It’s the beginning of June 2020 and the noctilucent cloud season has started!
If you were asked in a family Zoom pub quiz to think of some famous arch-enemies who would spring to mind? Probably Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty? How about Harry Potter and Voldemort? Definitely Tom and Jerry, right?
If astronomers have an arch enemy it is clouds. Time and time again they ruin our views of rare astronomical events such as the northern lights, meteor showers and eclipses. But you might be surprised to learn that there’s one type of cloud star-gazers actually look forward to seeing, and the good news is that now is the best – in fact the only – time to see them. They are called Noctilucent Clouds, or NLC for short.
We can only see NLC in the northern hemisphere’s night sky in summer, between the end of May and the end of July (a period we call the NLC Season) because that’s the only time they can form. NLC are icy clouds that form way, way up in the atmosphere, at a height of 80km or so which puts them on the edge of space. The meteorological conditions that lead to their formation up there only come together in the summer, and even then not every night, so they are a celestial treat we hope to see but can’t be sure of seeing. Dedicated NLC-watchers monitor various websites to get some advance warning that a display might occur, and they use social media to let each other know when a display is in progress, but it often just comes down to going out on a clear summer’s night and seeing if anything is going on.
So what do NLC look like?
The clue is in the name! “Nocti” means night, and “lucent” means shining, so NLC are night shining clouds. They look like streamers, streaks, billows and wisps of blue-white cloud, clearly visible to the naked eye, hanging above the northern horizon after midnight on summer nights. They move, but unlike the northern lights which sway and jiggle about quite quickly, NLC move so slowly you can only detect their movement over a matter of minutes. Most displays are quite modest, but occasionally a display really brews up into something very special, with NLC painted across the sky from the north-west to the north-east. A really good display can last for hours, and still be shining high in the east as the sky begins to brighten with the approach of dawn. Some displays are little more than a few teased-out streamers and tendrils of light cloud, others develop very complicated structures and shapes, almost looking like a force field or wormhole special effect from a science fiction film.
When should you look for them?
The best time to see them is from around one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise, so around 11:30pm to 2:30am. At the time of the Summer Solstice (the longest day 20th June) NLC’s may not appear until after midnight, however occasionally a particularly good display can begin to show itself as soon as the sky begins to darken.
Some astronomers don’t think NLC are an astronomical phenomena – they say they are just clouds! But many stargazers and skywatchers absolutely love observing NLC, because, after all, the nights of summer are so bright that we can’t see the faint galaxies, star clusters and nebulae we drool over at other times of the year, so it’s good to have something interesting to look at. And they are genuinely beautiful to look at, too. A telescope will be no use for observing them with, they are just too big, but a pair of binoculars will help you appreciate the subtle structures and colours of an NLC display.
I’ve been observing NLC for around 40 years now, and they are one of my favourite things to look at in the sky. They can be very frustrating – just because the sky is clear it doesn’t mean you’ll see them, and it’s infuriating to be stood under a fantastically-clear and still night sky without any trace of NLC – but a big display is an unforgettable sight, and there genuinely is nothing else like it in astronomy. Over the years I’ve watched NLC from many different places, from lonely lay-bys out in the countryside, from quiet campsites in the Scottish Highlands, even from beaches on the east coast! Now I live in Kendal, in the beautiful Lake District, I observe them from the ruins of the 800 year old castle that overlooks the town, and love photographing them from up there, shining above the distant Cumbrian fells and casting a pale blue light on the castle’s crumbling walls and towers. I can be up there until four in the morning sometimes – which is always fun when my shift at work begins at seven… It’s worth losing sleep tho, because a big display of NLC is a truly unforgettable sight.
The good news is that there have already been some displays of NLC, so that might…might…be a good omen for a busy and beautiful NLC season ahead.
Follow Go Stargazing on Facebook and Twitter for reports on NLC activity — we’ll try our best to put out “get out and look North now!” alerts if a display kicks off. You could also follow these social media accounts:
Noctilucent Cloud Alerts (Twitter)
Liebniz Institute of Atmospheric Physics (Live webcams)
Noctilucent clouds around the World (Facebook group)
Aurora UK group (Facebook group)
Stuart Atkinson for Go Stargazing
Go Stargazing is keen to support and encourage astro-tourism. If you have a place where people can visit in or near a dark sky area we would like to feature your business on the Stay and Gaze section of our website — FOR FREE!
Last Winter (2019/2020) our website was receiving ~40,000 interested stargazers per month with many wanting to escape the bright lights and experience dark skies away from towns and cities. It’s a great target market and one that has been proven to increase occupancy during the “quiet” season!
To add your business we invite you to take part in a short survey which includes entering your property details. You will also be entered into a draw to win a fantastic telescope as well as other amazing prizes which will be an added attraction for your guests!
The coronavirus pandemic is hitting businesses hard. Tourist destinations and accommodation providers are set to lose most, if not all of the 2020 Summer season. At this time of great uncertainty we’d like to share with you some ideas as to how astro-tourism could be of significant help to your business and its recovery.
Astro-tourism is the name given to the growing public interest in astronomy and the increased eagerness for people to travel to destinations that are ideal for stargazing. If your property is located away from the worst of light pollution where the skies are dark and you are not already taking advantage of astro-tourism then you are missing out!
Perhaps the biggest opportunity lies in the fact that the stargazing season starts when the traditional holiday season ends, thus giving opportunity to increase occupancy rates outside of normal times. The night time skies are a big draw in themselves and accommodation providers need only take some simple steps to accommodate stargazers, for example making their property dark sky friendly and offering some simple and inexpensive equipment such as binoculars and star charts. However, if you’re looking to benefit significantly you might need some assistance!
Go Stargazing is formed of a diverse group of people ranging from experienced astronomers to award winning astrophotographers, academics and instrument specialists. We all share a keen enthusiasm to encourage members of the public to escape the bright lights of our towns and cities and experience dark, starry skies.
Together we run stargazing events in collaboration with a variety of venues across the North of England however have contacts the length and breadth of the country. We keenly promote the activities of grassroots astronomy organisations such as astronomical societies and astronomy clubs and support organisers and venues across the whole of the UK promoting their events and locations on our website, through our mailing list and via our social media channels.
Go Stargazing can help you set up, market and maintain your establishment as a stargazing destination. If your location benefits from dark skies we would love to feature your property on our Stay and Gaze map of stargazing friendly accommodation providers, for free! In addition to an amazing technology platform we have expertise, experience and enthusiasm to help you and your business make the most from astro-tourism!
We’ve said a lot about ourselves, now we’d love to hear from you! By all means contact us directly, or alternatively you could enter our “Locked Down but Looking Up” stargazers survey which has a special section for accommodation providers including how you can add your venue as a stay and gaze location to the Go Stargazing website.
In return for completing our survey you’ll be entered into a prize draw to win a fantastic fully-automatic telescope — ideal for beginners and perfect for your guests! For more details and to participate in our survey CLICK HERE.
We wish you good health and every success in the future. Clear skies!
1st prize – A Sky-Watcher StarTravel-102 telescope and AZ-GTe mount
This fantastic telescope on a portable mount is perfect for beginners! It connects to your smartphone or tablet and uses your device’s date, time and GPS co-ordinates to automatically align the telescope with objects in the sky. Observe the Moon, planets, star clusters, nebulae and galaxies all by using the app on your mobile! See this review. RRP £379.00.
The winner will be announced on Sunday 21st June at 4pm LIVE on Go Stargazing’s Facebook page.
This prize was won by Claire Bennellick on 21st June.
2nd prize – A Sega Toys Homestar Flux Planetarium Projector
This is no toy! This is easily one of the best home planetarium projectors available with excellent optics and a bright LED that will project the cosmos into your home with amazing clarity. It comes with accessories to display the Northern Hemisphere of stars and constellations. RRP £149.00.
This prize was won by Cheryl Hale on 14th June.
3rd prize – 1 of 5 Solarcans
A Solarcan is an extreme time exposure astronomy camera capable of capturing the path of the Sun over days, weeks, months or years. We’ve got 5 of them to give to 5 winners! RRP £15.95 each (and you can buy one now with 10% discount).
These prizes were won by Teri Humber, Katie Ward, Sara-Leigh Squires, Michael Wiggins, Zoe Fletcher on 7th June.
3rd prize – 101 Facts You Didn’t Know About Space
BBC Stargazing Live presenter Mark Thompson’s latest book will amuse and entertain any space enthusiast! Mark has offered to sign the winning copy too! RRP £25.00.
This prize was won by Simon Parkinson on 7th June.
Our survey is for everyone! We are keen for all interested stargazers to participate from absolute beginners to well seasoned or professional astronomers. We also warmly welcome accommodation providers in dark sky areas and those with a venue suitable for hosting stargazing events to participate too.
Go Stargazing is an independent group of amateur astronomers keen to share our passion for astronomy with the aim of encouraging everyone to get outside and enjoy the night skies! Our website helps people find dark sky locations and public stargazing events across the whole of the UK and we help promote the activities of numerous organisations including astronomy groups and societies. We also support a wide variety of venues featuring their stargazing events on our events map and we do so for free!
Coronavirus is having a massive adverse impact on the people, organisations and businesses we have been supporting over the past years. We are conducting this survey to identify the best ways we can continue to help when things return to “normal” after the pandemic. The information gathered will enable us to prioritise our efforts over the Summer months so we are ready for when the observing season restarts (hopefully) in September. The prizes offered have been funded at our own expense, we are not sponsored and we are carrying out this venture for the benefit and support of the wider astronomical community.
The data we collect will only be made accessible to our team and used for our own market research and our own internal purposes. Your data will never, ever be shared with any third parties and will be kept secure. We will use the data to work out how we can best connect people who are interested in stargazing events with those who run such events to venues who would like to host them.
The prize draw is open to residents of the United Kingdom (anyone is welcome to complete the survey). Participation in the prize draw is made by way of opting-in when completing the survey. Please complete the survey only once. Upon completion of the survey you will be given a unique website link that you can share with your friends and family — each time your link is used by someone to complete a survey you will earn an additional entry into the prize draw — this up to a maximum of 10 entries per person.
Survey now closed. All prizes have been awarded. Many thanks to everyone who took part!