8th March 2023
At 14 years old, Miranda Box is one of the youngest Dark Sky Custodians with the ‘Starry, Starry Nights’ project. This is a Chase & Chase project that aims to connect people to the wonderful dark skies of Cranborne Chase.
Here Miranda gives us her thoughts on stargazing, the dark skies of Cranborne Chase, light pollution, and balancing life as a teenager with passion for the stars above.
Photo credit: Paul Howell
I’ve always loved stargazing, even before I developed a profound interest in what’s beyond Earth.
It’s something that can connect us with the nocturnal world and I’ve always been both fascinated and overwhelmed with the night sky.
My family have always appreciated stargazing, but we don’t get many opportunities to do so.
When we would go on holiday to somewhere remote, we’d always have a look upwards. But due to the pandemic and our location around Bristol, we hadn’t seen so many stars in a very long time. Then my mum discovered Cranborne Chase on the internet.
Although I live too far away to volunteer, we still thought it would be a good opportunity to go and look at the stars there.
I voyaged out of Bristol with my family on a chilly night in December. We timed it well as the Geminids were at their peak around that time.
One of my first observations that interested me, and was quite strange, is that I saw Orion’s Belt and looked at the stars around it and I thought it appeared like a triangle with other stars.
‘Is that a constellation by itself?’ I asked, but it wasn’t. It was actually Orion but because there were so many other stars, it’s actually quite hard to pick out constellations. Especially if you’re used to seeing them with no other stars nearby.
You could see Cygnus above but not Cassiopeia; there were too many stars to point it out! It’s hard to recognise constellations in a Dark Sky Park because normally I just see their bright stars on their own. But by King Alfred’s Tower those bright stars are surrounded by slightly darker stars. Absolutely swamped in them.
We saw meteors! As I was busy recording my thoughts, one streaked down the sky, the biggest one yet. I’d seen three so far. Another one – a slow one, Dad said – who was the only one to catch it. “That was across the top of the tower” said Dad, impressed.
And another meteor! Seen without my glasses. I have a full-time prescription, so it’s incredible that I could.
It was quite hazy but there wasn’t any moon around (if there is it can seem blindingly bright). There were a few other people some distance away but apart from that it was pretty solitary. We heard an owl in the distance sometimes; its calls echoed around the hill.
The Pleiades are very good there. It’s quite a generic thing to focus on but when you stare at them through binoculars you get to realise that there’s a lot more than seven of them (obviously it’s quite common knowledge but it’s still quite amazing to look at that cluster).
It really stands out on a night like this more than any other cluster. If you look up, something that’s quite rare for us to see is the Milky Way; anywhere brighter you can’t see that at all.
In Cranborne Chase that night it wasn’t super-clear, but I could definitely make out the whole path – that’s a band that sort of stretches across across the night sky nearly from one horizon to the other. It’s quite hard to look at because you really have to crane your neck to see it but when you look through it with the binoculars I said “…the stars there’s just so many of them, they’re all arranged in nice little grouped rows… don’t know why… it’s quite astounding”.
The stars are all quite faint, not great magnitude but you’re definitely able to see them. It’s great to see something new. Lower down in the sky where there was quite a lot of cloud, it only resembled what you’d see on a really good night in the city – bright stars really spaced out. You can’t see everything else. But if we looked overhead, we had the best views because you could see the Milky Way and there’s a lot more stars than you would expect.
It amazes me how different the sky looks when I’m in a place far from the city. It makes us reflect on light pollution and how it really does affect us. I recently read a novel in which human civilisation as we know it dies away, and the remaining survivors are struck by the millions of myriad stars they didn’t even know were there.
Light pollution is inevitable in our modern society, but there are ways we can reduce its effect somewhat, for example by changing the colour of your outdoor lightbulbs. If you’re interested in having a go at reducing your light pollution, I recommend you get in touch with the Cranborne Chase Dark Sky Custodians! You may not be able to solve the whole problem, but even small changes could let you see a few more stars per night, help out a few animals — and save you some money!
A lot of articles speak on the fact that ‘Stargazing is for everyone’, but a lot of teenagers might not take this statement seriously if it’s coming from an adult writer. This might be due to the fact that we have a lot going on with school or college, or we just don’t always feel included in the word ‘everyone’ as a common misconception is that ‘everyone’ is ‘every adult’.
This is why I think it’s really important to promote inclusivity to all ages. Young people specifically are led by modern culture to spend ages on electronic devices indoors, and most of us don’t get the opportunity to see more than 100 stars in the night sky at any one time.
I think stargazing in Cranborne Chase for me was a very positive experience and a time where I could forget my worries and the stress of everyday life. It’s not always easy for city-dwellers to get out and see the stars however, so why not try when you’re visiting another area? When we arrived the sky was pretty much clear, but a thin yet noticeable layer of haze came after half an hour. Well — what can you expect, it’s Britain isn’t it! There’s obviously going to be cloud sometimes.
That’s why I think if there’s no cloud it’s important to get out as fast as you can because you don’t know when the conditions are going to change. On our way to Cranborne Chase we found a spot that’s not so far from Bristol yet we could see stars almost as good as over by King Alfred’s Tower – not quite as outstanding but still pretty incredible considering its proximity to the city.
So if you find something like that when you’re out, you could have that as a place to go next time. Ideally on a day where you don’t have much schoolwork to do. But when you find the time, try to get outside and stargaze. A place like Cranborne Chase is perfect for rediscovering nature and being able to connect with the worlds just a few light-years away from us.
Miranda is a Dark Sky Custodian with the Chase & Chalke project ‘Starry, Starry Nights’. Read more about the project here.