Venus & Mercury

While I shivered this morning trying to find Mercury amidst a blanket of freezing cold mist, Lynsey Gibson fortuitously snapped it from the cozy confines of her bed.

The bright object in the first image is actually the planet Venus, her intended target, but if you zoom in Lynsey’s phone snap has also picked up Mercury. See the second image which I’ve annotated.

This is a great example of how much fainter Mercury is compared to Venus (I usually use binoculars to help locate it) and the power and versatility of smartphone cameras.

Thanks for the share again Lynsey and clear skies everyone.

How to Use a Wood Henge

How can a wood or stone henge be used to track the seasons? Here’s a short video I shot up at Abriachan Forest today where I explain some of the possibilities.

*Abriachan Forest is a Dark Sky Discovery site and one of the best public locations for accessing dark skies in the Highlands.

Look out for a special Star Stories online event for the Winter Solstice.

Capturing the Northern Lights on your Mobile Phone

Modern mobiles are now able to take quite striking images of the night sky.

Here’s a few examples people shared from last night’s aurora activity in the north of Scotland.

If you’d like to try it yourself I’ve outlined a few pointers below and some apps you could try.

Settings:

1. Find the ‘manual’ or ‘pro’ setting on your mobile phone, this should let you alter ISO, focus and exposure settings.

2. Boost the ISO to around 800 or higher if you mobile is a more recent model.

3. Alter the exposure time to between 3 seconds – 30 seconds and experiment with a few shots.

4. WIth a short exposure time (a few seconds) you might get away with a handheld shot assuming you can keep you phone still during the picture. Any longer and you’ll need a tripod mount.

5. Good luck.

Phone Apps:

If you’re looking for some apps specifically designed to take astronomy images you could try NightCap (iPhone only) or ProCamX (Android). And if you want to get really experimental there’s also DeepSkyCamera which attempts to stack images for deep sky images (tripod essential).

Good luck and have fun.

New Information on Betelgeuse

Betelgeuse, shown here as the top left star in the shoulder of Orion

Some interesting new information has emerged on Betelgeuse, the red supergiant that marks the left ‘armpit’ of Orion the Hunter.

In summary:

1. It’s still burning Helium in its core so unlikely to go supernova until around 100,000 years.

2. It’s not as massive as previously thought. Earlier studies had shown its radius would extend to the orbit ofJupiter if placed in our solar system. This new data suggests its real radius is 60% of this.

3. It’s closer to Earth than previously measured, at 530 light years. This is 25% closer than we previously thought.

New data published in the Astrophysical Journal. Further reading here.

2021 Hebridean Dark Sky Festival

I’m very much looking forward to a return to the inky dark skies over the Isle of Lewis next February for the Hebridean Dark Sky Festival. The full lineup and details are available from organisers An Lanntair.

I’ve been reminiscing about last year’s festival, when I toured Lewis delivering outreach to a collection of remote communities under some of the best dark skies you’ll find anywhere. You can read my short account from last February on my blog page here. I look forward to more of the same in 2021, travelling to some new locations on the island.

“Watch the skies! The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival is to return to the Isle of Lewis in February 2021. The two-week programme will include an exhibition by astronomy-inspired artist collective Lumen; music by Kathryn Joseph and Renzo Spiteri; talks by award-winning TV presenter Dallas Campbell and renowned climate scientist Tamsin Edwards; stargazing with Highland Astronomy; a night swim with Immerse Hebrides; and lots more to be announced. Find out more by reading our news story. Thanks to CalMac Ferries and Outer Hebrides LEADER for their continued support, and to festival partners/supporters Lews Castle College UHI, Callanish Stones & Visitor Centre, Stornoway Astronomical Society, Outer Hebrides, VisitScotland, Gallan Head Community Trust, Hebridean Hopscotch Holidays and Loganair.Please note that An Lanntair has put in place stringent systems to help mitigate risks from COVID-19 in its building and across its activities to keep staff and the public safe. Details can be found at https://lanntair.com/visit-us-safely/. A Coronavirus Risk Assessment specific to the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival will be in place for the event. Stornoway Gazettewelovestornoway.comEVENTS: what’s happening in Lewis + Harris

Mars at Opposition

Collage by Instagram’s @NightSkyFlying

Have you noticed the dazzling red star high in the East during late evening? That’s the planet Mars and it’s now nearing opposition on October 13th, offering some of the best naked eye and telescopic views possible.

Opposition is when Mars and Earth reach their closest approach to each other with respect to their independent orbits around the Sun. For Mars and Earth, this happens every 2 years and 2 months.

With the planet’s relatively high altitude and closeness around opposition, current views of the planet even with moderately powerful telescopes should be striking, perhaps revealing dim surface features and polar caps.

These images from Instagram’s @nightskyflying show the dramatic size and clarity change of Mars over a period of many months. If you don’t have a telescope it’s still worth looking up to appreciate the brightness of Mars as a naked eye planet at the moment.

Image by @NightSkyFlying

Signs of Microbial Life on Venus?

All eyes are now on planet Venus, our bright morning and evening star.

In the 1950s Venus was one of the most dreamed of and speculated about planets in the solar system. Science fiction portrayed it as a swampy planet covered in rain forests and abundant with strange alien life. Then, after the Soviet Venera missions discovered the hellish conditions on the surface, interest waned somewhat and attention shifted to Mars.

With recent discoveries of Phosphine gas in the planet’s atmosphere, Venus looks set to recapture all of its human wonder and fascination.

Venus has always had the potential to harbour life high in its atmosphere. While its surface is baking hot with crushing pressures, its upper atmosphere is a relatively warm and clement environment.

So far we can’t imagine a natural process which could produce such high concentrations of phosphine gas in the Venus atmosphere but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation that precludes life. Meanwhile we are left to speculate about the many possibilities, including the most tantalising of all, that some form of ancient anaerobic microbial life exists, or has existed, within Venus’s upper atmosphere.