Merkinch Astronomy Outreach – Beginners Guide to Observing

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Gazing Moonward from the grounds of the Sea Cadets Hall, Inverness

We had a very successful Merkinch astronomy evening last Thursday, the second I’ve hosted from our new base at the Sea Cadets Hall on Kessock Road.  All available tickets were allocated in advance and we had a healthy gathering of over 50 people in the end, along with some of the sea cadets.  Caroline had also secured a large consignment of 8×40 binoculars for this and future events, which we put to good use later in the evening.

I kicked proceedings off with a projector based talk on buying a first telescope, offering some recommendations for good beginner scopes that won’t break the bank.  Afterwards, we headed out into the carpark beside the hall for some projections of the Moon.  Despite high cirrus clouds the Moon was still very clear and we had workable views via video telescope, allowing us to discuss the infinitely enthralling topic of lunar geology.

A few stars popped out later on but not enough to warrant a walk over to the nature reserve – which was the original plan if skies were clearer.

The next event takes place on February 28th when I’ll discuss deep sky observing – including star clusters, nebulae, galaxies and supernova remnants – how to observe them and some of the incredible astrophysics behind them.  Links to this event here.

ISS Returns

The International Space Station returns to Scotland’s skies on January 25th.  I’ve put together a short informative video on the station linked below.  Please also find the first few flyby times.  I’ll be posting live prompts on my Highland Astronomy FB page when I can.

List of the first few bright ISS passes:

  • Friday 25th Jan at 19.07pm
  • Saturday 26th Jan 18.19pm
  • Sunday 27th Jan 19.00pm
  • Monday 28th Jan 18.09pm

 

 

Star Stories with Dark Sky Man

Despite cloudy skies up at Abriachan Forest we had a fantastic evening of astronomy and storytelling on Saturday 12th January with special guest Steve Owens, aka Dark Sky Man.

Steve is the author of the popular Stargazing for Dummies book. He was presented with the Federation of Astronomical Societies 2010 award for Outstanding Achievement in Astronomy, and the Campaign for Dark Skies 2010 award for Efforts in Dark Sky Preservation.

Due to the weather the evening was split into two streams – an indoor talk on dark skies with Steve, and storytelling with Clelland in the forest.  Since I was off the hook I managed to capture some film and compiled a short vide of the evening below.

Merkinch Urban Astronomy Initiative

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A view of Orion from the Merkinch Nature Reserve at a previous event.  Credit Simon Garrod

I’m delighted to be continuing the urban astronomy initiative with the Merkinch Nature Reserve this year, in partnership with project manager Caroline Snow.

Going forward we now have a base of operations to host our astronomy gatherings, after a successful trial last year at the Inverness Sea Cadet hall on Kessock Road.  The venue allows us to host indoor talks and activities and is only a ten minute walk from the nature reserve itself, giving us the option to stargaze during open skies.

The first event planned for 2019 is an Introduction to Observing and Moon Night, where I’ll present a beginners guide to astronomy – what to consider buying to get started and what to potentially avoid.  We’ll take a break from proceedings to observe the gibbous Moon and stars if conditions are clear.  All booking enquiries should be directed to Caroline, who’s email is in the event link above.

We have plans to roll out further events as part of a larger 2019 programme.  Stay tuned here or on the Merkinch Facebook site for details as they develop.

 

Winter Solstice Astronomy Outreach

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A captivating Clelland in full swing over the fire

Following the fantastic summer solstice  gathering last June we decided to add an astronomy themed winter solstice event to the Star Stories programme up at Abriachan.

Instead of stargazing the event was billed as a ‘Solstice and Moon night’, as I quickly realised the almost full Moon would be prominent in the sky and wash away significant views of the Milky Way and fainter galaxies and clusters.

As it was the evening was a fantastic success, with a bright mid winter Moon powering through some scattered light clouds and offering us lovely views of its surface via binoculars and video telescope.

 

 

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Before the Moon observing I presented a short indoor talk on the cultural and observational significance of the solstice, linking in various older mid winter traditions such as Saturnalia and Yuletide and outlining the folk connections with modern Christmas.

We also examined the importance of mid winter markers for the ancient settlers of high northern latitudes, where pitifully short days and long winters no doubt motivated a collective and religious celebration of the ‘turning point’ of the Sun’s midday altitude and its rising and setting points.  We followed this with a look at various solar aligned prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge and, much closer to home, the wonderful Clava Cairns which I visited recently with my family on Christmas Eve.

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Presenting my solstice talk before we stepped outside to observe the Moon

After the talk we moved outside to observe the Moon in binoculars and video telescope, with the aid of an outdoor projector and screen I had setup earlier.  The giant screen allowed everyone to see some of the striking features on the lunar surface up close and personal, like Tycho’s crater, the Apennine Mountains and various seas including the famous Sea of Tranquility where the first Apollo astronauts landed.

Meanwhile, Clelland took the second group into the forest for some dramatic campfire storytelling.  This evening he told a solstice inspired Celtic tale involving the mythological hero figure King Arthur, who some think may be connected with Welsh folk legend.  Participants also gathered up and tied together clumps of herbs to burn in the fire as they made new year wishes, another old winter tradition practiced in the Highlands and further afield.

 

 

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Feedback on this one has been great and we may well followup with a March Equinox event.  We’re also seeing many returning families and enthusiastic youngsters, which is fantastic.  Going forward Suzann and I will endeavour to capture some film interviews from some of the keenest young astronomers, recording their thoughts and feedback on their learning experience for future dissemination.

All pictures in this piece (aside from the Moon picture) are courtesy Abriachan Forest Trust.

The Quadrantids Meteor Shower 2019

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The Quadrantids meteor shower will peak on the night of Jan 3rd/4th

Although not normally singled out as a major meteor shower, the 2019 Quadrantids will peak under the darkness of a new Moon, offering the best chances of seeing an abundance of shooting stars if you can get away to a suitably dark location under favourable skies.

Like the Geminids, the Quadrantids are not produced by the debris from a comet, but by a large asteroid.  In this case asteroid 2003EH1 which orbits the Sun every five and a half years.

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An asteroid – 2003EH1 was discovered by Peter Jenniskens and astronomers of the LONEOS programme in Arizona

The time to begin looking up will run from January 1st until the 6th.  However rates will be low in general over this wide period.  For the best spectacle try and head out over the narrow peak of the shower, after midnight on January 3rd, when for a few hours the shower can theoretically produce between 50-100 meteors per hour, but only under ideal conditions.

If you’re observing close to midnight at Inverness latitudes (57 degrees) the radiant will be about 22 degrees high.  Therefore a more realistic estimate would be 20-30 per hour.  Stay out later and the radiant will rise higher increasing the theoretical rate.  If you’d like to know more about the technical considerations when estimating visible meteor rates check out this excellent blog post by Steve Owens.

The rough radiant for the Quadrantids is the constellation Bootes, although you don’t need to look in this direction to see them.

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Remember you don’t need to look at the radiant when viewing a meteor shower

Observing the Quadrantids

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 a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink, wrap up warm and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone 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 late at night after the Moon sets or in the darkness of the pre dawn sky., when the radiant is highest in the sky.

Photographing the Quadrantids

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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 you camera to the tripod.
  2. Disable autofocus and manually focus at 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 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 automatically take 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 Winter Sun at Clava Cairns

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Looking south west from inside the north east cairn at Clava

As a family we have a yearly tradition of heading out for a longish walk on Christmas Eve.  We usually park up somewhere remote in the van, make some bacon rolls then head out along a forest trail or up a local hill.  This year we decided to see if we could catch the setting Sun at Clava Cairns, a beautiful bronze age site located only a mile or so from Culloden battlefield near Inverness.

During my astronomy outreach I’ve given quite a few talks referencing Clava Cairns in relation to the fascinating subject of ancient astronomy.  Often wild speculations are made about many prehistoric sites, in particular Stonehenge, with dubious claims of alignments to stellar constellations or complex planetary cycles.  But one thing is almost universally agreed by archaeologists and astronomers alike, that many of these ancient structures were configured to mark the passage of the solar year.

In Clava’s case, both main passage cairns have mid winter setting sun alignments facing towards the south west, such that for several days either end of the shortest day, the light from the setting Sun will shine down the central passage and light up the interior of the structure.

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Sun rays striking the winter solstice aligned passage.

Of course it’s one thing to read second hand accounts of this phenomena, and quite another to experience them first hand.  As luck would have it, when we approached the site around 3.30pm the Sun was clearly visible and just setting in the south west, allowing us to witness this amazing spectacle and to capture some photographs.

From inside the north east cairn, closest to the main entrance of the site, the passage was already brightly washed over with sunlight.  I was curious to determine if the sun’s position was low enough to light the passage when it was originally covered over (several thousand years ago), so crouched down within the passage to take some of my shots.  Sure enough, the rays of the Sun could be directly sighted down the camera lens.

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My daughter Violet standing in the sunlight directed down the main passage of the north east cairn.

The motivation for the astronomical alignment of these structures is still the topic of heated debate amongst historians and archaeologists, but one thing residents of the north of Scotland can appreciate first hand is the depressingly short days and long hard winters we experience at this time of year.  Some sort of large scale and perhaps communal confirmation that the south westerly extreme of the winter sunset (and its associated low midday elevation) had been reached would have been very reassuring to early agricultural societies.

It’s this concept of the Sun both halting its low elevation in the south at midday and the most southern extreme of its setting and rising positions that gives rise to the word Solstice – ‘sol ‘ sistere’ meaning Sun standstill.  The reverse applies during mid summer when the sun rises and sets at its most extreme positions to the north of east and west, and reaches its highest elevation at midday.

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The two main passage cairns at Clava have south westerly mid winter sunset alignments.

There are some researchers who go much further, and point to alignments between the stones at Clava Cairns with the Celtic cross quarter days and the more complex dynamics of major and minor lunar standstills.  Whilst these may be true it should also be remembered that it only takes two points to make a straight line!  As ever we need to be cautious with our wish to believe, and back everything up, where possible, with evidence.