Speakers will include Guy Consolmagno, affectionately known as “the Pope’s Astronomer”.
“Astronomy compels the soul to look up and takes us from this world to another.” Thus wrote Plato in the 4th century BC.
Throughout our history, humanity has been obsessed with the stars and the universe as it extends beyond the confines of our earth. From primitive fear and ancient lore to modern exploration and its great breakthroughs, the celestial bodies – their origins, their nature and their movements – continue to fill us with wonder and a hunger to learn more.
Astronomy is more popular today than ever. Recent images from the James Webb Space Telescope have blown our minds as they allow us to see objects that are too old, distant or faint for the Hubble Space Telescope. Suddenly everything seems possible – observations of the first stars and galaxies, of yawning black holes, of distant worlds around other stars.
As we rely on NASA to provide us with these stunning images, all we have to do is step beneath the Mayo night sky to feel that humbling sense of awe and wonder. And during the chaos of Covid, many did just that, seeking the reassuringly reliable rhythms of nature, the familiar constellations overhead, moving predictably across our field of vision when all else was in flux. Mayo News readers feel comfortable in countless images of local nightscapes, capturing beautiful images of the Milky Way, the Aurora Borealis and more.
Of course, here in Mayo we’re blessed with our own internationally acclaimed Dark Sky Park, a nod to the exceptionally clear sky views we get thanks to our low light pollution.
Wild Nephin National Park and Mayo Dark Sky Park span 47 square miles of mountainous Atlantic bogs and forests. Observing sites for visiting astronomers have been designated and ranked according to their ease of access and the facilities available. Signature lookouts include the Claggan Mountain Boardwalk, Letterkeen Bothy and the Wild Nephin National Park Visitor Center in Ballycroy.
The annual Mayo Dark Sky Festival is taking place from 4th to 6th November this year with a variety of events planned for Newport, Mulranny and Ballycroy. Since its inception in 2016, this popular festival has attracted leading astronomers, top cosmologists and amateur stargazers from across Ireland and beyond. This year’s stellar line-up should once again prove to be a major attraction.
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, will give a lecture on the different perspectives on the great questions of the universe, from Paul and Augustine to Galileo, Kepler and Newton to Stephen Hawking. He is the co-author of two astronomy books, Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope – and How to Find Them (with Dan M Davis) – a seminal book for amateur astronomers – and Worlds Apart: A Textbook on Planetary Sciences” (with Martha W. Schaefer).
Also on the lineup is Professor Mark McCaughrean, senior adviser on science and exploration at the European Space Agency. McCaughrean is working with the James Webb Space Telescope team and will be sharing the latest exciting data from there.
Professor Sera Markoff from the University of Amsterdam will talk about her work with the Event Horizon Telescope team, which captured the first-ever image of this most mysterious of all cosmic phenomena – a black hole. (If you want to freak yourself out, listen to NASA’s recently released audio clip showing sound waves emanating from a supermassive black hole located 250 million light-years away in the Perseus galaxy cluster. It will haunt your dreams.)
dr Karen Weekes – the first Irish woman to row an ocean alone – will give a fascinating talk entitled “Rowing the Atlantic: The night skies” in which she will share with us some of her photos, videos and stories from her previous Atlantic crossing year, with a particular focus on her night rowing experiences.
Popular Irish scientist and broadcaster Éanna Ní Lamhna will also present a talk, ‘Marine Life – Blinded by the Light’, which is expected to explore how light pollution is affecting our marine life and the delicate balance of our aquatic ecosystems has affected.
The effects of light pollution are also being studied by Kevin Gaston, Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of Exeter and Director of the International Dark Sky Association. Gaston has recently conducted studies on the magnitude, dynamics and environmental impact of artificial lighting at night.
During the three days, a planetarium will be set up in Newport, NS, with live commentary from Blackrock Castle Observatory staff.
Not all events are strictly astronomy-related – the festival opens in Ballycroy with a concert by cellist Patrick Dexter, whose videos of performing outside his tiny cottage outside Newport during the pandemic lockdown captured the nation’s hearts. Meanwhile, the weekend ends on Sunday at 6:30pm with a lantern walk to Newport’s legendary St. Patrick’s Church for a concert of heavenly harp and clarinet music with the Dathanna duo.
According to festival director Fiona Hopkins, November is a particularly rewarding time to enjoy the night sky. “The sky is dark from 6pm, the weather can be mild and there are some beautiful stars, constellations and planets to be seen including Cassiopeia, the double star Albireo and the planet Saturn,” she explains. “It’s really magical on a clear night.”
If all of this stargazing seems a little intangible, a little “otherworldly,” or irrelevant to everyday life, perhaps we should ponder the words of the notoriously cantankerous astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle. “Space is not remote at all,” he reminded us. “It’s only an hour’s drive if your car could go straight up.”
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