Star Stories Photography and Aurora Special

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The aurora over Ceannabeinne Beach on the north coast by photographer Graham Bradshaw

Despite the stormy conditions earlier in the evening, skies cleared up beautifully at Abriachan on Saturday night for Star Stories.

Graham Bradshaw of Graham Bradshaw Photography was our guest speaker, talking about his fascinating experiences hunting and photographing aurora in some of the wildest and remotest parts of the Scottish highlands.  His talk included practical advice on seeking out aurora in the north of Scotland (which is much more prevalent than you might think), as well as showing many beautiful still images and stunning time lapses captured all over the highlands and further afield.

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Photographer Graham Bradshaw

Meanwhile I took two groups out stargazing and managed about 20 minutes of clear skies during the first outing until we were rained off by a very brief shower.  After heading back inside I switched to my backup slide deck on the science of aurora, talking about how the differential rotation of stars causes kinks in their magnetic fields, ultimately leading to the coronal mass ejections that produce the aurora.

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I got a nice capture of the Andromeda galaxy over the forest classroom (left), and a passing satellite.  This giant galaxy is over 2.5 million lights years away just visible naked eye.  It looks even more impressive in binoculars.

By the time Graham had finished his first talk, skies had cleared again and my second group had a much longer excursion under the stars.

As usual we took in broad sweeps of the night sky with the wonderful agility of binocular observing, hitting targets like the Orion nebula, Hyades and Pleiades star clusters, the Andromeda galaxy, Beehive cluster as well as numerous bright and massive red and blue giant stars.  The Milky Way was also clearly on display, even with the presence of an enchanting crescent Moon hanging in the South West.  We also saw Mars sitting above the Moon and had a go at finding Uranus (currently observable in the same binocular field as Mars).

During both streams Suzann Barr did some video interviews with some of the younger stargazers who’ve become regulars at the events, and captured feedback on our Star Stories wall chart.  Overall it was another great evening with good feedback from participants.

Our next event in March will be the last dark sky observing session for this season as skies begin to brighten.  The theme for this event will be galaxies, and I’ll have a backup presentation prepared on this topic should skies prove unfavourable.  There’s only a few tickets left available on Eventbrite here.

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Another good catch in my camera, this time the Milky Way in the region of Perseus, with the double cluster clearly visible on the left.

 

 

Star Stories Astronomy Outreach Update

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Starry skies above Abriachan, with Vega and Lyra at the extreme right of the shot.

The Star Stories astronomy programme at Abriachan Forest is going from strength to strength, with tickets selling out far in advance of each event.  Since the last update we’ve hosted two stargazing evenings, involving guest speakers Dr Anthony Luke (UHI) and Professor Martin Hendry (Glasgow University).

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More star studded skies above the classroom, close to brilliant Deneb in the Cygnus region of the Milky Way

The November event was a Leonids special, held near the peak of the annual meteor shower on Nov 16th, with the promise of perhaps observing some early atmosphere skipping Leonids.

Dr Anthony Luke presented a fascinating set of lectures on the chemistry of meteors and stars in the forest classroom, touching on the incredible pressure and heat generated within stellar forges that produce all the elements we see around us.

Meanwhile, I led the stargazing component outside with perfectly clear skies allowing us to take in the brightest stars, and views of the gibbous Moon in video telescope.  The lunar observing was particularly captivating, prompting discussion on the formation lunar maria, the highlands, and the Theia Moon origin hypothesis.

Clelland was also in action over the forest campfire making wooden star models for the younger participants.  There were no dramatic meteor sightings to match October’s spectacle but the event certainly whetted everyone’s appetite.

 

Then on December 5th, Glasgow University’s Professor Martin Hendry (of gravitational wave fame) joined us under dark skies for a Wednesday night special.

Martin is a hard working and inspirational advocate of all things astronomy and space.  Prior to me collecting him at his hotel he had already delivered a packed day of outreach to Inverness schools and hadn’t had a bite to eat since lunch.  Despite this he was incredibly grateful for the cold pizza I offered him on our drive out to Abriachan, and this meagre fare fuelled him sufficiently to deliver two fantastic talks on dark matter and gravitational waves in the forest classroom.  His talk highlighted some of the latest discoveries and simulations from the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) team.

The following day he was off on the train again to speak to more schools in the far north.

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The Pleiades and red giant Aldebaran

We were also blessed with lots of clear breaks on the 5th, so I once again led the observing component outdoors, this time taking groups further back into the darker areas above the classroom where the Milky Way was ablaze, and fainter fuzzies like the Andromeda galaxy leapt out at us in our binocular and naked eye views.  Amongst many things we discussed the evolution of hot massive stars like Betelgeuse and the Kepler exoplanet survey, which has been scanning vast numbers of star systems close to Cygnus and Vega, cataloging extrasolar planets.

Prior to packing away the binoculars I snapped some pictures of the starry skies close to the forest classroom (attached).

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Orion rising in the east from Abriachan Forest

Both evenings have garnered fantastic feedback and we’re looking forward to the next events, listed below.

As always a big thanks to learning coordinator Suzann Barr, Ronnie, Clelland and the rest of the Abriachan team who help make these events so welcoming and successful.  We’re also grateful to grant funding from the STFC, allowing us to invest in observing equipment, free transport and to extend the scope of this year’s programme.

Future Star Stories Events

Winter Solstice Special (21st December 2018) – Solstice talk and Moon observing with astronomer Stephen Mackintosh, turn of the year campfire twists with Clelland.

Stargazing with Dark Sky Man Steve Owens (12th Jan 2019) – Stargazing with author of Stargazing for Dummies Steve Owens

Star Stories Photography Special with guest Graham Bradshaw (9th Feb 2019) – Local landscape, aurora and night sky photographer Graham Bradshaw shares his stories of nights spent on exposed hillsides and offers tips to budding photographers.