Dwejra is a small bay on the tiny island of Gozo (Malta’s smaller sister island) made famous by its now extinct Azure Window, made even more famous by it’s role in the first season of Game of Thrones. I’d visited this Mediterranean landmark a number of times, hopping on the ferry and keeping an eye out for dolphins in the channel.
This time though, my adventure to Gozo and to Dwejra was for a different purpose. And for that, we had to wait for night to fall.
Dwejra is one of the Malta’s few Dark Sky Heritage Areas: an area free from light pollution and a top spot for stargazing – hard to come by on these fairly crowded little islands. This particular astronomy night was organised by the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy – ISSA – University of Malta and The Astronomical Society of Malta.
We set off on the winding drive from Munxar to Dwejra, thankfully not getting lost on the way, and arrived and Dwejra just as the last shades of ultramarine were clinging on to the horizon. Already, quite a crowd had gathered, and there were some impressive telescopes and photography mounts being set up. I have to admit, I truly felt like an amateur setting up my little travelscope!
Looking up as the night really set in around 9:30, the sky was awash with more stars than I’ve seen in a very long time. The whole sky flickered, it reminded me of how I like to flick white paint onto my cosmic canvases. Our host for the evening pointed out some of the most spectacular summer constellations: the wiggling Scorpio constellation, with Jupiter and the big red star Antares cradled above it. What was most surprising was just how crowded the sky around Jupiter was: I’ve only ever seen it surrounded by one or two before thanks to light pollution.
To their left of Jupiter and Antares was the next giant planet, Saturn, shining brighter and higher than I’d seen it before and surrounded by its own bed of stars. Continuing left, and just beginning to emerge from behind Fungus Rock and the solitary tower, was the subtlest puff of the glowing Milky Way, barely visible and just arching its way upwards.
Closer to celestial north and we could make out Vega high above us, as well as the summer triangle of stars, plus Polaris, the Swan constellation of Cygnus, and the tilted W, Cassiopeia. There were probably more, but here was more than enough to remember.
The night was a fascinating glimpse at the stars, the planets and even a galaxy or two. The society members kindly showed us some spectacular views of Saturn and its rings, a view of Jupiter, its four largest moons and its bands of gas, but sadly, the Great Red Spot was shy and facing away from earth that night.
Then, we discovered the complex art of precision and patience that is astrophotography. A normal DSLR camera will get you some pretty impressive results. After a lot of adjustments, long-exposure photographs and some zooming, we saw the unmistakable tilted pancake – the fuzzy blob of the Andromeda Galaxy! No telescope needed.
When we eventually left the site and its mosquitos behind (welcome to Maltese summer), I took one long look back at the night sky and wondered to myself how silly it might be to try plein air painting at night. Armed with a blanket, a torch and a sky as spectacular as that, painting in almost pitch-black has got to be worth it, right?