A fantastic night of stargazing was had at Abriachan community forest last Friday. The night was dubbed ‘Mesolithic Stargazing’ and was delivered as part of the Highland Archaeology Festival.
Abriachan is an excellent location for dark sky observing, being both well elevated in the high moors above the Great Glen and miles away from urban light pollution. Its southern skies are particularly stunning.
Interest in the event far exceeded expectations, with a Facebook event erected in August achieving a shared reach of over 35,000 people! The Sky at Night magazine even got in touch, wishing to highlight the event in the ‘What’s On’ section of the print magazine. Because of this, a late request for email bookings had to be enforced by Abriachan to control numbers. This left lots of folks disappointed but ultimately ensured the event ran smoothly.
There were two elements to the evening which people could move between – stargazing and mesolithic campfire stories. I was set up to host the stargazing component out in the open above the forest classroom, while ranger Clelland built a hearty fire in the woods for camp fire tales. Meanwhile, Suzann and the Abriachan team prepared the site and classroom, marking out paths with glow-sticks to help people negotiate safely in the dark. They also readied hot drinks, soup and snacks to serve from the Camanachd Cabin beside the classroom.
Around 7pm folks started arriving, just as an ominous bank of clouds rolled in. I needed some extra time to decide if the stargazing would go ahead at this point, so Suzann helpfully escorted the first group of folks down to the campfire for stories. Meanwhile, lots more people were arriving and a call had to be made soon on whether to abandon the stargazing, and instead present an indoor talk I’d prepared on ‘Ancient Astronomy’.
Thankfully the shifting skies soon made that decision easy. The clouds began melting away revealing a lovely evening sky peppered with brighter stars. By the time I escorted my first group to the appointed observing spot the skies were ablaze with stars, and a beautiful Milky Way soared overhead. After that, conditions got better and better, and to top it all off a mesmerising display of northern lights materialised, distracting everyone from the stargazing as it ebbed and rippled high in the northern sky.
In rough order, the stargazing tour covered the following:
- Ursa Major and the Big Dipper asterism
- Ancient navigation and time keeping using Polaris and circumpolar constellations
- Properties of Polaris
- Cassiopeia – the 1572 Tyco Brahe supernova
- Perseus – the Merfak group, the double cluster and the ghoul star Algol
- Andromeda – the stunning M31 galaxy.
- The story of Perseus, Andromeda, Pegasus and the sea monster Cetus
- The summer triangle – Vega, Deneb and Altair
- Cygnus – the galactic disk, the Cygnus rift and the Kepler exoplanet survey
- Lyra – Vega and the double double
- The unique properties of the blue-white giant Vega
- Delphinus and Sagitta – the coat hanger asterism
- Meteor storms and large impactors
The tour was largely naked eye and with binoculars. I had hoped to get some telescope time in with the 200mm auto tracker, but the groups were too large to make that a practical option. However, some folks who stayed behind after the tours did see some pleasing views of Andromeda and the double cluster in the eyepiece.
Overall the evening was a big success with lots of positive feedback. The addition of a stunning display of northern lights made the experience all the more memorable. By all accounts the story telling was very well received too, with Clelland recounting a Celtic tale about Ursa Major, including the ghoul star ‘Algol’ in Perseus, which we’d surveyed earlier in the sky tour.
A followup event is planned for November 18th. Please check the Facebook site for details.