The British are accustomed to seeing clear night skies, but they’re rare. These amazing photos show that the sky is never dull and the universe can still put on an incredible performance when it does.
These images were taken by Dan Monk (30), an Astronomer and Director of Astrophotography, Kielder Observatory in Northumberland.
One photograph captures the majesty of the Milky Way, which he explains is ‘roughly 100,000 light-years’ away from the Earth, while another illustrates the Andromeda Galaxy, a collection of half a billion stars. A third picture shows Comet Neowise crossing the Earth at 144,000mph.
Dan was born in Sunderland and began studying the night sky as an adult. Later, he became interested in astrophotography, which allowed him to observe more stars. He says: ‘Although looking through a telescope is an amazing experience, the human eye can’t compare to the detail that a camera can “see”.’
He loves to photograph celestial events in Wales, Northumberland and the Lake District. ‘There are currently 15 designated dark sky places in the UK as recognised by the International Dark Sky Association and The Northumberland International Dark Sky Park is the largest by area,’ he says.
He continues: ‘The most exciting part of photographing the night sky is being able to expose yourself to breathtaking locations at night. It is magical to sit under the dark skies, surrounded by serene scenery and the sounds of the camera clicking away ancient light photons. Scroll down to see awe-inspiring examples of Dan’s work…
If you look up, the Milky Way will be visible through Dan’s lens. This stunning picture was taken at Broad Haven South Beach, Pembrokeshire in Wales. What is the distance to the Milky Way from us? Dan claims it’s approximately 100,000 light years away. If you travel at the speed that light would allow you to reach the Galaxy in 100,000 years. He also said that the New Horizons spacecraft, which was launched from Earth in 2006 at 36,000mph (57.936kph) took 9 years to reach Pluto. To travel the entire length of the Milky Way, it would require two billion years.
Broad Haven South Beach also captured an amazing shot of Milky Way. Dan describes the sky as follows: “Here you can see the Galactic Centre, the heart of our galaxy. Because of its abundance of stars it is the galaxy’s brightest area. The Galactic Centre is home to a supermassive, four-million mass black hole.
This stunning image captures the aurora borealis above the remains of Dunstanburgh Castle (14th century) in Northumberland. Dan said that the light display was “a good one with an obvious structure which can be seen by the naked eye.” Did you wonder what is causing the aurora borealis to appear? Dan says that the Northern Lights can be explained by Earth-directed charged particles from the sun. These particles travel through space, then link with Earth’s magnet field. Through the magnetic field, the solar particles can travel to the poles and interact with the gasses in Earth’s atmosphere. This creates the aurora. Dan says that aurora displays, as beautiful and rare as they may be, are not common in Britain. According to Dan, “The Northern Lights require perseverance in the UK.” We might only see one or two decent displays per year depending on the solar activity. Northern England sees them less frequently, but they are visible more often in the northern latitudes like Scotland. We would see the lights more often if we didn’t have such gloomy weather!’
Look at this’starry skies’ above Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland. Dan captured the striking image in clear skies that night. Dan claims that the stars in the image’s brightest light are the constellations of prominent winter stars. He reveals that the visible stars of Auriga Perseus Andromeda, Aries, and Perseus are all clearly visible.
The Geminids meteor shower of 2018 was captured at Sycamore Gap in Northumberland. The composite image was made from multiple photos taken over three hours. Dan said that the Geminids were one of the largest showers in the year. Under a dark sky, you might see one shooting star every 1 to 2 minutes at their peak. The Geminid meteor shower’s Zenithal Hourly Rat (ZHR), which can produce up to 120 meteors each hour, is what Dan explains. This means if the radiant of the shower was directly overhead, you were in perfect dark skies with no moonlight, and you could look in every direction of the sky all at once, you’d see 120 per hour. Although impossible to see, if you are in a dark area and the shower is occurring on a night without a moon, one meteor may be seen every one or two minutes. You can see them yourself. Dan says that the Geminds are at their peak in December 13, 14 and 14. They can be seen best from the north hemisphere because of the radiant high.
Northumberland 2020 Geminid meteor shower shot. Dan described the amazing shot as a composite image that included seven meteors captured in a 1-hour timelapse. He adds: ‘I’d have loved more meteors but the clouds arrived!’ Dan clarifies the history of meteors by explaining that “Meteors” are small particles of dust from the Solar System. They burn high in Earth’s atmosphere. These meteors can reach as high as 50 miles or 80 miles above the Earth’s surface.
This amazing shot captures the Comet Neowise in County Durham, July 2020. Dan tried five times to capture the comet and finally succeeded in capturing this composite image. Dan says that comet speed changes drastically due to the highly eccentric orbits. You can see them slowing down further away from the sun while speeding up closer. Comet Neowise traveled approximately 144,000 miles per hour as it passed Earth, which is twice the speed Earth orbits the sun.
LEFT: The enchanting photo shows an ‘unique tree in a field,’ located on the Northumberland side of A69. Dan was able to see the tree at his house so he set off to take a picture. The most prominent constellation visible in the picture is Ursa Major, also known as ‘The Great Bear’, Dan reveals, though he notes that the most recognisable part of the constellation is ‘The Plough’ or ‘Big Dipper’. Dan adds that the tilt-shift technique was used to capture the image. It is the point where the stars become more in focus at the top. RIGHT: The poignant photograph was captured in Northumberland after Storm Arwen raged in England late in November 2021. Dan described the photo as “the calm after storm”, adding that “Northumberland was battered by Storm Arwen”. Dan recalls that he was able to count 70 trees along the path from the observatory after arriving at work. “On my return home, I saw this single surviving tree in a field. I stopped to snap a picture.” Is there anything we can see in the skies? Dan says: “This region of the Milky Way, also known as the Cygnus Region,” is home to ionised hydrogen clouds that are located thousands of light years from Earth. These ionised clouds of hydrogen can be seen in the image as pink/red blotches. He said that special hydrogen filters are used by astrophotographers to separate the light coming from these areas, making them stand out.
Cast your eye above and you’ll see a breathtaking picture of the Milky Way over the 16th-century Lindisfarne Castle on Northumberland’s Holy Island. Dan talks about his first trip to Holy Island, and the Lindisfarne Castle. ‘It’s very photogenic at all angles – I couldn’t stop running around with the camera.’ Dan describes the dark band across the sky as “The plane of Milky Way” and says that it is full of gas and dust. These gas and dust could be remnants from the death of stars or areas that are still in formation. The galaxy’s high level of carbonaceous dust can be seen in the Milky Way as a large dark rift. This obstructs light from distant stars.
The stunning image shows the Milky Way breaking through summer’s twilight above the Isle of Man. The photograph was taken by Dan on the southwest coast Scotland. ‘I wasn’t intending on going for this shot, but I quite liked the effect from the pockets of light pollution coming from the island,’ he says. Dan says that the camera is capable of capturing far more stargazing images than the human eye. “The naked eye is able to see approximately 2,500-3,000 stars within one hemisphere, if fully dark-adapted.” Dan says. This number can be increased to the millions by using a sensitive sensor camera for a prolonged exposure. You can also see the Milky Way structures brighter and clearlyer with a highly sensitive camera sensor.
LEFT: Dan refers to this photo as ‘The Road to the Milkyway’. This composite photo shows the Milky Way crossing the Kielder Viaduct in Northumberland, which is a bridge built in 19th century. “In the UK the galactic center” [of the Milky Way]It is the most visible in summer. However, the bright summer evenings make it difficult to see. Dan adds that the best times to observe the night sky are when the astronomical darkness has returned in July and May, before the astronomical dark recedes in June. He adds: ‘To get the best view of the night sky it’s important to travel as far as possible from the artificial lighting that plagues urban areas. Cities can obscure fainter stars and reduce the number of stars the human eye can see. Right: This photograph depicts a tree silhouetted against the Milky Way on Northumberland’s Military Road. Dan adds: ‘Just to the left of the Milky Way there’s a small elongated fuzzy patch. It is called the Andromeda Galaxy, which is made up of half a billion stars and 2.5 million light-years from Earth. Dan says that the 20 second exposure is typical for nightscapes. He also explains, “The Milky Way becomes brighter if the sensor of the camera is left exposed to sunlight longer.” Nightscapes are typically photographed at exposures between 10 and 30 seconds.
You’ll find a stunning view of the Milky Way passing over Buttermere Lake, Cumbria’s Lake District. Dan said that the Milky Way’s eastern part runs through Aquila (and Scutum) constellations. Dan also stated, “This region of the Milky Way is visible from the dark sky. The astronomer says that cloudy weather is one of the greatest challenges to astrophotography. According to him, ‘Unfortunately clear nights are rare in the UK. Astro images require a lot more planning. Describing the conditions that he endures when out photographing, Dan says: ‘The winter months can be tough when I’m out until the early hours in temperatures as low as -10 degrees, but overcompensating with warm clothing does the job’
LEFT: These magical shots of the Milky Way were taken in the Simonside Hills (a Northumberland hill range). Dan recounts his perch at the top of the rock in the photograph. He admits that it was scary to stand on the edge a steep cliff at night. What is the relationship between the Sun and the Milky Way? Dan explained that our solar system lies 26,000 light-years away from the centre. To complete one orbit around the galaxy, it takes The Sun 250 million years. RIGHT: The Milky Way is visible above Cawfields Quarry (a Northumberland park). Dan states that gazing up at the Milky Way while in tranquil rural surroundings really makes life seem more manageable. Thinking of the countless possibilities in space and time make you realise that you’re just an infinite blip in the cosmic timescale.’ According to Dan, despite the fact that there are 200-400 billion stars in the Milky Way, we’re only looking at one small portion of it. This could have tens to billions.