STFC support for Astronomy Outreach

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I received some fantastic news this week. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are supporting our continued programme of astronomy outreach at Abriachan Forest Trust, via a SPARK award.

STFC council members were impressed with the successful pilot events delivered over the winter, bringing together astronomy, science and culture through the medium of stargazing and storytelling.

The released funds will be invested in observing equipment, landscape astronomy props, and transportation costs to help families without vehicles access future events.  They will also help us deliver another 12 events out at Abriachan over the next year and into 2019.

I’d like to personally thank the following individuals for their formal letters of support on the bid:

Suzann Barr – Learning Coordinator at Abriachan Forest Trust

Martin Hendry – Professor of Gravitational Astrophysics & Cosmology and Head of the School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Glasgow

Steve Owens – Dark Sky Consultant and Author of Stargazing for Dummies.

Elizabeth Barron-Majerik – Project Development Manager, School of Forestry, Science, Maths and Aquaculture, UHI

But most of all thanks to everyone who have attended the Abriachan stargazing sessions so far, during clear and wild weather.   Keep a look out for the future list of events and a press release will follow shortly.

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Marking the Solstice

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The setting Solstice Sun – Image courtesy of Abriachan Forest Trust

We had a fantastic summer solstice event up at Abriachan last Thursday evening.  Despite being a mid week evening the event sold out and we had a lovely gathering of people joining us to learn all about the solstice and why it was such an important cultural and astronomical marker.

The evening started with a round of Sunset Mocktails, crafted by my wife Judith from a wild fruit concentrate, orange juice and lemonade.  We were also blessed with a lovely sunny evening and enough wind to keep the midges at bay, allowing everyone to mingle and chat outdoors.

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A Sunset Mocktail

After waiting for some late arrivals I took the adults and older children into the forest classroom for a talk on the solstice and ancient astronomy, whilst the very young children made flower crowns and Sun mandalas in the greenhouse.

To kick things off I presented a quick ‘what’s up’ guide to June’s night skies and the fantastic collection of planets visible over the next few months – Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Vesta, the second largest body in the main asteroid belt.

The talk then progressed onto the observational dynamics of the Sun in the sky – its elevation, setting and rising points and the resulting shape the Sun will make when photographed at the same time each day for a year – an Analemma.  We then looked at the reason behind these dynamics (the Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt) and compared our seasons to that of Mars, a world whose 25 degree tilt and highly eccentric orbit produces some of the most extreme seasonal changes of all the planets.

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This is the shape the Sun makes in the sky if photographed at the same time over a year.  Ancient people probably knew about this by instead looking at the shadow projected from a straight object.  Was this shape tied to the mathematical symbol for infinity, or even Pictish and Celtic knot art?

From there we covered the construction of a primitive wooden solar calendar and looked at various examples of ancient solar markers from across the word, including many of Scotland’s mid winter aligned covered cairns (for example Clava Cairns in Culloden).

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The cairns in Clava have an obvious mid winter sunset alignment and an interesting array of  surrounding stones which raise in elevation towards the South West.

After the talk we broke for more refreshments  – this time Forest Pots made from whipped cream, honey, fruit and oates.  It was then over to Clelland for the rest of the evening.

Clelland stared off with a walk and talk describing the various plants which were important during the mid summer months and how the Sun was believed to lend magical power to the plant lore in olden times – boosting their healing and nutritional value.  Everyone then gathered in the green shelter around an open fire as Clelland told a local story to illustrate the way fact and legend are intermingled and passed down through the generations.

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As a final gesture towards the setting sun on the longest day folks were asked to write a wish on paper, set it alight and place it in the loch – a reenactment of an old Scots tradition of sending your wishes tumbling into the loch in burning balls of hay!

Feedback on the event has been great and we’ll almost certainly do something again next year. A big thanks as ever to Suzann, Ronnie and the staff at Abriachan for helping make the event so successful.

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Making a Solstice wish

Spica and the Precession of the Equinoxes

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A line of the Moon, Jupiter and the bright star Spica can be seen tonight in the S/SW as the Sun sets (try after 11.30pm or later if it’s still too light).  Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo and was the star that helped unearth the 26,000 year cycle known as the Precession of the Equinoxes.

As the story goes a temple in Thebes built around 3000 BC was originally aligned with Spica but the Heliacal sighting was found to have significantly drifted off target some 3200 years later.  This fact was taken up by the Greek astronomer, mathematician and geographer Hipparchus who used this and other data to approximate the precessional cycle time of the heavens (as he saw it) to be over 30,000 years.  An over estimate but a respectable first guess.

Of course we now know the real reason for this apparent cyclic drift of the constellations over long time scales – 25,772 years to be accurate.  A wobble in the earth’s local axis of rotation (see animation below) caused by the gravitational influence of the Moon and Sun on Earth’s equatorial bulge.

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There are a couple of interesting side effects of this dynamic.  Firstly our pole star slowly changes over thousands of years.  In ancient Egyptian times (3000 BC) the northern  pole star was Thuban in the Constellation Draco, and in around 12000 years time the pole star will have moved close to brilliant Vega.

The other effect is that the dates of the original Zodiacal star signs are now completely out of sync with the position of the Sun. A child born today is still designated as a ‘Cancer’ (because the Sun is supposed to be in the constellation Cancer right now).  But the Sun isn’t in Cancer – it’s actually in Taurus.

Solstice Special at Abriachan

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The summer Solstice goes largely unmarked these days. Join me up at Abriachan forest on the longest day to learn all about the Sun’s standstill and why it resonated so deeply with our ancestors.

Join us at Abriachan Forest to celebrate the longest day with a Solstice evening of anicent astronomy and storytelling.

We’ll kick off with a talk from local astronomer Stephen Mackintosh, learning about solar and lunar time keeping, horizon calendars & henges, seasonal constellations and more. Stephen will also give an overview of June’s night skies, including a feast of planetary opportunities and tips on how to get the best views.

We’ll then step back in time and sample the entertainment of our ancestors, as storyteller and countryside ranger Clelland McCallum recounts an ancient tale around the flames of an open campfire.

A warm welcome from the Abriachan Staff with refreshments to toast the Sun’s standstill.  All ages welcome. Tickets are £6 per person. Children 8 years and younger go free.

Booking essential via Eventbrite.  Ticket link here.

Edge on Galaxy

NGC 1032. A perfectly edge on view of a giant spiral galaxy in the constellation Cetus, around 100 million light years away.

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A lovely edge on view of galaxy NGC 1032.

This beautiful image, ablaze with the light from over 100 billions suns, perfectly captures the thin aspect of large galactic discs.  Most spiral galaxies are incredibly slender relative to their diameter. The thickness of our own Milky Way is only 1% of its total 100 thousand light year diameter.  So next time you see the band of the Milky Way overhead you can roughly approximate its width to be 1000 light years.

The dynamics of gravity and centrifugal force can explain much about the formation of spiral galaxies but the fine detail and the rotational speed of the various bands of stellar material are still shrouded in some mystery.  Without concepts like ‘dark matter’, for instance, the outer portions of many galaxies are rotating so fast they would simply rip themselves apart.

Many people are uncomfortable with terms like ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ because they’re ‘inferred’ phenomena rather than being directly detected.  This might be so but science is riddle with such pre-emptive constructions.

Take air for example.  For untold millennia people knew about the existence of this invisible substance which would fill people’s lungs and impede the flow of water ‘an air lock’.  However, it would have to wait until the discovery of modern chemistry for air to be properly defined as a mixture of several atomic elements (mainly oxygen and nitrogen).

 

 

Astronomy Guiding at Scapa Festival

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I had a fun two days of astronomy guiding at the newly launched Scapa yoga festival near Loch Fyne.  A perk for the job was obtaining a family ticket for the festival so I decided to take the camper van and family along too.

The drive from Inverness was pretty arduous, but when we arrived it was a lovely setting and ended up being one of the most peaceful and chilled out festivals we’ve been to.  Numbers were kept at reasonable levels so that toilets and open spaces were jostle free and relaxing.

The astronomy work ran for two days late in the evening and was in partnership with the Wild Things! group.  The original plan was for a late night constellation walk to the beach but as the clouds rolled in we instead elected for an atmospheric campfire, with a general discussion about the stars.

This format worked out very well with lots of interested folk dropping in to participate in what became a very vibrant Q & A, covering topics as far reaching as star navigation, astrology, shooting stars, black holes and stellar evolution.  On the Saturday evening some people stayed for the whole two hours, transfixed by the discussions.  Astronomy is a subject with the power to transport people back into a state of childhood wonder!  It’s undoubtably the most accessible and mind-blowing of all the sciences.

By all accounts the festival was a great success and I wish the organisers lots of luck with Scapa 2019.

Solar Day at Abriachan

We were blessed with a lovely sunny day on Saturday for our day of Solar learning up at Abriachan.  We were fully prepared for indoor activities as forecasts were looking pretty grey.  But as the weekend swung around skies cleared and we ended up seeing plenty of Sun all day.

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A day of fun solar learning

Since conditions were so good we moved everything outside, including the talk I’d prepared which was originally put together on powerpoint.  I demonstrated basic shadow time keeping and direction finding, and how solar eclipses take place using a scale model of the Moon and Earth (with the moon’s orbit inclined at 5 degrees).

Based on our model the Earth and Moon were around 3 meters apart with the former about the size of a large orange.  At this scale the Sun would be 10 meters in diameter and over a mile away!  At this scale the relative rarity of total solar eclipses becomes clear (on average one every 18 months).

During the talk we also touched upon:

  • Sun gods and how our ancestors perceived the Sun as a perfect orb with no imperfections
  • The human fear of eclipses
  • The discovery of Sun spots and how they revealed that the Sun is spinning
  • How spectroscopy showed that our Sun was in fact a star (in very close proximity)
  • Why the Sun is loosing mass – over 4 billion tons of hydrogen per second
  • The ultimate fate of our Sun – how it will eventually and briefly flare up as a red giant star before cooling and shrinking down to a white dwarf

After the talk Clelland took over for some fun outdoor activities including a scale walk of the solar system, DIY spectroscopes and solar lasers using big magnifiers.  We also did a fun experiment simulating the colour of the sky and sunsets using milk in water bottles.

In terms of solar viewing, I setup the 200mm with a full objective white light filter, and we also had a Sunspotter, kindly on load from Glasgow Science centre.  Both setups produced clear views of the Sun’s photosphere, but unfortunately there were no sunspots to see.  This isn’t entirely surprising given we’re currently bang in the middle of the 11 year solar cycle minimum, although large ones can appear suddenly at any time.  We hope to one day invest in a good quality hydrogen alpha filter for these events, as these reveal many more interesting features, like edge prominences and coronal loops.

Overall a fun day of learning with great interaction and questions from the adults and little ones alike.