A Stargazing Trainer takes the trip of a lifetime to St Helena
By Bob Bower
I’ve been back home in Scotland for just over a month now. I’m still pinching myself to make sure that I haven’t been dreaming – did I really, finally get to visit a place that had been at the top of my bucket list for so long!? Indeed I had – and to get to do two of my hobby passions while there was indeed the icing on the cake.
What a tremendous island you ‘Saints’ live on. The variation in topography on St Helena is astounding. Derek Richards, of Island Images, took me out for a day trip one day. We were driving along a steep hillside, having passed Diana’s Peak and on our way towards Levelwood, when a distinct sense of deja-vu came over me. “Are these trees eucalyptus?” I asked him. “They certainly are” was his response. The scenery was identical to the hills in the Australian wine country north of Melbourne. I’d just started to take all this in, when we rounded a bend in the road and there, laid out in front of us, was what appeared to be a piece of the Colorado desert, just north of the Grand Canyon. This was just the beginning. Temperature-wise, Sandy Bay had no links with the Antarctic Peninsula – but in every other respect, it certainly did – “primeval” describes them both perfectly.
It isn’t just scenery that makes the Island unique. History is one of my other passions. It goes without saying that astronomy is an especial interest for me in this respect, but so is anything to do with maritime activities. Over the years I’ve devoured everything I could find on James Cook, William Dampier, William Bligh and Joshua Slocum, among many others – even to the extent of sailing as crew onboard the replica of Cook’s ship Endeavour. Maybe that is why St Helena had entered my soul long before my visit. Indeed, even Edmund Halley, a polymath of equal ability (to my mind, at least) to the great Newton, visited the Island as a ship’s captain on the second trip after his well-known astronomical sojourn.
Mention of Halley is perhaps a cue for me to get to the main raison d’etre for this blog. I’ve talked about two aspects of what I would like to call the “Holy Trinity” of uniqueness that St Helena has to offer the World – scenery and history. The third is the island’s night sky. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited dark sky sites in several places around the globe – and in my humble opinion, St Helena is right up there with the best.
Here’s the reason why:- Some good years ago, I paid my first visit to the Texas Star Party, held high in the mountains just north of the Mexican Border. Texan astronomers pride themselves on the clarity of their sky. I have to admit, when I first looked up into it, I did have to wonder why the Americans call Texas the “Lone Star” state. They’ve got thousands of them! That was a special moment – but so was my last night on St Helena. The sky was covered in cloud when I hit the sack. However, when I got up around 5 am to visit the bathroom, I poked my head out of the door – and was transfixed. The Milky Way arced from North to South horizons, passing directly overhead. Also directly overhead, perfectly straddling both sides of the Milky Way, were Saturn and Mars, like two heavenly but differently coloured gate guardians. Jupiter was now low in the west, over the ocean. It was showing a phenomenon I have only ever seen once before – a thin silvery streak of light directly below it on the ocean, pointing directly towards me – its reflection, no less…
I don’t recall hearing anyone driving past Richards’ Lodge at that moment. It’s probably just as well – I’m not sure how they would have responded to the sight of an old man in his birthday suit, apparently in another world…
Anyway, that’s the starter consumed. On to the main course.
The enthusiasm exhibited by all those who took part in the stargazing training sessions was both pleasing and infectious. The weather was by no means cooperative during my stay, but we did manage to cover all the objectives I had hoped to achieve – with one exception, of which more later.
Attendees got to see the majority of the different categories of night sky objects, from star-forming regions (the Orion nebula) to the beautiful star clusters (the Jewel Box, next to the Southern Cross), and the brightest globular cluster in the whole of the sky which looks to all the world like a great ball of knitting wool (Omega Centauri). Finally the initial stages of a star’s death (Eta Carinae).
Images by Bob Bower
A cadre of newly-minted night sky guides (I’m talking people, not books!) now exist on-Island to carry things forward, with not only a knowledge of what to look out for in the sky over the coming months but also the ability to set up and operate the Island’s telescopes. This is especially important for two reasons:-
The first concerns my only regret as regards to objectives during my stay – not being able to show the Island’s school pupils the night sky, courtesy of the weather. I’m confident that your sky guides will be take up the cudgel on their behalf. The second reason is to provide a nucleus of indigenous night sky skills for encouraging night sky tourism to the Island.
I see the possibility of two types of stargazing tourist interest in St Helena:-
The first is for those who know little of the night sky and have never had the opportunity to see either a dark pristine sky or the stars of the southern hemisphere. The Island is now equipped (in both personal skills and equipment) to meet this need. Choice of sites on the Island for this category need not necessarily be over-stringent. In my experience, the sky over the southern edge of Half-tree Hollow, just below Prince’s Lodge, beats anything that most casual observers will have seen before. In any event, tourists in this group will need prior introductory presentations on what they will be seeing in the sky, before proceeding to a practical viewing session. The availability of a lecture area and other amenities becomes a significant factor.
The second is for more advanced amateur astronomers, who come specifically for stargazing as their primary activity. This is where sites like High Knoll Fort need to be considered. Perhaps the Island might think about holding an annual Star Party to attract such visitors. Attendance at all the main Star Parties in the USA is not confined to Americans only. Most have a significant number of overseas attendees. All of them have chosen good dark sky locations as their main attraction, in remote areas. In my personal experience, none of them can come close (figuratively- not literally!) to St. Helena – and besides, none of them can offer something else that makes the Island unique. In a year, it’s possible to see 95% of all the night sky visible from Earth. You would have to live bang on the equator to beat that.
Stretching my meal analogy to its limits, we’ve now consumed the starter and the main course. Just the dessert remains:
I’m honored to have been made the founding Patron of the St Helena Astronomical Society; may it prosper and become a force to be reckoned with in amateur astronomical circles. And finally, I’m tickled pink to have managed to talk to fellow radio hams in the USA and Canada from the seafront in Jamestown, using just a couple of collapsible fishing poles as antennas and a very low power radio. This was the icing on the cake – which is why it’s part of the dessert.
Images by Paul Tyson – View info Here