Cosmic news: not only have officials been surveying all the land on St Helena, but now an astronomer is on his way to survey the sky.
The stars above Diana’s Peak could become another “national park” in all but name, attracting a new kind of tourist.
That’s if Steve Owens finds that the sky is sufficiently clear for the island to qualify as an International Dark Sky Place.
As Steve says on his star-gazing website, light pollution is a big problem for astronomers living near cities (he lives in the Scottish city of Glasgow). The orange glow obscures all but the brightest stars:
“There are increasingly fewer places where stargazers can enjoy an unspoiled dark sky, but the further you travel from urban areas the more stars you will see, and St Helena as about as far as it’s possible to be from the next town.
“Under such dark skies the Milky Way can be seen stretching from horizon to horizon in an arc overhead, and the heavens are studded with thousands of stars and many nebulae, including the dramatic Magellanic clouds not visible from far northern latitudes.”
Steve has been invited to the island by Vince Thompson – who knows about these things – and the St Helena Tourism Association.
He says: “The St Helena Tourism Association came up with the idea of promoting St Helena as one of the best places in the world to pursue astronomy and general star-gazing, either as a hobby or a profession.
“It could well mean a few more visitors and, in turn, a few more customers for the Association’s members.
“The general idea of promoting astronomy in St Helena has caught on really well with the St Helena Tourism and the St Helena Development Agency, both of whom are contributing to the costs of Steve’s visit.
Steve Owens is going to have a busy eight-day visit, touring schools, giving public talks and workshops as well as seeing the island’s governor and addressing the Legislative Council.”
The expert is travelling in the wake of celebrated astronomers Edmund Halley and Neville Maskelyne, armed not just with a telescope but also with a Sky Quality Meter, to assess the brightness overhead – or lack of it.
The “audit” of the sky is only one step on the path to attracting earth-bound space travellers. New codes on lighting would also be needed if St Helena is to join other remote places in winning Dark Sky status.
Sark, in the Channel Islands – so small it doesn’t even have cars – is one of only 16 International Dark Sky Places around the world.
St Helena has a special attraction – apart from its connections with Halley and Maskelyne, a future Astronomer Royal: “Its location at 16° south of the equator means that virtually every constellation is on display at some time throughout the year,” says the visitor.
Sadly for Steve, he won’t be on the island to observe the rare Transit of Venus, which is what brought the future Astronomer Royal, Maskelyne, to the island. There won’t be another for 100 years.
But he will be arriving in Global Astronomy Month (April).
St Helenians who can’t wait for Steve’s findings to be declared can join in with International Dark Sky Week (14-20 April 2012). Suggestions include throwing a star party, and there’s a website with an online children’s activity book, here.