Sharing a memory of the time I was a young girl living on Scotland’s north east coast in the early sixties might seem like a strange way to begin an article on Norfolk’s night sky, but I do so to illustrate a point.
My interest in all things celestial began when my older brother would take me out on crisp evenings with his little telescope to search the heavens for constellations and inner planets. He was the budding astronomer who tuned in to watch BBC’s Sky at Night programme hosted by the monocled expert, Patrick Moore, and I was the young dreamer who followed her sibling and admired his passion for astronomy. The trick was to set up the telescope away from street lights and wait for a clear patch of sky to identify any objects that appeared. Patience would be rewarded, and I remember the excitement of a night when my brother told me he’d spotted Saturn. He motioned me to look through the telescopic lens saying, “Careful now, you have to stay very still or you’ll move it out of place.” With eyes squinted I peered through the glass and, a bit disappointed, watched as a blurry ball of light bobbed around in erratic fashion before clouds came scudding along and blocked out old Kronos for good. The Greek God taught me the lesson of time and patience in the most literal sense. Apart from fond memories of childhood spent star-gazing with my older sibling in Scotland, I can say that over half-a-century later Norfolk Island provides a far superior experience when examining the abode of our glorious solar system.
Whether you’re a dreamy idealist or the analytical-scientific type, there’s a common thread that links us all. The need for love and belonging. And those feelings can be ignited when we step outside on a clear evening and tilt our heads toward the night sky. Transfixed, we gaze in wonder at the Milky Way’s gossamer-like net stretching across the darkness, and marvel at the afterglow of stars many light years from our earthly existence. Lovers gaze at the beauty of another world elevated beyond the mundane, a world befitting of their romantic nature. Scientists are attracted by the complexity of astronomical events throughout time.
The creation of our universe is deeply connected to who we are in both a metaphysical and physical way. To paraphrase the astronomer, Carl Sagan, we are made from the stuff of stars.
“…Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us…”
Surrounded by the South Pacific Ocean, the night sky on Norfolk can be breathtaking thanks to most of the island being in darkness. During the day Norfolk paints a rich and colourful landscape with towering cliffs, verdant hills, and majestic pines that now form an orderly structure after the initial chaos of its three million year-old volcanic birth. The nocturnal canvas unfolds in opposition as the Sun slips below the horizon, and the Moon and constellations rise in the east. Pink hues blend with deep blue, eyes refocus in emerging darkness and tiny glints of silver appear. Our star-by-day gives way with grace to a different view, and clusters of night stars shine with a radiance not found in cities. On a clear evening the luminosity of planets such as Venus and Jupiter delight us with their regal appearance. The Moon’s brilliance is front and centre of this interstellar world, and highlights the mystical backdrop.
Visitors travel to the island to experience its unique light and clarity, including photographers who are aware of the many creative opportunities to capture that perfect moment of beauty. Among those regular visitors is professional photographer Ian Rolfe. Ian has brought groups to Norfolk for workshops, and this September will be his 16th such visit. I asked Ian about his first impressions of the night sky when viewed from Norfolk Island’s platform.
“…There are fewer places in the world than the night skies on Norfolk Island that can be such a wonderful encounter. To stand and gaze into the heavens in a clear spot such as Kingston, especially near the bays and beaches and cemetery is unforgettable, and to photograph this dark night sky is an extraordinary experience….”
Ian continued to describe the climate and conditions, saying “…Norfolk offers sub-tropical balmy nights, even in the winter months, without the numbing coldness that a night in the open elsewhere might give…even in the outback and desert regions, extreme cold and heavy dew at night make it hard to photograph. The night light pollution you often get from towns and cities is completely missing, and it being an island, the coastal breezes often keep the air clear. The clarity is superb.”
In 1986, Norfolk Island had the privilege of witnessing one of history’s best documented celestial events. With its regular sojourn around our Sun every 76 years or so, Halley’s Comet passed through our solar system and the best views of the comet were seen in the northern hemisphere. Nevertheless, due to Norfolk Island’s unique conditions it was seen here in the early hours of the morning. The comet is quirky, because of its travel motion. It travels in retrograde mode i.e. it goes in the opposite direction to our solar system’s planets. The composition of this type of celestial body cannot be described as exotic, however its appearance was mesmerising for locals and the many astronomers who travelled to the island for the occasion.
Halley’s comet can be described as ‘the gift that keeps on giving’. The dust and debris left by the comet provide us with a spectacular sight in October and May of each year. The Orionid meteor showers appear in October when the earth passes through Halley’s path around the Sun. The meteors appear to come from the constellation, Orion (hence the name) and are most visible after midnight and just before dawn. Similarly, the meteor showers Eta Aquarids are a result of the same phenomenon, coming from the direction of the constellation, Aquarius. This particular shower can be seen in April / May during the early morning, just before dawn.
There are a few Greek myths surrounding the constellation, Orion. One of the tales describes Orion the Hunter as the son of the sea god, Poseidon. After a series of dramatic events typical of Greek mythology, Orion was killed by a giant scorpion. Zeus, the ruler of the Earth placed Orion in the heavens among the constellations. The story of Aquarius, the Water Bearer, also holds the same pathos and tragedy. Love and jealousy were the themes that led Ganymede, the beautiful young man of Troy, to eventually be sent to the heavens as a constellation. These ancient mythologies describe a sense of belonging both here on earth and in the heavens. We belong to a planetary system that hitched its wagon to our solar god, Apollo, and together we wander through the cosmos, yet still at home within ourselves.
Norfolk Island, like many communities, is home to people who bond with one another and with nature. Daily lives revolve around regular activities and connections with family, friends and those who visit for a short time. Our night sky reflects that same existence.
Constellations are families of stars that stay together bound by their gravitational pull, and our solar system also receives visitors in the form of comets and meteor showers. We are connected on a deep level and, as Carl Sagan intimated, the cosmos, our home, is not ‘out there’ to be seen as a separate body. It is also within us. We are made
of the same, heavenly stuff.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 02 Issue 02, 2018. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.