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

June 10th Solar Eclipse

Re-sharing some of the wonderful solar eclipse images posted to the community section of my Facebook page today.

Thank you so much for sharing and joining the marathon livestream earlier today, which had a reach of over a quarter of a million on Facebook.

Inverness turned out to be one of the best places to see today’s partial solar eclipse.

You can watch the livestream again here: https://fb.watch/61U_F2KS9d/

M13 The Great Hercules Globular Cluster

The Great Hercules Globular Cluster – M13

I hope you enjoy this conversational deep dive into the great globular cluster in Hercules. Joining me once again is Steve Owens, astronomer at Glasgow Science Centre and author of Stargazing For Dummies.

In this video podcast we discuss:

1. Finding M13 and what to expect when observing.
2. The physical scale and composition of this vast cluster.
3. What the night sky might look like from within M13.
4. Could life emerge and survive within these ancient and densely packed stellar environments.
5. What can globular clusters tell us about our position within our own Milky Way.

Music by Rising Galaxy, Cosmicleaf Records , Spain.

The Final Evolution of our Sun – illustrated by Adolf Shaller

I wanted to share some images with you that had me transfixed when I was a young boy (and still do to this day). I recall first seeing them in a hardback book of my father’s called Cosmos (which presumably accompanied the TV series that was being broadcast at the time).

The images depict the fate of our planet as the Sun transitions into a red giant star, at the very end of its life, some 4-5 billion years from now.

As the temperature of the Sun slowly increases, the oceans recede and our precious atmosphere is stripped away. Eventually the whole horizon is overwhelmed by the Sun in a bloated distended form, with the final image showing the Earth completely barren and parched.

I remember wondering at the time – where would all the people and animals be? Would we perish or find some new star to call our home? I think it was the first moment I glimpsed the immensity of stellar time scales and how tiny human lives and endeavours appeared to be next to these vast physical processes.

This is still what fascinates me most about astronomy and cosmology, and it’s amazing how something as natural and simple as looking up at the stars is a gateway into these incredible realms of the imagination.

Anyway here are the images, including their original captions. I was also pleased to find out that Adolf Shaller is still producing amazing art. Try an image search on Google with his name and enjoy.

‘The last perfect day’
‘The waters recede and most life is extinguished as the sun starts to swell and its luminosity rises.’
‘The oceans have evaporated and the atmosphere has escaped into space’
‘The sun, now a red giant, fills the sky over a dead planet. As we see in the next section, the red giant will eventually throw off its outer layers and become a white dwarf.’

Binoculars for Astronomy

Here’s a look at some of the binoculars I use for stargazing and astronomy, both hand held and tripod mounted.  

I’d say 90% of my observing is done with binoculars over telescopes due to their versatility and speed of use. This is especially relevant if you live anywhere with changeable weather, when sometimes brief openings appear in the sky.

If you enjoyed this video and found it useful please let me known and if you feel like buying me a coffee I’d really appreciate that too (link below).

Look out for a future video on telescopes.

https://www.buymeacoffee.com/modulouniverse

Please note this video is not sponsored by Olympus, these just happen to be the binoculars I use. Any pair of 8×40 or 10×50 binoculars should serve you very well.