The Audi Q5 quattro in the South Downs National Park

Stars in our skies


We drive the all-new Audi Q5 quattro to the UK’s latest dark sky reserve to find out more about why there’s a growing movement to protect views of the stars above

A view of the starry sky from the interior of the Audi Q5 quattro

Dan Oakley, the South Downs National Park's lead ranger, raises his hand heavenwards and combs his fingers through the Milky Way. 'When you start to see it twinkling away like that, it puts a smile on your face,' he says, his own face radiant in the starlight. 'It's a way of connecting people with galactic-sized nature and essentially it's our home. Why not protect the dark skies? Who doesn't want to see more stars?'

Dark Skies Dan, as he's known within stargazing circles, was instrumental in winning the South Downs National Park its International Dark Sky Reserve designation in 2016. It's the third UK national park to achieve this status, along with Brecon Beacons and Exmoor.

 The lead ranger of the South Downs National Park, Dan Oakley

The starry night sky as seen from the South Downs National Park

Protecting the dark skies is a growing phenomenon spearheaded by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), based in Arizona in the US. The night sky for an IDA reserve needs to be equal to or darker than 20 magnitudes per square arc second, Dan explains, holding his sky quality meter up in the sky. The lights on the small black box read 20.45, climbing to 20.78 a few minutes later.

We've travelled in an all-new Audi Q5 quattro to meet Dan on the edge of the South Downs near the village of Buriton. It's ideal for the muddy tracks, and we've also opted for the panoramic sunroof so we can start our star-spotting early. However, the first stars we see are on the configurable virtual cockpit display – as dusk settles the stars appear on the screen behind the steering wheel, which, like the sat nav, mirrors the sky.

The South Downs is an unusual location for a Dark Sky Reserve because two million people live within five kilometres of the space. People bring lots of artificial light, but that doesn't mean the darkness will be adversely impacted. It's how the lights are installed that's important, says Dan. 'They need to point downwards, not out, and only be turned on when you need them.' As if on cue, a bright security light illuminates in the distance, noticeably diminishing the view of the stars above.

After a few minutes the sky is once again plunged into darkness and the stars emerge, twinkling, like forgotten friends. Dan trains the telescope on Pleiades, a cluster of stars 60 million years old – 'about as old as the South Downs chalk we're standing on now' – and studies their form. 'We got the designation and now we're educating and encouraging people to enjoy the dark skies, and take care of them. If people are going to grow up and never see the Milky Way, that would be such a shame.'

Written by Helene Dancer. Photographs by Wilson Hennessy

 

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The Audi Q5 quattro in the South Downs National Park at night