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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