Sussex Dark Skies Festival promises stargazing extravaganza

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They include The wonders of the ‘red planet’, live tours of the night’s sky, stunning astrophotography, nocturnal wildlife talks, children’s colouring activities and a chance to win a top-of-the-range telescope.

The fortnight of cosmic fun begins on Friday, February 12 with an action-packed line-up brought directly to you, including top tips for stargazing in the garden.

This year our Dark Skies Festival is all about the personal experience of the night skies where you live, learning about the constellations, the history and folk lore that goes with them, and the nocturnal wildlife that depends on them.

Dark Skies Butser Hill SUS-210129-120855001
Dark Skies Butser Hill SUS-210129-120855001

The festival will also be finding out why looking at the stars is so good for our mental wellbeing and what we can all do to protect our skies in the future.

There will be live linkups to the South Downs Planetarium for tours of the night sky, and a chance to join South Downs National Park rangers as they set up for an evening of stargazing in their own back garden.

People taking part will be able to explore what wildlife comes out at night on a night-time safari with rangers.

Two authors will tell how they have come to believe that it is more important than ever to reconnect with our dark skies heritage.

Dark Skies 4 Bury Hill by Sean Lewis SUS-210129-120236001

The festival gets underway with a real-time tour of the night sky with acclaimed astronomer Professor John Mason, from the South Downs Planetarium and Science Centre. Professor Mason will be identifying what we can see in the sky that night and pointing out interesting sights and constellations.

Coinciding with the expected landing of the NASA rover Perseverance on Mars on February 18, Professor Mason will be giving a talk about the historic landing later in the festival.

Perseverance launched on July 30 last year to explore the planet for evidence of alien life, both past and present. The rover is targeting a landing site inside Mars’ Jezero Crater – an ancient lakebed that may have once been habitable for simple life.

The start of half-term on Monday, February 15 will see an interactive Facebook Live session, with national park rangers Charles and Kate setting up a stargazing evening in their back garden.

Dark Skies Rottingdean SUS-210129-120905001

A night-time safari walk, short films on wildlife, live Instagram chats with accomplished authors, and stunning footage of space will be among the highlights of the virtual event.

The event celebrates the national park’s status as an International Dark Sky Reserve – one of only 18 in the world and recognising it as one of the best places globally to capture immense views of the stars.

Dan Oakley, a lead ranger who helps oversee the national park’s Dark Sky status, said: “Our Dark Skies Festival will be different this year, but we’re really hoping to be able to inspire people about how amazing and important our dark skies are.

“It’s going to have something for everyone – whether you’re interested in nocturnal wildlife, stargazing, astrophotography or people’s connection with the cosmos throughout history. Coinciding with half term, we hope it’s going to give people of all ages some fun learning and interesting activities they can do while staying at home.”

Dark Skies 1 night sky over Arundel by Jamie Fielding SUS-210129-120225001

Event organisers are also hoping that people will share their stories, images and videos – such as sounds of nocturnal wildlife in their garden – that the national park can then share on social media as part of the festival.

More than 150 entries have been received for the national park’s first astrophotography competition and the winning images, as well as other stunning shots, will be revealed throughout the festival.

The top prize is £150 in each of the three photography categories – South Downs Dark Skyscapes, Living Dark Skies – People and Nature, and Our Magnificent Moon.

Dan, originally a physicist and known locally as ‘Dark Skies Dan’, added: “Dark Skies are under threat – particularly in the South East. We consider the star-studded skies above our heads are as valuable as our beautiful rolling landscapes.

“There’s growing evidence that dark skies help nature to flourish and are vital for ecosystems to function. The evidence is showing that light can be very disruptive to many different species, not just from a disruption to their circadian body clocks, but also as a barrier to migration, movement and ecosystem integrity.

“A whole range of species, including birds, bats, amphibians and invertebrates rely on dark habitat and the natural shift from night to day.

Dark Skies – Dan SUS-210129-120845001

“Therefore, dark skies are a key component for nature recovery – which is one of key priorities for the South Downs National Park over the next five to 10 years.

“Apart from anything, it’s a real spectacle to see these immense views of the night’s sky in the South Downs – connecting not only with nature but also the wider universe.

“I think most people would agree it’s a very humbling and calming experience that gives us a much wider perspective. It’s an amazing universe that we live in on this little planet called Earth and it’s also amazing that Mars may also have had biodiversity.”

The big Dark Skies quiz runs from February 15 to February 28, with prizes including a state-of-the-art telescope worth £300, a year’s subscription to BBC Sky at Night magazine, a wall chart of the cosmos and a wall chart of the moon. People must register for the quiz to receive the questions.

As well as the events listed in our guide to the festival, on Saturday, February 27 at 10am there will be a screening of a short film, with ‘Dark Skies Dan’ explaining what we can all do to keep our wonderful starry skies dark.

Then, on Sunday, February 28, voting opens for the Astrophotography People’s Choice Award.

To inspire people, winning entries from the South Downs first Astrophotography competition will be shown throughout the festival.

There will also be a Dark Skies Pinterest Board as well as colouring sheets of the planets and nocturnal wildlife and lots of craft activities to try at homes.

People can register to take part by visiting www.bigdarkskiesquiz.makequiz.no/. All the details for the festival and how to take part will be available by visiting the website – www.southdowns.gov.uk/dark-night-skies/festival

Dark Skies 2 Cowdray by Daniel Greenwood SUS-210129-120300001
Dark Skies 3 by Simon Downs SUS-210129-120209001

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