An Alien Solar System

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A direct image of an alien solar system orbiting a Sun like star, over 300 light years away!

I remember growing up in the 1980s hearing about the ‘high probability’ that other stars had orbiting planets, but there was very little evidence then, only some tantalising hints from the gravitational wobbles observed from specific stars.

Since then thousands of new exoplanets have been confirmed using the transit and radial velocity detection methods. I wrote a blog article about this a while back.

These methods are indirect ways of determining the existence of planets, and it’s very rare to actually be able to ‘see’ the planets themselves.

This image is therefore pretty incredible and for me suddenly normalises the idea that these star systems are real places we could, theoretically at least, visit in the distant future.

The image was captured by the European Southern Observatories Very Large Telescope and shows a young Sun like star (only 17 million years old) with two clearly defined giant planets in orbit. (The dots of light closer to the star are background stars and therefore not part of this particular planetary system)

These planets orbit the star at 160 and 320AU (1 AU is the Earth to Sun distance) so they’re much further away from the star than any planet in our solar system.

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Stargazing at the Torridon with Giles and Monica

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Discussing the dark skies in the west of Scotland with Giles and Monica in the hotel lobby

There’s a short section at the end tonight’s Amazing Hotels on BBC 2, where I take Giles Coren and Monica Galetti out into the dark skies near the Torridon to go stargazing. 🌟🌟

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Star fields galore from the grounds of the hotel

The skies that evening were incredibly vibrant with the Milky Way clearly visible. The night time camera footage doesn’t really do the views justice, but I think the BBC team captured the magic of our night under the stars really well.

What you won’t know from the footage is that Giles laced the hot chocolate with a generous dose of single malt whiskey!

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Comet NEOWISE

Bright comet alert. Comet NEOWISE has caught many skywatchers by surprise. There’s now naked eye reports of it in early morning skies across much of northern Europe and north America. This image was snapped a few mornings ago by Paul Sutherland @suthers from Walmer on the SE tip of England.

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NEOWISE imaged by Paul Sutherland @suthers from Walmer, England

Or check out this incredible time-lapse of sunrise with Comet NEOWISE (with Noctilucent clouds) by Martin Heck (Insta @martin_heck) from Bayern, Munich

Observing Guide

A quick guide to locating Comet NEOWISE, valid for northern Europe and north America.

Time: You’ll need to stay up late or rise early and ideally be in position between midnight and 3am. Too early and the comet will be too low on the horizon. Too late the Sun will have risen too much, washing the comet out.  At the moment of writing 2am is probably a good optimal time to aim for, although this will change over the coming days and weeks.

Direction: The direction you need to look in from direct N (around midnight) to NNE (in early dawn skies). If visible you could use the bright star Capella in Auriga as a rough reference.

Equipment: Many observers in Europe claim to have see the comet naked eye. This might be possible but your best chance will be with binoculars. Any pair will do, they don’t need to be fancy astronomy binoculars. Low power and wide field is always best for viewing comets.

Clear skies and good luck.

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Changing Sunset Position

 

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Changing position of Sunrise from a fixed location over a year

The changing position of Sunrise throughout a year from a fixed location. The further north or south of the equator we live the more extreme our seasonal changes and the bigger shifts we perceive in the sunrise or sunset position during the year.  In such harsh and changing seasons it would also have been the more important for ancient cultures to mark the seasons.

Using the landscape to mark the seasons like this is called a horizon calendar. But what if your horizons are flat and featureless, or you require more accuracy, or you’re a powerful priest and wish to theatricise important changes in time?

Then ‘perhaps’ you construct an artificial horizon by placing large stones to mark the progress of the Sun – a henge.

Photo Credit: Zaid Alabbdi

DIY Fractals

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything mathematical.

Fractals are everywhere in nature. In this video I show some examples of fractals you can find in your own garden, how computers generate fractals and finally some fun examples you can construct with nothing more than some paper and colouring pens.

Observing the Moon

Here’s a video (with some voice over) I shot last night when out Moon gazing from my back garden.

I never ever regret the tiny effort and time investment involved in digging out my binoculars or telescope to have a look at the Moon.

Clear skies.

Venus – Morning Star

 

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Waing crescent Moon next to Venus – Inverness

After blazing in the NW after sunset during the depths of lockdown, Venus has now completed its passage in front of the Sun (from our perspective) and now slowly emerging as a morning apparition.

At the moment you’ll need to rise very early to catch it due to very bright skies – binoculars or a telescope might be needed.

The morning of the 19th June is particularly special as both Venus and the wafer thin crescent Moon will sit very close to each other. In fact, later the same morning the Moon will occult (hide) Venus for around an hour.