Starry Skies over Loch Ness by Claire Rehr
Here’s a small piece I wrote for the South Loch Ness tourist website on stargazing in the Highlands.
South Loch Ness Tourist Site – Night Sky
“For me stargazing is about reconnecting people with the night sky, not just the raw science which is fascinating enough, but also the star lore, mythology and human connections with it. That’s something we’ve undoubtedly lost in recent times not only in terms of light pollution but also our tendency to inhabit virtual spaces within our phones and gadgets. As a people we seem to be increasingly looking down rather than up!
‘In the Highlands we’re still fortunate to have access to some of the darkest skies in Europe, and it’s something I hope we’ll do our best to preserve for future generations. Visitors from populated areas of England and the central belt of Scotland are always blown away by what they can when they get into the wilds under a moonless sky. Under the right conditions you can see over 5000 stars out here, compared to just a few hundred from urban areas. ”
“For visitors to the South Loch Ness area I recommend just heading out to some high vantage points, killing your lights and letting your eyes dark adapt. You’ll be amazed when you look up. You can also head up to Abriachan where there’s good access and parking for larger groups of stargazers”. “When the moon is new you can see breathtaking views of the Milky Way galaxy soaring overhead – a humbling reminder that we’re just a tiny part of a giant spiral galaxy surrounded by billions of other stellar companions.”
“Because of our northerly latitude (57 degrees north) we also have the privilege of witnessing many circumpolar constellations – stars that are always above the horizon. This lets us become more familiar with specific groupings like the two bears Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and rich constellations like Perseus, Draco, Auriga and Cassiopeia. During the winter months the shorter days up here also lend themselves to extended opportunities for observing. It’s a rewarding pastime that makes the cold and long winter nights much more inviting.’
Mercury is only 40% larger than the moon but very difficult to spot
The planet Mercury can be very tricky to observe. It’s close proximity to the sun means we generally only have brief opportunities to observe it low on the horizon either before or after sunset.
Right now Mercury is approaching maximum eastern elongation (on March 15th to be precise) meaning the planet is up for longer after the sun sets. The window is still pretty brief with only about 45 mins of useful time to work with after sunset.
Your best chance is to pick a clear evening and head out somewhere with a good unobstructed view to the West. You don’t need dark skies as the Sun will still be producing a lot of light between 6 and 8pm.
At the moment, and at Highland latitudes, the action starts about 6.30pm just after the Sun sets. Wait a while then scan the western horizon and you should see Venus first, which will appear brighter. Use this as a guide for finding Mercury which will sit slightly above it over the next few days.
6.20pm 14th March 2018, 57 degrees north
The longer you wait after the sunset the easier Mercury will be to see due to darkening skies but also harder due to it moving lower and lower towards the horizon, adding more atmospheric distortion to your views.
If you do see it take a note of its crescent phase. We almost always see Mercury as a crescent because it would be too close to the sun to see it in a full or new aspect. One exception to this is during a solar transit when Mercury crosses directly across the disc of the sun. The next opportunity to witness this will be 11th November 2019, which gives you plenty of time to prepare a solar filter for safe observing of the solar disc. Happy planet hunting meanwhile.
Transits reveal the true scale of the Sun
I’m excited to be hosting two more astronomy events alongside the Abriachan forest team in March and April 2018. Details and ticket links below.
Star Cluster Special – March 10th (moved from Feb 10th) 7pm-9pm
The Hyades and Pleiades Star clusters
Explore the great winter open clusters under moonless dark skies with campfire stories to follow. Outdoor binocular guiding under clear skies. Indoor talk, astronomy activities and virtual guiding in the classroom in the event of poor weather. Refreshments provided.
Ticket link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/dark-sky-observingwith-a-sta…
Solar Special and the Life of Stars – April 14th 2pm – 4pm
A typical G-type main sequence star – locals have dubbed this one ‘The Sun’
A Sun special exploring our nearest star and the life of giant stars. Outdoor sun projections and activities, with illustrated talk and refreshments. Suzann even has plans for a solar pizza oven!
Ticket link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/some-sunny-science-and-the-l…
All stargazing events organised in collaboration with the Abriachan team, astronomer Stephen Mackintosh and learning coordinator Suzann Barr. Campfire tales delivered by forest ranger Clelland.
For group bookings please email: email@example.com
So what’s a ‘Super Blue Blood Moon’?
It’s a combination of three lunar phenomena. A blue moon is when two full moons fall in the same calendar month, which isn’t very often (roughly once every 3 years) hence the expression ‘once in a blue moon’. The ‘super’ is because the full moon is occurring at a close approach to earth (formally within 10% of orbital perigee). Finally the blood part indicates there’s also a lunar eclipse, although we won’t witness it from Highland skies.
One of the amazing things when witnessing a lunar eclipse is the blood red colour the moon takes as sunlight refracts around earth’s atmosphere. This is really an extreme form of earth shine, when we can see the shadowed areas of the moon due to sunlight reflected from earth. I always like to imagine what a lunar eclipse would look like from the surface of the moon. As the earth completely obscured the sun you would see a brilliant ring of red light radiating around the black disc of the earth. The lunar landscape around you would be bathed in an eerie red light.
The blue moon phenomena is interesting when you consider we now use a solar calendar. Around 40BC Julius Caesar severed the old link with the moon, so that months (or ‘moon-ths’) no longer coincided with the phases of the moon.
The star of the evening – a waxing gibbous moon
What do you get if you cross a bright gibbous moon, award winning haggis and a celebration of Scotland’s bard? A Lunar Burns Night!
This was our fourth stargazing event up at Abriachan and despite somewhat blustery conditions, ended up being loads of fun with a good turnout across all ages.
Haggis and neep hand warmers
After introductions from the Abriachan crew we kicked off outside with the moon high in the south and making dramatic appearances between fast moving clouds. After a bit of moon gazing and chat I took everyone back inside the forest classroom for an illustrated talk on the moon – its phases, cycles, observational phenomena and even some discussion on manned moon bases (why the obsession with Mars when we could be building a lovely moon base at much lower cost and risk?).
Presenting my moon talk
After the talk Roni and Suzann called everyone through for Clelland’s dramatic ‘knife wielding’ address to the Haggis, followed by a tasty spread of haggis and neep wraps. The younger ones then took centre stage as they expertly simulated millions of years of lunar surface evolution – by dropping (never throwing!) metal balls into giant flour trays. This was followed by 3D moon phases and a competition to see who could guess the real separation between the Earth and Moon.
Addressing the haggis
The evening was topped off up with a haggis drive and Cottar’s tales from Clelland. I also took a group out for some final moon gazing, and managed to glimpse a few brighter stars between the cloud breaks.
The only disappointment was being unable to set up the video telescope to show folks closeups of the lunar surface. The sporadic showers and wind made that too challenging on the night, but I don’t think anyone really noticed.
In the thick
We have more astronomy nights planned at Abriachan before the encroachment of our long summer days. On March 10th we’re hosting a Star Cluster special under dark sky conditions, followed by a Solar Special on April 14th, where we’ll hopefully be projecting the Sun onto a big screen for all to see. For details please check Abriachan’s or my own Facebook pages. As ever thanks to the Abriachan team for helping make these events so fun and welcoming.
The dog star ‘Sirius’ is now high and visible in winter skies looking South. Draw a line down and left from Orion’s belt and you can’t miss the brightest star in the night sky.
Sirius means ‘scorching’ and was considered a second Sun of sorts to many ancient cultures. Its incredible brightness is due to its close proximity. At only 9 light years away it’s the 5th closest star system to our Sun and a fairly typical hydrogen fusing main sequence star likely to live a long stable life of several billion years. This is in contrast to short lived giant stars like Rigel and Betelgeuse, which are very distant and appear bright due to their bloated sizes and massive energy output.
Procyon is sometimes mistaken for Sirius but it rises earlier, hence its name which means ‘before the dog’. The Arabs told a tale linking Procyon and Sirius as two sisters, who became separated by a great river (the Milky Way) while searching for their missing brother.
You can see three excellent examples of open star clusters within the Orion and Taurus constellations, all in one convenient direction during winter skies (looking south or south east) and in a rough line drawn out by Orion’s belt.
Start with the Orion nebula (M42), below the three belt stars in Orion. This star forming region contains a very young open cluster called the Trapezium which is surrounded by glowing clouds of ionised hydrogen gas. You can see this nebula in binoculars but it looks best in a low or medium power telescope eyepiece.
Moving up into the eye of Taurus to the red giant star Aldebaran, we find the Hyades cluster. Aldebaran is like a premonition of the fate that awaits out own sun. A red giant around 7 billion years old, bloated and shuddering in its final gasps before it collapses down to a white dwarf. Shining brightly all around Aldebaran are the members of the Hyades open cluster (although they are much further away) – quite a mature cluster at around 500 millions years old. Best viewed in binoculars.
And finally moving higher and to the right we find the Pleiades, a lovely jewel box of middle age hot stars (and many less bright members) slowly drifting apart to join the general distribution of stars. When the dinosaurs roamed the earth this cluster would have resembled the Orion nebula – bright and nebulous, its hot infant stars lighting up the surrounding hydrogen gas clouds.