Comet SWAN Update

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Comet SWAN update! ☄️ Comet SWAN is just starting to become viable for observation at northern European latitudes as it sails through the constellation Perseus. This one will be very tough to see due to its low altitude and lack of darkness 🌅 . In fact it may not be visible at all if you live too far north. However, if you’re up for a real challenge, grab your binoculars and read on.

Just like this week’s Venus and Mercury planetary conjunction 🪐 , SWAN will be visible towards the north 🧭. As the week progresses it will rise higher and higher in the sky so theoretically should become easier and easier to observe (see attached guide images). Unfortunately this will be countered by less and less darkness as May advances.

The absolute best instrument for spotting a comet is a pair of binoculars, or the widest possible eyepiece you have on a telescope. Scan the sky using my pictures and bright stars for reference. Don’t expect a huge streaking object like you’ll see in astronomy magazines (or the front image I’ve attached 😆 ) – If you’re very lucky you might detect a tiny and faint smudge.

The darker your surroundings and more dark adapted your vision the better 🌑 👀 , so stay away from bright street lights and mobile phone screens for at least 15 minutes. If you live under street lights 🌃 your chances of sighting the comet are far lower but don’t let that put you off. Comets can vary in brightness dramatically and can very occasionally brighten enough to be detected naked eye.

What’s great about this challenge is you can also look out for Mercury and Venus at the same time, as all the action takes place towards the same cardinal direction – North.

Good luck and clear skies.

 

Venus and Mercury Conjunction

A rare opportunity to observe a Venus  and Mercury conjunction over the next few days.

From tonight (Monday) Mercury will appear progressively closer to Venus in the NW sky after sunset, leading to conjunction on Thursday and Friday night. An excellent chance to see Mercury in binoculars or observe the phase of both planets in a garden telescope.

Mercury is much dimmer and more challenging to see than Venus so my advice is to use Venus as a reference for finding Mercury in your binoculars or telescope. Those, like myself, living in the north of Scotland might need to wait a little longer after sunset to see the planets (due to pervading daylight).  This makes it more of a challenge as both planets will be closer to the horizon by then.

Moreover, as both planets will only be around 10 degrees above the horizon at conjunction you’ll need to get away from tall trees or buildings that might obscure your view NW. Hopefully those pesky clouds stay away too.

Clear skies and good luck.

‘Gamification’ – Stellar Evolver

An example of gamification in one of my recent projects called Stellar Evolver (with audio voiceover). This is a fully VR ready experience and will enable players to interact with and watch the evolution of star systems using the visceral mechanics and feedback of a 3D based shooter.

Stellar systems can evolve from simple proto-planets up to red dwarfs and larger giant stars, eventually culminating in the formation of neutron stars and black holes.

Clearly the overall dynamics, scale and time is being exaggerated here for playability. I hope to demonstrate a working multiplayer prototype at the 2021 Hebridean Dark Sky Festival.

Developed by Mackintosh Modelling & Data Simulations
modulouniverse.com

Comet Swan

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Image of Comet Swan, now a naked eye object at magnitude 5.1. Unfortunately views will be challenging this far north due to sky brightness and low viewing altitudes. Friends further south might have some luck especially near the end of May, but best views will be in the southern hemisphere.  I’ll post more observing details later this month.  Stay tuned to my FB site meanwhile.

Covid-19 Analytics

coronavirus-4833754_960_720.jpgI’ve been busy developing a Covid-19 predictive model using R Studio’s Shiny development environment. This project started as a way of informing myself of what might be happening locally but subsequently grew wings.

It’s using UK and Scottish gov. data on infection rates to make predictions of likely infection levels within various health service regions. The concept of recovery is built into the model as a way of measuring residual levels of infectivity within a population. A user can supply the geographic region as well as change model parameters and assumptions about how the virus is impacting a health system

It’s still at a fairly basic stage and more is being added weekly. National metrics on testing rates have recently been implemented, for example.

If you’d like to sample the app please get in touch and I’ll send you a link. With the help of colleagues I’m in the process of securing a permanent server to deploy the app onto so I can share the work more widely.

Developed by Mackintosh Modelling & Data Simulations.

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2020 Lyrids Meteor Shower

 

The annual Lyrids meteor shower is underway with peak activity on the evening of April 21st.  With no Moon to spoil the party conditions will be ideal for observing them this year assuming those pesky clouds stay away.  The best times to view the shower are as late as possible, close to midnight or in pre-dawn skies when the Lyra radiant is at its greatest elevation.  However, you don’t need to look at the radiant to see shooting stars as they’ll appear to come from all directions.

What Causes a Meteor Shower

Meteors are the fine dust and particulates left over from comets and large asteroids which stray into our solar system.  Some of these are on predictable orbits and as they whizz around the Sun they melt and shed some of their material into space.  The Earth then travels through these large dust trails as it orbits the Sun, producing predictable meteor showers.  The Lyrids are generated by Comet Thatcher, which has a 415 year orbit.

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Observing the Lyrids

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 camping mat and (if it’s cold) a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone, with family and friends, 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 phone screens 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 LEDs or touches are best for preserving you night vision.

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

Don’t Expect Too Much

You need to be patient with meteor showers.  Sometimes you’ll see many and other times very few or none at all.  Think of it as a great excuse to get out under the stars and breath in some fresh air.  Even if you don’t see much you probably won’t regret heading out and looking up.  Very rarely meteor showers can erupt into storms, like the Leonids in 1833 when over 100,000 shooting stars criss crossed the night sky.

Photographing the Lyrids

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If your have a DSLR camera and tripod, or a suitable phone app like NightCap, you could try capturing some meteors with this rough guide.

  1. Firmly attach your camera or phone to the tripod.
  2. Disable autofocus and manually focus on some bright stars (make them as small and pin point as possible in your viewing screen)
  3. Set an ISO range somewhere between 1000-3000 depending on the capabilities of the sensor.  Mid 1000s is a good middle road.
  4. Turn off noise reduction or you’ll get big delays between each shot.
  5. Point your camera at a high and clear part of the sky.
  6. Shoot long exposures ranging from 10s to 30s, or simply use a remote shutter to take long manual exposures.  Note:  don’t go crazy with very long exposures or you’ll get amp glow from the sensor.
  7. Take lots and lots of shots and be patient!

If your camera has a time-lapse feature you can automate the shooting process and tell the camera to continually shoot 30 second exposures over a long interval.  Just watch out for dew forming on the lens if conditions are cold.  Some hand warmers stuffed into a sock wrapped around the lens will solve this particular issue.

Good luck and clear skies!

Ursa Major Video Guide

 

My video stargazing guide to the constellation Ursa Major, known to stargazers and astronomers in the northern hemisphere by its famous asterism of the Plough or Big Dipper.

Many thanks to Rising Galaxy of Cosmicleaf Records for gifting the background music to this piece. If you like drone ambient or cosmic chill out music please check out their web stores for more of the same.

Clear skies.