Star Stories Astronomy Outreach Update

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Starry skies above Abriachan, with Vega and Lyra at the extreme right of the shot.

The Star Stories astronomy programme at Abriachan Forest is going from strength to strength, with tickets selling out far in advance of each event.  Since the last update we’ve hosted two stargazing evenings, involving guest speakers Dr Anthony Luke (UHI) and Professor Martin Hendry (Glasgow University).

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More star studded skies above the classroom, close to brilliant Deneb in the Cygnus region of the Milky Way

The November event was a Leonids special, held near the peak of the annual meteor shower on Nov 16th, with the promise of perhaps observing some early atmosphere skipping Leonids.

Dr Anthony Luke presented a fascinating set of lectures on the chemistry of meteors and stars in the forest classroom, touching on the incredible pressure and heat generated within stellar forges that produce all the elements we see around us.

Meanwhile, I led the stargazing component outside with perfectly clear skies allowing us to take in the brightest stars, and views of the gibbous Moon in video telescope.  The lunar observing was particularly captivating, prompting discussion on the formation lunar maria, the highlands, and the Theia Moon origin hypothesis.

Clelland was also in action over the forest campfire making wooden star models for the younger participants.  There were no dramatic meteor sightings to match October’s spectacle but the event certainly whetted everyone’s appetite.

 

Then on December 5th, Glasgow University’s Professor Martin Hendry (of gravitational wave fame) joined us under dark skies for a Wednesday night special.

Martin is a hard working and inspirational advocate of all things astronomy and space.  Prior to me collecting him at his hotel he had already delivered a packed day of outreach to Inverness schools and hadn’t had a bite to eat since lunch.  Despite this he was incredibly grateful for the cold pizza I offered him on our drive out to Abriachan, and this meagre fare fuelled him sufficiently to deliver two fantastic talks on dark matter and gravitational waves in the forest classroom.  His talk highlighted some of the latest discoveries and simulations from the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) team.

The following day he was off on the train again to speak to more schools in the far north.

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The Pleiades and red giant Aldebaran

We were also blessed with lots of clear breaks on the 5th, so I once again led the observing component outdoors, this time taking groups further back into the darker areas above the classroom where the Milky Way was ablaze, and fainter fuzzies like the Andromeda galaxy leapt out at us in our binocular and naked eye views.  Amongst many things we discussed the evolution of hot massive stars like Betelgeuse and the Kepler exoplanet survey, which has been scanning vast numbers of star systems close to Cygnus and Vega, cataloging extrasolar planets.

Prior to packing away the binoculars I snapped some pictures of the starry skies close to the forest classroom (attached).

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Orion rising in the east from Abriachan Forest

Both evenings have garnered fantastic feedback and we’re looking forward to the next events, listed below.

As always a big thanks to learning coordinator Suzann Barr, Ronnie, Clelland and the rest of the Abriachan team who help make these events so welcoming and successful.  We’re also grateful to grant funding from the STFC, allowing us to invest in observing equipment, free transport and to extend the scope of this year’s programme.

Future Star Stories Events

Winter Solstice Special (21st December 2018) – Solstice talk and Moon observing with astronomer Stephen Mackintosh, turn of the year campfire twists with Clelland.

Stargazing with Dark Sky Man Steve Owens (12th Jan 2019) – Stargazing with author of Stargazing for Dummies Steve Owens

Star Stories Photography Special with guest Graham Bradshaw (9th Feb 2019) – Local landscape, aurora and night sky photographer Graham Bradshaw shares his stories of nights spent on exposed hillsides and offers tips to budding photographers.

The Geminids 2018

The Geminids, one of the most reliable and active meteor showers of the year is upon us with peak activity predicted between Dec 13th – Dec 14th.  Under the very best possible observing conditions the Geminids have been known to produce displays of up to 100 meteors per hour, although you’ll likely see rates much lower than this.

Occasionally and unpredictably, meteor showers can erupt into storms. One of the most famous happened in 1833 when the Leonids produced over 100,000 meteors per hour! Who knows what this December’s Geminids will bring?

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Observing the Geminids

You don’t need any special equipment to view a meteor shower, in fact binoculars or telescopes will just narrow your field of view. Grab a deck chair or a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink, wrap up warm and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone or if you have children they’ll love an excuse to get outside for some after dark play.

Put away any lights or bright mobile phones and simply look up and wait. Remember it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to fully dark adapt and any exposure to bright lights will start the process all over again. If you need a light red touches are best for preserving you night vision.

For optimal viewing, head out late at night after the Moon sets or in the darkness of the pre dawn sky., when the Gemini radiant is highest in the sky.

Good luck and clear skies!

Meteor_falling_courtesy_NASA

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Comet Hunting – 46P/Wirtanen

This month brings the excitement of a comet hunt, as Wirtanen 46P reaches closest approach on December 16th.  This is a relatively small comet (1.5km across) with a period of just over 5 years.  However Wirtanen is known to produce a relatively large tail for its stature, so it’s definitely one to look out for.  In mid December it’ll be positioned between the Pleiades star cluster and red giant star Aldebaran in Taurus, so will be relatively easy to locate in the night sky.

Reports of naked eye sightings and some photographs are already emerging online despite the current low altitude of the comet at high norther latitudes.  However its vantage will steadily improve as we head into mid December, although Moon conditions will become less favourable then, so time your hunt well.

Wirtanen should be observable in a wide-field telescope or binocular view, and possibly naked eye under very dark conditions.  You could also try locating it by taking a 10-30 second exposure in your DSLR camera.

I’ve put together a short video to help you locate it over December.   Clear skies!

Venus Morning Star

The planet Venus is a brilliant morning star at the moment. Catch it rising in the south east ahead of the Sun between 5.30am and 7.30am.

With keen eyesight and binoculars you should be able to discern Venus’s phase, currently a beautiful crescent. A telescope will make this much clearer as demonstrated by this video footage I shot last year, when Venus was ‘the evening star’.

Over the month of November Venus will get brighter as its phase waxes from a thin crescent to a 25% illuminated disc at month end.  Despite this brightening Venus is actually travelling away from us and after December 2nd its brightness will begin to diminish as it pulls further away from earth and its disc size shrinks .

Once Venus passes behind the Sun it will eventually reappear as an evening star around mid August 2019.

Clear skies!

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The Leonids

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The radiant of the Leonids is in the constellation Leo, but you don’t need to look in that directions to see shooting stars.

The annual Leonids meteor shower is due to peak over the weekend between 17 and 18th November 2018.  Although the waxing gibbous Moon will diminish conditions somewhat it will still be more than worthwhile heading out somewhere dark to observe them.  Over the peak as many as 10-15 meteors per hour may be visible.  Occasionally meteor showers will erupt into storms, as was the case with the Leonids in November 1833, when 100,000 meteors per hour rained down over an entire evening!

The shower is caused by the Earth colliding with the debris left behind by comet Temple-Tuttle, a short period comet with a period of 33 years.  Temple-Tuttle is due to swing past the Sun again in May 2031, when it will once again deposit fine dust trails behind it, seeding future generations of meteor showers.

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The tail of a Comet always points away from the Sun.  Debris from the Comet’s tail produce most meteor showers, as the Earth intersects the fine dust trails in its annual orbit around the Sun.

Observing the Leonids

You don’t need any special equipment to view a meteor shower, in fact binoculars or telescopes will just narrow your field of view. Grab a deck chair or a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink, wrap up warm and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone or if you have children they’ll love an excuse to get outside for some after dark play.

Put away any lights or bright mobile phones and simply look up and wait. Remember it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to fully dark adapt and any exposure to bright lights will start the process all over again. If you need a light red touches are best for preserving you night vision.

For optimal viewing, head out after the Moon sets, or in the darkness of the pre dawn sky.

Approximate Moon set times at Highland latitudes this weekend:

Friday night 12.30am
Saturday night 1.30am

You can still see meteors with the moon up but generally only the brightest ones. Early morning viewing will be optimal as Leo (the radiant) is high in the sky then.

Good luck and clear skies!

Meteor_falling_courtesy_NASA

World Class Darkness at The Torridon

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The Plough facing north from the grounds of the Torridon Resort

I had a great time with hotel guests at the Torridon Resort this weekend, stargazing under Bortle 1 class dark skies. We were clouded out on Friday evening but had spectacular skies on the Saturday, with galaxies in particular brighter than I’ve seen them before.

The Torridon Resort was the base of operations for this luxury astronomy break.  It’s situated in one of the most remote extremities of the Western Highlands, well within the Bortle 1 and 2 classifications for darkness.

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Stars appear at twilight, facing south from the grounds of the Torridon Resort

Our main excursions took us high above the hotel on the slopes overlooking loch Torridon, near Balgy.  On a previous scouting mission to find good observing locations I bumped into a nice chap called Nigel who owns self catering cottages in the vicinity, at ‘Baden Mhugaidh’.  He had kindly invited me to take the stargazing party onto his land over the weekend, and as we pulled the van up he joined us for some dark sky observing.

Although there were some thin clouds in the north and on the eastern horizon, overall sky quality and seeing was spectacular with the bright band of the Milky way on display overhead and vivid depth evident in the Cygnus region of the galaxy near Deneb and Vega.

Galaxies were popping with brilliant vibrancy in binocular views, with Andromeda showing bright lane detail and Bodes galaxy in Ursa Major clearer than I’ve ever seen it in field glasses.

We took in a tour of the main constellations, including the beautiful clusters in Perseus, the Pleiades and even some double stars, including Alberio which was easily split in the larger set of binoculars.

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M82 and M83 in Ursa Major were the brightest I’ve seen them in binoculars.  They popped into view when scanning the star fields, like two nebulous lanterns

Good views were also possible back at the hotel grounds, and the staff kindly accommodated my request to kill the driveway lights a few times.  The hotel also let us commandeer the library for our meals, allowing me to present some power point talks during dinner on Friday and Saturday evening.  My guests were very friendly and interesting company, with questions and conversation flowing easily.

Unfortunately, I neglected to take my camera into the field, so only took a few snaps from the hotel grounds at sundown. Look out for more Torridon dates in the future.

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The Torridon is situated under some of the darkest skies on earth.

Sky Watching in Turkey

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The waxing crescent Moon sits low on the western horizon over Bodrum, Turkey

On holiday in Turkey, and supposed to be taking a break, but couldn’t resist snapping the waxing crescent Moon over the clear but very light polluted skies above Bodrum.

What’s very apparent sky watching from this latitude, compared to Scotland, is the much steeper angle the ecliptic makes with the horizon, resulting is quicker sunsets and a much more pronounced ‘bowl’ orientation to the Moon near the horizon.

It’s also interesting to consider the religious significance of the Moon in Muslim countries like Turkey, where a lunar phase calendar is still in active use for religious ceremonies (marked by the crescent Moon and stars in many Muslim national flags).

Because 12 synodic months is 11 days shorter than the solar year, festivals like Ramadan end up drifting through the seasons.

This is in contrast to the West where the link with the Moon and the month was severed by the introduction of the Julian calendar around 40BC. Since then our civil and religious calendars have been entirely solar, with the Gregorian correction making our current calendar accurate to 1 day in every 3236 years.