An Asset to Astronomy

Amy Liptrot meets Dr Marek Kukula

Freelance journalist Amy Liptrot was born in Orkney and grew up on a sheep farm in Sandwick. She now lives in London and has written for publications including NME, Dazed & Confused, Orkney Today and Farmers Guardian. Follow her on twitter @amy_may.

The public astronomer from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich enthuses on the attractions of Orkney for astronomers, as well as inventive ways for Orcadians to get involved in science and stargazing.

I meet Dr Marek Kukula in the cafe of the Astronomy Centre, an impressive new hilltop facility in Greenwich Park, London, equipped with galleries and a planetarium, a public programme of talks and events, seeing 24,000 school children through its schools programme every year. However, the site is no longer an operating observatory – partly due to the problem of light pollution in London – so astronomers have to go further afield for the best night skies, further afield to places like Orkney. Marek came to the Orkney Science Festival in September, and – together with two other astronomers – was part of a three-day programme of talks and night sky watching on North Ronaldsay.

Marek is effusive about the “fantastically dark skies” of Orkney and in particularly on North Ronaldsay, where – with few street lights or lit-up buildings – there is very little light pollution. “The night sky was incredible,” he says. “I actually found it hard to recognise the constellations because there were so many stars visible... You could see things there that you would just never see from London.”

Dr Kukula talks knowledgeably yet is easily understood, fitting his job which is to make sure that the latest research is made available to as many people as possible. “I was for many years a research astronomer,” he explains. “I worked on telescopes like Hubble and was looking at very distant galaxies and trying to understand how and why the universe looks the way it does today and how it has changed since the Big Bang. But in 2008, I took the job here at the Royal Observatory, and my role as public astronomer is really to try and be a bridge between the professional astronomy community and the public, the media and especially young people; to try and get the message out that astronomy is exciting, it tells us really cool things about the universe, who we are and where we come from.”

Dark skies and astronomy tourism

He is enthusiastic about the opportunities of ‘astronomy tourism’ as something to be developed in Orkney, taking advantage of not only the dark skies and panoramic vistas but also the long nights in winter, not the traditional tourist season.

“Within the UK, increasingly some areas are starting to see their dark skies as an asset. The vast majority of the UK population live in towns and cities where there is a lot of light pollution and there are things like the Milky Way and some of the fainter stars which you just never see. We are kind of blind to that part of our natural heritage which to our ancestors would have been taken for granted. So for the last couple of years, Galloway Forest Park, Exmoor National Park and the island of Sark in the Channel Islands have taken advantage of their particularly dark skies and have got official ‘dark sky rating’.”

To get this rating areas have to meet stringent light level requirements, and local authorities have implemented lighting policies. For example, street lighting is designed to “put the light down on the streets where it is needed and not up into the sky where it’s a waste of electricity, money and carbon – and also stops you seeing the beauty of the night sky.”

Light pollution is not just a problem for astronomers. North Ronaldsay is famous as a bird migration stop-off point, and light from towns and cities can be a problem for migrating birds, as they use the stars and the moon to navigate, and can be confused by artificial lights.

And who could be attracted to travel to see such skies? “There are very active astronomers groups all over the UK but a lot of them don’t have the advantage of really dark skies. So if they wanted to have a chance to see some of the more elusive objects in the night sky, they might be willing to travel.”

In January, Sark was declared the first ‘dark sky island’ in the world. Perhaps North Ronaldsay could be next?

Make your own discoveries

One way in which the public, including Orcadians, can get involved in astronomy is through the new area of ‘citizen science’. Marek says: “One of the exciting things about astronomy these days is that it is one of the few sciences where members of the public – complete amateurs – can still make contributions. There are cases every year of amateur astronomers discovering new comets, even new supernovae, because there are far more amateurs than professionals and they are watching the whole sky.”

On websites like Galaxy Zoo, Solar Stormwatch or Planet Hunters, members of the public can log on and get access to real astronomy data from sources including NASA spacecraft: you can look at the images and try to spot noteworthy objects and events.

“There is so much data that professional astronomers don’t have the time or the computing power to analyse it,” Marek says. “There are so many discoveries hidden away in this enormous library of data, that these libraries are a way of the public actually helping the scientists to dig into the data. This is a way that you can make real contributions to cutting-edge science and help to answer some of the burning questions of the twenty-first century. So even if it’s a freezing winter night and you can’t bear to go out – and it’s cloudy anyway – you can still do astronomy on your laptop, sitting by the fire.”

Night sky photography

Another opportunity for keen skywatchers is an astronomy photographer of the year competition, run by The Royal Observatory and the Sky at Night magazine, next open to entries in January 2012. ‘Astrophotography’ is growing in popularity: “You don’t need to have a telescope to take pictures. Although some are through telescopes (there are lots of online guides about how you do that), some are just taken with an ordinary digital camera. We have had some winning photos from absolute beginners who have just gone out there, seen something amazing in the night sky and taken a snap of it.”

Marek says he would love to see photos submitted from Orkney this year: “One of the categories is called ‘earth and space’ which is pictures of the night sky but with some sort of landscape element, and I think Orkney is ideal for that as it has got fantastic skies and you often get the Northern Lights – but you have also got beautiful landscapes and seascapes.”

Interest in astronomy

As someone involved in science communication, Marek was extremely impressed with the enthusiasm in Orkney for the Science Festival events and for astronomy in general: “There was this incredible depth of engagement with the public on the islands and everyone seemed to be really enthusiastic about it and it really seemed to be tailored to the interests of the people themselves... The attendance was incredible, we were getting up to half or two-thirds of the population of the island turning up, and asking questions.”

As well as the hospitality, landscapes and birdlife, he also enjoyed a tour of North Ronaldsay’s newly refurbished lighthouse: “The lighthouse contains great big lenses to focus light from the beam. As an astronomer, who also uses optical equipment, it was great to see all those connections.” He says he would be “back like a shot” if invited again.

The islanders, North Ronaldsay’s Community Association and the school were jointly awarded a telescope from the UK’s Science & Technology Facilities Council  to help them develop their interest in astronomy and to possibly attract more astronomy tourists to the island. The new telescope was christened in a stargazing session under pristine skies, giving perfect views of Jupiter, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Ring Nebula and the brand new supernova SN 2011fe.

One of Marek’s talks in North Ronaldsay was on ‘latest findings in space’ and he speaks to the public about subjects from the latest mission to Mars, the Big Bang and particle physics at the Large Hadron Collider, to black holes and supernovae. “There is so much going on at the moment in astronomy. It’s a really exciting time to be an astronomer. We are starting to answer profound questions about the universe that people have wondered about for centuries and now – in our lifetime – they are starting to be answered.”

The support of this most public of astronomers can only add to the appeal of Orkney as an outstanding destination in which to experience the night sky.

The opening image of Dr Marek Kukula was kindly provided by the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.