Caught between the sky and the earth.

4 October 2012


Writer in residence Pippa Goldschmidt on being caught between the sky and the earth.


When we peer at the night sky, we usually still have our feet on the ground. Even when we’re looking at objects thousands of lightyears away, it’s difficult to completely forget our surroundings.


In recognition of its incredibly low levels of lght pollution and correspondingly extremely dark skies, Galloway has been awarded Dark Sky Status, the first such designation in Europe, and this is something to celebrate.


So what does it feel like, observing the stars from here? Standing on the street in Wigtown and looking up, I’m aware of bats flying low overhead. It’s cold and you’re never sure when the next rain will come. There was a full Moon a few days ago, a beautiful sight, but lethal to any serious attempts at stargazing, as the whole sky is lit up.


Silhouette of the County Buildings. An inviting smell of chips. A few midgies.


It’s cold. It’s often cold when you’re looking at the stars. I’m searching for the Milky Way, the wide smudge of stars in our galaxy, and the acid test of any decent sky. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m hopeful I’ll spot it sometime this week. My neck hurts so I go back indoors. I’m not a very good observer. After a bit I start whining about being cold or tired.


The darkest sky I have ever seen is from the mountains in Chile, one of the best countries in the world for astronomy. There, the sky is so full of stars their light guides your way when you’re walking at night. But the cold is bitter. When you’re observing all night you need to eat regularly to help keep awake, and the telescope control room smells of coffee, cheese sandwiches and dry ice, used to cool the telescope’s camera.


But you don’t need to be anywhere that remote or have fancy equipment to spot something amazing. Earlier on this year I stood outside my house in East Lothian and watched Venus, very near Jupiter in the early evening sky and Mars, further away in the East. All three planets made a straight line stretching out from the setting Sun, the most extraordinary illustration of the fact that the solar system occupies a thin plane in the sky.


Then I went inside to cook my dinner.