy Photographer of the Year and a frequent contributor to BBC Sky at Night.
The dark skies of Sark are amongst the greatest I’ve ever seen. I was lucky enough to be at Sark Observatory on a crystal-clear cloudless night and the skies were extraordinary. The planets including Jupiter beamed like spotlights. The constellations we’re familiar with such as Ursa Major shine with the same intensity.
What’s most amazing is the vision of the Milky Way, which illuminates behind them. Once your eyes are dark-adapted, the Milky Way appears like a scattering of talc cast over black velvet. You can see every grain. Every grain being a star.”
“Once your eyes are dark-adapted, the Milky Way appears like a scattering of talc cast over black velvet. You can see every grain. Every grain being a star.”
Achieving dark sky status doesn’t come without effort and Sark’s islanders are committed to keeping light pollution to a minimum to maintain the clarity of the skies. Beyond the lack of motorised vehicles, except for working tractors, there are no public streetlights or floodlit buildings to ensure minimal light is projected into the sky. However, the sacrifices are worth it.
On a clear night, visitors are treated to the spectacle of the Milky Way in all its glory, while constellations and meteors can often be spotted with just the naked eye. It is for this reason that, in January 2011, Sark gained International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) recognition for its exceptional quality of unpolluted darkness – the first place in the world to do so.
This global accolade led to the formation of the Sark Astronomy Society (SAstroS), which was established by a band of eager stargazers, keen to share the wonders of Sark’s magical night time display with others. As enthusiasm grew for Sark’s dark skies a natural, yet expensive, step was to build an Observatory.
As Reg Guille, from SAstroS, explains, “A couple of years after SAstroS was formed, we had the opportunity to purchase a second-hand 10-inch Meade telescope. We used it but after struggles to get it to different locations and inconveniencing one of our members by taking over her conservatory for storage, we realised the ‘scope needed a permanent home.
“Initially, we involved the whole island in fund-raising events such as quiz nights and jumble sales”, Reg continued. “We invited experts to give talks, portable planetariums, starfest events and even masked balls. Two years later, after much fund-raising we had our little Observatory.”
“On a clear night, visitors are treated to the spectacle of the Milky Way in all its glory.”
The Observatory is run by SAstroS members, some of who volunteer to be guides for visitors. The guides are trained in the use of the equipment and finding their way through the heavens. The main attraction is for visitors, some of whom are interested in astronomy and come for the pristine dark sky.
“Many people come because they don’t see stars from home, or for the enjoyment of being able to use a big telescope, under supervision”, says Reg. “Children absolutely love finding out about stars, planets and space! Beyond out Dark Sky Community Award, we’re proud that people can enjoy using an Observatory on holiday and experience the natural beauty of a night sky where you can see the Milky Way in all its glory. We never tire of seeing the joy it brings to all who visit.”
Today, the Society relies on donations from tourists wishing to visit the Observatory and a small entry fee of £5, which pays for the upkeep and running costs.