Comet SWAN Update

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Comet SWAN update! ☄️ Comet SWAN is just starting to become viable for observation at northern European latitudes as it sails through the constellation Perseus. This one will be very tough to see due to its low altitude and lack of darkness 🌅 . In fact it may not be visible at all if you live too far north. However, if you’re up for a real challenge, grab your binoculars and read on.

Just like this week’s Venus and Mercury planetary conjunction 🪐 , SWAN will be visible towards the north 🧭. As the week progresses it will rise higher and higher in the sky so theoretically should become easier and easier to observe (see attached guide images). Unfortunately this will be countered by less and less darkness as May advances.

The absolute best instrument for spotting a comet is a pair of binoculars, or the widest possible eyepiece you have on a telescope. Scan the sky using my pictures and bright stars for reference. Don’t expect a huge streaking object like you’ll see in astronomy magazines (or the front image I’ve attached 😆 ) – If you’re very lucky you might detect a tiny and faint smudge.

The darker your surroundings and more dark adapted your vision the better 🌑 👀 , so stay away from bright street lights and mobile phone screens for at least 15 minutes. If you live under street lights 🌃 your chances of sighting the comet are far lower but don’t let that put you off. Comets can vary in brightness dramatically and can very occasionally brighten enough to be detected naked eye.

What’s great about this challenge is you can also look out for Mercury and Venus at the same time, as all the action takes place towards the same cardinal direction – North.

Good luck and clear skies.

 

Venus and Mercury Conjunction

A rare opportunity to observe a Venus  and Mercury conjunction over the next few days.

From tonight (Monday) Mercury will appear progressively closer to Venus in the NW sky after sunset, leading to conjunction on Thursday and Friday night. An excellent chance to see Mercury in binoculars or observe the phase of both planets in a garden telescope.

Mercury is much dimmer and more challenging to see than Venus so my advice is to use Venus as a reference for finding Mercury in your binoculars or telescope. Those, like myself, living in the north of Scotland might need to wait a little longer after sunset to see the planets (due to pervading daylight).  This makes it more of a challenge as both planets will be closer to the horizon by then.

Moreover, as both planets will only be around 10 degrees above the horizon at conjunction you’ll need to get away from tall trees or buildings that might obscure your view NW. Hopefully those pesky clouds stay away too.

Clear skies and good luck.

Beginners Astronomy Kit

Yesterday I presented my beginners guide to observing and buying a first telescope at the Inverness Urban Astronomy gathering.  Here is my 2020 recommendations for good starter equipment.

1. Binoculars: 8x40s or 10x50s. Prices from £50 for decent ones. I personally use Olympus DSP1s and we’ve purchased these for both the Abriachan and Merkinch outreach programmes.

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2. Telescope: Skywatcher 150mm or 200mm dobsonian. Simple to use with great performance. Prices from £175. Get the 200mm if you have the space and extra cash to spend.

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3. Books: Left Turn at Orion and Stargazing for Dummies. From £15 each.

 

4. A red light LED headtorch. From £6 if you go to Tesco’s. Up to £30 for a good quality one.

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5. A planisphere. They cost around £10 and can be found in good book stores.

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Of all the items above I’d say binoculars are the most important.  People are often surprised to discover I do over 90% of my observing with a simple pair of 8x40s.  You can read an earlier post on the merits of hand held astronomy here.

Agile Observing

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A basic pair of 8x40mm binoculars lets you access around 500,000 stars

Many people think astronomy is a complicated or technical activity. While it can be, it very definitely doesn’t need to be. Over 90% of my observing is done with a simple pair of binoculars, like these light and inexpensive 8x40s, which I try to carry with me wherever I go on local walks or further afield.

With these I can access stunning images of the Moon, resolve the satellites of Jupiter, sweep through over 500,000 stars (most too dim to see naked eye), resolve glittering star clusters like the Pleiades and Hyades, and (under suitably dark skies) view the dim light from galaxies many millions of light years away.

Marry the binoculars with a small tripod and a night sky app on your phone and you have everything your need for agile observing during clear skies or brief opportune breaks in the weather.

Clear skies.

Stargazing Essential Kit – Binoculars

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Q. What’s the single best piece of astronomy equipment you can own, on a budget or otherwise?

A. Without any shadow of a doubt, binoculars.

Portable, light weight, robust and with plenty of daylight applications, a good pair of low or medium power binoculars is probably the single best investment you can make for stargazing or astronomy.

Unaided your eyes can potentially pick out between 5000-7000 stars from a dark site. With a good pair of medium powered binoculars that figure jumps to a staggering 600,000 stars!

Although binoculars don’t give you the huge magnifications that telescopes do they make up for that with stunning wide field views of star fields and clusters. Objects like the Pleiades, the Perseus double cluster, Orion’s nebula, the Hyades, Comets, the Andromeda galaxy and the Moon look incredible through binoculars.

They’re also perfect for the rapidly changing weather in the Highlands. During less settled conditions you can grab your binoculars and head outside for short bursts of observing, avoiding the pain of setting up and packing away a large telescope.

If buying binoculars for the first time, my advice is to avoid big astronomy binoculars with large objective lenses. These have their applications but usually provide poor shaky views unless adequately mounted. And once you start mounting binoculars you’re straying into telescope territory.

Here are the three standard sizes of binocular I suggest for grab and go stargazing, with 8x40s being by preferred size in most situations:

7x35s Star reach: 450,000 Field of view: 9.3 degrees
8x42s Star reach: 600,000 Field of view: 8.0 degrees
10x50s Star reach: 750,000 Field of view: 6.8 degrees

The first number is the magnification and the second number is the objective lens diameter.  A large magnification without a decent sized objective will provide dim views.  Another type of binocular to avoid are zoom models which promise large magnifications but tend to produce inferior views and are often very fiddly to use in the field.  Simple is best.

The image below gives a good average comparison between the field of view provided by a 8×40 binocular and a 25mm telescope eyepiece.  Notice all three main belt stars in Orion can be framed through the binoculars.  Perfect for learning the constellations and taking in broad sweeps of the night sky.

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