November Star Stories

Stargazing next to the round house in Abriachan Forest

Thanks to everyone who braved the subzero temperatures up at Abriachan Forest last Saturday for Star Stories. Our guest storyteller John Burns delivered a captivating one man play and storytelling session up in the forest round house, and even succeeded in ushering out a few stars at the very end.

Afterwards the skies opened up beautifully and we had clear views of the Milky Way and many circumpolar constallations during our outdoor stargazing session. Special thanks to Gretchen for the Jupiter biscuits!

That’s a wrap for this year. Our next event will be the Dark Sky Burns at the end of January 2022 before our guest speaker events in February and March. You can read more details on the full programme here.

The Milky Way glowing through some light cloud and haze at Abriachan.

Star Stories Astronomy Guest Speakers

Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Catherine Haymens, will visit Abriachan Forest in March 2022.

I’m delighted to confirm our guest speakers for the 2022 Star Stories programme. Following a ‘Stargazing Burns’ event on January 27th we’ll have a dark sky event in February with guest speaker Martin Hendry, Professor of Gravitational Astrophysics and Cosmology at the University of Glasgow. Martin is a regular visitor to the forest and will be updating us on the latest discoveries on dark matter and dark energy followed by naked eye and binocular stargazing under Abriachan’s Milky Way class dark skies.

Then in March we’re very excited to welcome Scotland’s new Astronomer Royal, Catherine Haymens. Catherine will be joining us on March 14th for a special Moon night with a talk all about the Moons of our solar system. This will be followed by a live Moon observing session and Q&A. Catherine is Professor of Astrophysics and a European Research Council Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She’s also director of the German Centre for Cosmological Lensing at the Ruhr-University Bochum.

Where possible, and understandably, all events will be setup for outdoor learning so please bring plenty of warm clothes and wrap up. Storytelling and other family friendly activities will also be delivered by the Abriachan team and guests. Ticket links will go live about 4 weeks prior to each event. Please follow my Facebook page for the latest.

Meanwhile the November 27th event has now sold out. This will be a dark sky evening with stargazing or astronomy talk presented by yours truly. Best selling author John Burns is our guest storyteller in November.

2022 Hebridean Dark Skies Festival

A fantastic programme of events is coming together for the 2022 Hebridean Dark Skies Festival. I’m really looking forward to delivering stargazing experiences for the festival again, from various dark locations across the Hebrides. The festival programme is directed by Andrew Eaton-Lewis and is always wonderfully eclectic with The Sky At Night’s Chris Lintott rating it “A highlight of the last few years”.

Art, Music, Cinema and food frequently accompany the astronomy and stargazing components and more than this I think it’s just a great opportunity for a winter break under some of Scotland’s remotest and best dark skies.

You can read about my previous experiences at the festival from my 2020 and 2021 posts. This year I hope to once again present in person astronomy and stargazing from various dark places across the island.

You can read more about the 2022 programme on An Lanntair’s website here.

Starry Skies for New Season of Star Stories

Thanks to everyone who came to Abriachan Forest on Saturday night. We had a fantastic opening event to kick off the 2021/22 Star Stories astronomy programme.

We enjoyed clear skies all evening and I was able to offer uninterrupted guiding of the whole night sky from north to south and east to west. Some of the highlights included:

– Views of Saturn and Jupiter low on the southern horizon, with telescopic views of Saturn’s majestic rings.

– A full power Milky Way glowing overhead from north to south with clear visibility of the dark lanes of obscuring galactic dust near the Cygnus Rift.

– Several bright meteors flashing past.

– The Pleiades open star cluster rising in the east followed by Taurus with the red giant Aldebaran.

– The Andromeda galaxy clearly visible naked eye and offering fantastic views in binoculars.

– Numerous bright stars and clusters.

Also a big thanks to the Abriachan team for the Bat walk + talk and Bat box workshop.

Tickets are now available for the next event on November 27th. Please follow my Highland Astronomy facebook page for the latest on tickets and events.

I managed a few pics at the end of the session inserted above (a little out of focus I’m afraid).

The Statistics of Large Space Rocks

Jupiter was recently hit by a giant space rock and astronomer @jose.luis_pereira (Instagram) was lucky enough to capture the impact in this incredible footage.

Encounters like this always remind me of our relative fragility on planet Earth. Although Jupiter’s gravity protects us from more frequent large impacts, there’s an inevitability when it comes to future encounters with big space rocks. You need only glance up at the Moon for clear evidence of this destructive heritage.

The statistics of space rock encounters are both reassuring (in terms of long timescales) but also gravely concerning (in terms of raw destructive power).

On average, every few hundred years, the Earth is hit by an object some 30-60 meters in diameter. Such an impact generates enough energy to devastate an entire city if the final shockwave is concentrated in the right position and direction. The 2013 Chelyabinsk and 1908 Tunguska events are recent example of such encounters.

Then every 10,000 years we’re hit by a 200-500 meter wide object, large enough to trigger short term but significant climate changes, potentially lowering global temperatures and disrupting crop growth and finely balanced ecological systems.

Then every million years a 2-4 kilometer wide impact can occur, releasing energy equivalent to the explosive output of every nuclear weapon on the planet!

Finally on a hundred million year timescale Earth can be visited by something like the Chicxulub event that wiped out the dinosaurs, an object some 10-20 kilometres across. That’s enough destructive power to wipe out vast swathes of life across the entire planet.

As a species we’re only a few million years old and our recorded history takes us back a paltry 10,000 years. It makes you wonder therefore, what unrecorded and long forgotten destructive encounters our distant ancestors experienced and survived? Or is our species yet to be challenged by any of the bigger impacts mentioned above?

2021 Perseids Meteor Shower

A bright meteor captured by Chris Cogan from his home in Sutherland, Scottish Highlands

The 2021 Perseids meteor shower is now underway with peak activity predicted in the early morning of August 11th, 12th and 13th.

The best times to view the shower will be close to and after midnight, when the Perseus radiant is rising higher in the East. However, you don’t need to look at the radiant to see shooting stars as they’ll appear to come from all directions.

This year a thin crescent Moon won’t impact the shower and will have set in the west before proper darkness sets in.  Look out for Jupiter and Saturn burning brightly on the southern horizon as you wait for shooting stars.

Observing the Perseids

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 and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find, preferably away from urban light pollution. 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 close to midnight 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 take 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!

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 this material into space.  The Earth then travels through these giant dust trails as it orbits the Sun, producing predictable meteor showers.  The Perseids are generated by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which has a 133 year orbit.

Photographing the Perseids

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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!

The Atmosphere of Pluto

One of the most amazing parting shots of the planet Pluto, backlit by our distant Sun. Taken by the New Horizons probe as it rushed away from the planet in 2015. Look closely and Plutonian mountains can be seen casting long shadows through the hazy blue atmosphere.

As of now Pluto is the only trans-Neptunian object with a known atmosphere.

Image credit @nasa