Dark Sky Burns 2022

Starry skies over Abriachan Forest

On Saturday the 29th January, join me up at Abriachan Forest (a Dark Sky Discovery site) for an evening of stargazing and astronomy with a Burns night twist

If conditions are clear I’ll be guiding you under the Milky Way class dark skies of Abriachan Forest (with a backup astronomy presentation if clouds roll in).

Meanwhile the Abriachan team will host an outdoor Tam’s Trail to find signs of Meg and a cutty sark! Plus Haggis hand warmers and refreshments for a simple Burn’s supper fare.

Booking in advance via Eventbrite is essential due to site capacity. Ticket links here.

2022 Hebridean Dark Skies Dates

Please see confirmed dates for my stargazing tours next February for the 2022 Hebridean Dark Skies Festival. I hope to be hosting a walk and talk under the stars from each location with an indoor fallback in the event of poor weather (so please book with confidence). Ticket links below:

“Astronomer Stephen Mackintosh will host stargazing events at Calanais Standing Stones and Visitor CentreScaladale Centre and Grinneabhat (Bragar and Arnol Community Trust) as part of the 2022 Hebridean Dark Skies Festival. #hebdarkskies

Tickets are on sale now – book here:
Calanais, 17 Feb: https://lanntair.com/…/highland-astronomy-at-calanais/
Grinneabhat, 18 Feb: https://lanntair.com/…/highland-astronomy-at-grinneabhat/
Scaladale, 19 Feb: https://lanntair.com/…/highland-astronomy-at-scaladale…/

The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival runs from 11-25 February. Look out for lots more programme announcements in the next few days – and for our printed festival programme, available at An Lanntair and across the island from next week! Full listings at https://lanntair.com/events/category/dark-skies/

#hebdarkskies is supported by CalMac FerriesHighlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and Culture Business Fund Scotland, in partnership with Lews Castle College UHIGallan Head Community TrustCalanais Standing Stones and Visitor Centre and Stornoway Astronomical Society.”

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).

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