I can’t get over how much dimmer Betelgeuse in Orion appears at the moment. To my eye Aldebaran (a red giant) in Taurus now appears obviously brighter.
This was an image taken last winter.
Orion image from winter 2019
Many click bait astronomy articles have surfaced claiming the star might be dimming due to its impending collapse and rebound as a supernova, but Betelgeuse is a known variable star and similar changes in its brightness have been noted in the past, although recent changes appear to deviate from established patterns.
Unusual gravitational waves have also been detected in the vicinity of the red supergiant, adding to the sense of mystery. It’s important to note that these waves are merely in the vicinity, so could easily be generated by countless other sources behind Betelgeuse.
Still, it’s fun to speculate about the possibility of witnessing a relatively close supernova event in our lifetime. The last two major naked eye supernovas were recorded in 1572 and and 1054, in Taurus (the Crab nebula) and Cassiopeia (Tycho Brahe supernova). Both generated enough luminosity to be visible in daylight for several weeks, and shone as new ‘guest stars’ for around a year or so before fading.
Some work published by Dolan in 2016 estimated the impact of a Betelgeuse supernova on Earth and found it to be negligible. At 500 light years distance the residual energy of the vastly expanded shockwave would be exponentially diminished as it passed Earth. However the brightness predicted would be magnitude -12.4, making such an event more luminous than a full Moon!
For the mathematically motivated I enclose an extract from his calculations below.
Stargazing can provide mental perspective and wellbeing. Problems we’ve amplified in our heads can seem much less important under the amazing canopy of the night sky.
Here’s some interesting stats to think about.
1. The average person in Scotland spends less than 30 minutes a day outdoors.
2. This equates to over 50 years of an average person’s life spent indoors.
This despite growing levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
Yet one of the best, and absolutely free, ways to alleviate stress and anxiety is being in nature, and stargazing gives us that little bit of extra motivation to head outside, especially during the long periods of darkness we experience over winter in Scotland.
Even if you don’t see anything, packing your binoculars and heading out for an evening stroll under open skies is almost never a waste of time. At the very least you get some exercise, and if you’re lucky, a beautiful night sky to gaze up at.
One of the objects we observed was the star forming nebula in Orion’s sword, imaged here by local aurora hunter and photographer Chris Cogan.
I had a fun astronomy outreach session with pupils and parents from Aldourie Primary near Loch Ness on Friday evening. At 6pm kick off we saw some captivating glimpses of dazzling Venus before it set below the tree line.
Due to initially changeable weather we moved between my indoor presentation and outdoor stargazing, but ended up getting a brilliant spell under the stars mid session.
Despite its relative closeness to Inverness skies are dark enough out here to see the Milky Way very clearly.
Lots of the youngsters (and parents) tried their hand at binocular stargazing for the first time, peering at open star clusters, double stars, the Orion nebula and Andromeda galaxy.
If you’d like to book an outreach session for your school please message me on my facebook site, Highland Astronomy.
The main constellations were visible over the Merkinch nature reserve in the west of Inverness, and even a hint of Milky Way.
We had a great evening at the Merkinch Urban Astronomy gathering tonight. Big thanks to Dr Anthony Luke for delivering a fascinating talk on the chemistry of stars and supernovas. We learnt all about the synthesis of elements and compounds forged in the heart of stars.
Afterwards we were rewarded with clear skies, so I led a group up to the nature reserve for a blustery stargazing session over the Beauly Firth.
Overlooking the water we had lovely views of Orion, the Pleiades and even a hint of the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy.
The next event is an Aurora Special on Feb 20th with guest Graham Bradshaw.
I’m looking forward to delivering my guest talk on Island Universes for the Highlands Astronomical Society on Jan 7th. This is a repeat of a talk I presented at the 2019 Inverness Science Festival.
Start time is 7.15pm at the Smithton-Culloden Free Church, Murray Road, Smithton, IV2 7YU. Open to all members of the public and free entry for new visitors.
Please find full event details here.
The Cygnus region of the Milky Way at Abriachan Forest on the Winter Solstice 2019
We had a great Solstice gathering under starry skies up at Abriachan Forest this evening.
A big thanks to author John Burns for presenting a trio of captivating tales around the campfire. John was still under the weather with a bad cold on the night yet soldiered on to deliver two sessions of engaging storytelling.
Best selling author and storyteller John Burns took some of his books along to the evening.
We also enjoyed a mesmerising display of fire dancing from Lesley Brown who kicked off proceedings and provided more entertainment during the changeover. Suzann’s mulled juice and mince pies were also greatly appreciated.
Fire dancing with Lesley Brown
Skies were so good I decided to sideline my talk on the astronomy of ancient architecture, and was instead able to deliver outdoor stargazing all evening long, Highlights included zipping meteors, the Orion constellation, the Andromeda galaxy, numerous star clusters and a bright and vibrant Milky Way overhead.
Star Stories continues in the new year. Look out for the next set of booking links on my Facebook site.
Yesterday I presented my beginners guide to observing and buying a first telescope at the Inverness Urban Astronomy gathering. Here is my 2020 recommendations for good starter equipment.
1. Binoculars: 8x40s or 10x50s. Prices from £50 for decent ones. I personally use Olympus DSP1s and we’ve purchased these for both the Abriachan and Merkinch outreach programmes.
2. Telescope: Skywatcher 150mm or 200mm dobsonian. Simple to use with great performance. Prices from £175. Get the 200mm if you have the space and extra cash to spend.
3. Books: Left Turn at Orion and Stargazing for Dummies. From £15 each.
4. A red light LED headtorch. From £6 if you go to Tesco’s. Up to £30 for a good quality one.
5. A planisphere. They cost around £10 and can be found in good book stores.
Of all the items above I’d say binoculars are the most important. People are often surprised to discover I do over 90% of my observing with a simple pair of 8x40s. You can read an earlier post on the merits of hand held astronomy here.