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North Highlands Night Skies

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The night skies of the North Highlands are some of the darkest in Europe, and attract astronomers and photographers alike. The overall lack of light pollution, allows the true beauty of the night sky to be enjoyed in all its glory. This means that the Milky Way is clearly visible to the naked eye, along with many fainter stars not visible in more populated areas but clearly visible here.

During peaks in Solar Activity, the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) can regularly be seen from the far north. The appearance of these, whilst elusive, can be considered to be the height of any star gazing experience and are on many people’s ‘bucket lists’. To maximise your chances of seeing the elusive aurora, there are four main points:

  1. Check the forecast:
    - In space: visit websites which have daily aurora forecasts. Try Space Weather, AuroraWatch UK or SolarHam.
    – On land: You need a clear night! For the North Highlands there will be a good chance of seeing aurora when the Kp value is 5 or over. If you are lucky it may be possible to see it low on a clear northern horizon when the value is as low as 2.
  2. Plan your time
    – Year: Around the spring and autumn equinoxes there is an increased chance of seeing aurora, and the best times of year for weather and darkness are from September through to April.
    – Month: Avoid times of the month around the full moon as the sky will be bright and moonlight masks faint aurora.
    – Day: The aurora may be visible at any time during the hours of darkness. Check the website links above for latest conditions on the night.
  3. Location
    – Find somewhere outdoors with a low dark northern horizon and minimal light pollution. Many places outside the main towns of the North Highlands are suitable, and you can consult our leaflet for ideas.
  4. Equipment
    – You don’t need any equipment to go star gazing, although in darker locations a torch may be useful for safety.
    – Dress warmly!
    -A star map will help you identify what you are seeing. You can download and print an Evening Sky Map from SkyMaps.
    – Smart phone users can download the free Google Sky Map app.

Below is a realtime feed from AuroraWatchUK on auroral activity:

We have also created a leaflet to assist visitors, which features Castlehill Heritage Centre in Caithness and Leitir Easaidh All Abilities Car Park in Sutherland, which have both been awarded Dark Sky Discovery Site Status by Dark Sky Discovery.

Download Leaflet

North Highland Initiative would like to thank Gordon Mackie, Stewart Watt, Graham Mackay, Val Beales Chalmers, and Maciej Winiarczyk for the use of their fantastic imagery and videos for our website. We would also like to thank Caithness Astronomy Group for their help and expertise in developing the Stargazing leaflet, along with Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd.

 

Useful Links
Local Stargazing Groups:
Caithness Astronomy GroupHighlands Astronomical SocietyAssynt Stargazers,

What’s On In the Skies:
Astronomy Calendar – Highlighting things to see each month in the night sky from the UK.
Space Weather – News and Information about the Sun-Earth environment.
AuroraWatch UK – Real time updates on aurora activity.
SolarHam  – Solar Updates

Dark Sky Discovery,

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