Stellar Explosions: Bright lights in the night sky

Your guide to the latest stellar explosion, explaining the science behind it and where you can see it. 

A detailed view at the tattered remains of a supernova explosion known as Cassiopeia A.

There’s been excitement among astronomers lately about an upcoming stellar explosion that’s like no other we’ve witnessed in recent years. Just over a week ago a stellar explosion was noticed in the M82 Galaxy, which is 11.4 million light-years away. This may seem like a long distance, but a stellar explosion this close to the earth hasn’t been seen since 1987. The exploding star is expected to become increasingly brighter over the next week or two before starting to fade away again, and astronomers are hoping to deduce a great deal of useful information during the time it’s shining brightly.

Advertisement

What is a stellar explosion?

A stellar explosion can also be refered to as a nova or supernova depending on its strength, and is sometimes called the death of a star. It happens for one of two reasons. A type 1, which this stellar explosion is thought to be, involves a White Dwarf and a Red Giant orbiting one-another. Although the White Dwarf is smaller than the Red Giant it is much denser, and so starts to drag matter away from the larger star. The increasing density and temperature inside the White Dwarf sets off a process of nuclear fusion inside its core.  Enough energy is released in this process for the star to explode.  There are variations in this phenomenon, but this stellar explosion is suspected to be a normal 1a type. A type 2 explosion involves only one Red Giant star and takes place when the star becomes so great that it can no longer support its own mass and its core collapses. 

As a natural process in the life of a star stellar explosions happen regularly, but the comparative closeness of this stellar explosion is what makes it particularly special. Astronomic technology and knowledge have developed a lot since 1987 and scientists are hoping to be able to learn more about supernovae by seeing this stellar explosion up close.  They not only hope to discover more detail about the actual process, but also to use it as a way to more accurately measure cosmic distances. Because stellar explosions follow a regular pattern of luminosity as they increase and decrease in brightness this means scientists can use this stellar explosion as a marker-point to judge distances from the earth.

It’s not just the professionals who’re hoping to catch a glimpse of it. Because the supernova will appear to shine so brightly it will be possible to see it without being in an observatory or needing an expensive professional telescope. You still won’t be able to see it with the naked eye though, so to get the best out of the event you’ll still need a reasonable telescope or at least a strong pair of binoculars. You’re also more likely to get a clear view in an area free from light pollution. To help you out, we’ve put together a list of the best places in Britain for stargazing where you’re likely to get the best view of this stellar explosion.

If you travel to one of these spots or a similarly rural, and possibly wild, environment make sure you take appropriate warm clothing, a torch, and a means of communication in case you get into difficulty. On a clear winter night when you’re sat still for a long period of time there’s an increased risk of hypothermia, so it’s also a good idea to have a survival bag or thermal blanket and warm drink in case you get cold.

When searching the night sky it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint what you want to see unless you know what you’re looking for. It might be helpful to try and witness this event with an amateur astronomer or join a local astronomy club to see it. This will mean you have someone to guide you across the night sky and teach you what to look for. 

Where to see the stellar explosion

Wide, open spaces free from light pollution will give the clearest view of the night sky and therefore provide the best chance of seeing the Stellar Explosion.  We’ve included a mixture of locations, some of which have been certified as good places to find a clear night sky by the International Dark Sky Association, and others known to have some of the lowest light levels in Britain.

Exmoor, Devon

Much of the North Devon coastline is relatively unaffected by light pollution, but Exmoor is the most uninhabited area. It’s a silver level International Dark Sky Reserve benefiting from moderate inclines, giving a high points for stargazing that aren’t exceptionally dangerous to climb in the dark. That said, much of the terrain is boggy and rough so it’s best to stick to marked paths if possible. Dunkery Beacon is the highest point on Exmoor and recommend as good place to get an open view across the night sky.

The Brecon Beacons, Carmarthenshire

The Brecon Beacons are also a silver International Dark Sky Reserve. Like much of central Wales they suffer very little from light pollution so are a safe bet for seeing the stellar explosion. The highest points of the Beacons are dangerous to climb in the dark without a proper guide or impeccable knowledge of the path, but lower ridges will still allow you a good view. The Usk and Crai reservoirs are officially recommended for stargazing, as are the National Park Visitor Centre and Hay Bluff hill.

Northumberland National Park, Northumberland  

In 2013 Northumberland National Park was given a gold award by the International Dark Skies Association. The park authorities are beginning to create specific sites and facilities for those wanting to stargaze, and recommend Elf Kirk viewpoint and the areas surrounding Greenhaugh and Byrness villages as good places to go. Kielder Water & Forest Park to the north also possesses similarly dark skies.

Galloway Forest Park, Dumfries & Galloway

Commonly believed to be one of the best places to look at space in all of Scotland. A forest may seem an odd place to go for an unbroken view of the skies, but from Galloway Forest Park it’s possible to see over 7000 stars. Much of the Scottish Highlands are of course relatively uninhabited and free from light pollution, but the inaccessibility of some Highland areas makes Galloway Forest Park a good alternative. 

St. Agnes, Cornwall

Given dark sky status just this month by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, St. Agnes in Cornwall boasts an isolated costal location from which to see the stellar explosion. St. Agnes Head and the nearby Chapel Porth beach are pinpointed as particularly spectacular places to see the stars from. Just remember, beware of the sheer cliff edges!

The Peak District, Derbyshire

The Peak District has made a lot of effort recently to work towards preserving the darkness of its skies. A rural gem in the once industrial West Midlands, The Peaks is one of the most accessible and frequently visited parks in Britain. Once again, the steepness and height of the mountains makes them unsuitable to climb alone in the dark, but Surprise View, Parsley hay and Minninglow have all been officially singled out as dark sky spots. 

The Yorkshire Dales, Yorkshire

The dales are often seen as being much gentler and greener than the moors, but are an equally good place to see a stellar explosion. The rounded ridges of both the moors and the dales make them ideal for finding a piece of ground raised up enough to provide a clear view of the horizon. Within easy reach of heavily built up West Yorkshire areas, the dales are a great place to escape from city light pollution.

Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

Stonehenge country is one of the best locations to witness astrological phenomena from.  The openness and emptiness of the landscape and the absence of big cities throwing out light pollution provide perfect conditions for seeing the night sky. Stonehenge’s links to astrology no doubt make it even more appealing, and routes across the plain are relatively easy to walk – so if you don’t want a difficult journey to the ideal stargazing spot, this might be the place for you.  

Romney Marsh, Kent

A highly populated county due to its close proximity to London, Kent is fortunate to benefit from some dark spots. Just inland from the impressive Dungeness peninsular on the south coast, Romney Marsh is an incredibly flat expanse of land with far reaching views and nearly unbroken skies. The Romney Marsh Visitor Centre runs regular stargazing events, and the marsh is surrounded by a number of hills if you want to look out from a higher point. 

The Lincolnshire Wolds, Lincolnshire

Advertisement

An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with the highest land between Yorkshire and Kent. These rolling hills run from near the river Humber to the Lincolnshire town of Spilsby, through an area with some of the lowest levels of light pollution in the UK.  Anywhere in the relatively uninhabited ring of Lincolnshire countryside around The Wash is also a great place to stargaze because of the long stretch of almost unbroken darkness found here.