Dark Skies at Torridon

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The Milky Way over the grounds of the Torridon Resort

I’ve had some fantastic excursions out to the Torridon Resort recently, where I deliver outreach astronomy and stargazing for guests at the hotel.

Weather can be unpredictable this far west but when conditions open up the skies are undoubtably some of the darkest in Scotland, easily surpassing the darkness levels over the Cairngorms, which are still hindered by skyglow from the populated Moray coast.  This far west there’s almost no skyglow and inky black skies allow amazing views of the Milky Way and deep sky objects like the Andromeda galaxy, open star clusters and faint nebulae.

In addition to hosting several stargazing dinners I was also involved in some filming with the BBC up at the Torridon and look forward to seeing if the starry sky sequences make the final cut.

If you’d like to treat yourself or a loved one to a special stargazing experience please see the details here on the Torridon’s website.  Meanwhile, enjoy some recent pictures I took from the hotel grounds and nearby Achnasheen.

Hebridean Dark Sky Festival

I’ll be touring the outer Hebrides delivering outdoor stargazing as part of the Hebridean Dark Sky Festival 2020. The festival is a fantastic reason to visit the isles during the winter months and appreciate their world class dark skies.  Organisers An Lanntair  have put a fantastic programme together spanning music, art, theatre and stargazing.

Details of my own route and outreach locations for stargazing will be published soon so stay tuned.  For full festival details and some early booking links please visit the festival website.

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The Northern Lights

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The northern lights looking over the Beauly firth towards the Black Isle, Inverness-shire

After reports of a KP6 geomagnetic storm predicted to strike Scotland over the weekend, and clear skies on Sunday evening, I headed out after sunset to try and catch the northern lights.  This was a very early aurora excursion as nights have only just got dark enough for decent views of the night sky, let alone tracking down the faint and elusive northern lights.

My initial outing took my into the hills above Bunchrew where I bagged some lovely views of the summer Milky Way overhead.  Turning my attention north I noticed a faint arc of light on the horizon,  and sure enough some test shots picked up a vibrant band of purple and green auroral light.  However little structure was evident until I moved to lower elevations, reaching the Bunchrew shoreline just after 10.30pm.

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The Milky Way near Cygnus, framed between trees above Bunchrew.

From this new vantage, in the dark looking over the Beauly Firth,  the northern lights stood out much more clearly as distant columns of white light, slowly morphing and scintillating above the horizon.  Some of the images (attached) show nice structure and the suggestion of wave like movement.

As our nights get darker many more opportunities to view the aurora will present themselves.  The best strategy is to simply get out there as often as you can when it’s clear, and try and escape the boundaries of light polluted towns and cities.  Aurora forecasts should only be used as a guide as they’re seldom reliable.  Remember to look north and where possible find some nice low horizons in this direction.

Good luck and clear skies.

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The aurora is caused by the solar wind slamming into the earth’s atmosphere near the poles, ionising chemical elements which produce light at very specific quantised frequencies.

 

 

The Summer Milky Way

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The summer aspect of the Milky Way, the great river of starlight marking our home galaxy.  A giant stellar disk containing 100s of billions of stars.  Photograph by Christopher Cogan, taken near Muie in east Sutherland, Scottish Highlands

Late summer is prime time for observing the Milky Way, and esp. catching the bright core visible near the southern horizon after dark. This bright area marks the central nucleus of our galaxy, some 30,000 light years away..

The Milky Way currently runs between Saturn and Jupiter, both low on the southern horizon, and intersects the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle asterism (Vega, Deneb and Altair). From south It runs overhead and terminates close to the constellation Perseus in the north East.

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For the best views you’ll want to get away from urban light pollution, ideally somewhere fairly rural. Let your eyes dark adapt for at least 15 minutes to give yourself the best possible views.

Clear skies.

2019 Star Stories And Urban Astronomy Dates

I’m delighted to announce the schedule of events for both the Star Stories Programme at Abriachan Forest and the Urban Astronomy evenings at the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve.  Some of these events may be subject to late change so please check back and keep tabs on my Highland Astronomy Facebook page for more details.  I’ll also post Eventbrite links for bookings here and on social media around a month prior to each event.

Star Stories at Abriachan Forest

Now entering its third year, Star Stories returns with another captivating programme of family friendly stargazing and storytelling events.  This year will see the erection of a wooden henge and sundial at the Abriachan site to compliment the program’s leaning towards ancient and observational astronomy.   Further ahead, and as a result of overwhelming feedback, we’re looking to fund an on-site video telescope to enhance the binocular observing and expand the outreach of the events via live streams.  Star Stories is in collaboration with Abriachan Forest Trust and part funded by the STFC’s Spark Award Scheme.

Location:  Arbrichan Forest (A Dark Sky Discovery site)

Oct 5th at 8pm – Ancient Astronomy.  Kicking off the observing season with a night of stargazing, storytelling and ancient astronomy learning (indoor and outdoor).  In collaboration with the Highland Archaeology Festival.  Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

Nov 23rd at 7pm – Dark Sky Man.  The first ‘Dark of the Moon event’ and another chance to let special guest astronomer and author Dark Sky Man (aka Steve Owens) guide you across the night sky.   Guest astronomer  Steve Owens.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum .

Dec 11th at 7pm – ‘Astronomy from the Moon:  studying the universe from our nearest neighbour’ is a talk delivered by Professor Martin Hendry of Glasgow University, joining us again in the forest classroom.  We’ll have a full Moon this evening allowing us to observe with video telescope and binoculars.  Guest speaker:  Prof. Martin Hendry.   Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh

Dec 21st at 7pm – Winter Solstice Special with guest storyteller and author John Burns.  Celebrate the longest night and the slow return of brighter days with a special dark sky Solstice special with our first ever guest storyteller, author John Burns.  We’ll also have outdoor stargazing and astronomy guiding (weather permitted) or a solstice inspired astronomy talk.  Guest storyteller:  John Burns.  Astronomy Outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh

Jan 10th 7pm – Eclipse Special.  A special night on the astronomy of eclipses with an opportunity to observe a live penumbra eclipse of the Moon via binoculars and video telescope.  Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

Feb 29th 7pm – KISS Astrophotography talk with guest Eric Walker from the Highland Astronomical Society.  Plus stargazing and astronomy outreach with astronomer Stephen Mackintosh.   Guest speaker: Eric Walker.  Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

March 21st 7pm – Equinox Special with a talk from local photographer Claire Rehr.  Plus stargazing and storytelling with Stephen And Clelland. Guest speaker: Claire Rehr. Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

The Glasgow Science Centre crew will also return in May for more hands on workshops.

 

Urban Astronomy Evenings at the Merkinch Nature Reserve

Since finding a permanent base of operations at the Sea Cadets Hall in Inverness, the Merkinch Urban Astronomy nights have attracted a growing number of participants.  This year we’ll be inviting some guest speakers and continuing our format of indoor astronomy talks with the additional option of walks to the nature reserve for live observing.  This programme is delivered in partnership with Caroline Snow and Friends of the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve.

Evening meetings:  Sea Cadets Hall, 44 Kessock Rd, Inverness IV3 8AJ.

October 3rd at 8.30pm – Saturn Special.  Opportunities to stargaze and observe Saturn from the local nature reserve and perhaps the setting Moon next to mighty Jupiter.  Guiding by local astronomer Stephen Mackintosh.  If sky conditions are poor we’ll stay indoors for an indoor presentation on Saturn.

November 7th at 8.30pm – Moon Special.  Come and observe the bright waxing gibbous Moon from the grounds of the Merkinch nature reserve.  Indoor Moon talk if skies are poor.

December 19th at 8.30pm – ‘A Telescope isn’t just for Christmas’.  A special Christmas event on getting started with observing, what to buy, what to avoid, where and when to observe.  With local astronomer Stephen Mackintosh.  Outdoor stargazing from the reserve if conditions are clear.

January 16th at 8.30pm – Supernova Special with guest speaker Dr Anthony Luke of UHI talking about the incredible science and chemistry behind exploding stars.  Opportunities for stargazing from the local nature reserve if conditions are clear.

February 20th at 8.30pm – Aurora Special with guest photographer Graham Bradshaw.  Graham will discuss aurora, how to find it and photograph it.  He’ll also share some of his amazing photographs and videos.  Opportunities to observe from the nature reserve if time and weather permits.

March 12th at 8.30pm – Venus Special.  With Venus now a beacon in evening skies we’ll have a special talk on the planet with astronomer Stephen Mackintosh,  Plus opportunities to observe it, and the stars, from the local nature reserve.

The Stars at Bella

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Stage all set for my stargazing show Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival.  On both evenings sky conditions were good enough for the show to move outdoors under clearing skies,

The stars were out at Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival last weekend. Not those on stage, but the more distant and ancient ones up in the sky.  I had loads of fun sky guiding outdoors with all the late night merrymaking around us – a markedly different experience to the stillness of SCAPA festival but none the worse for it.  My portable PA came to the rescue and managed to win out against one of the louder music tents across the way and questions and answers were easily fielded.

On both evenings skies started cloudy but partially cleared by about 11.30pm, allowing me to take the show outside for a laser pointer assisted tour of the heavens.

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Skies to the north were sufficiently clear to tour the rich pickings around Ursa Major, with its famous double star Mizar and its abundance of celestial pointers, leading to Polaris and many of the other bright stars in the sky

Amidst opening and closing patches of sky we saw red giant Arcturus, Vega, distant Deneb, the stars of Ursa Major, Cassiopeia (both pictured), Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila.

With binoculars folk were able to easily split some well known double stars including Mizar and Alcor in the handle of the dipper and the Double Double next to brilliant Vega.

The highlight, close to midnight, was viewing the Andromeda galaxy, which was just visible despite the very challenging conditions. A few people had never seen another galaxy before and amazed binoculars could produce such excellent views.

Thanks to everyone who came along, a safe homeward journey and clear skies!  I look forward to returning next year.

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Space Camp in Thurso

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Some photo highlights from the Summer Space Camp up in Thurso’s band new Newton Room.  I had a great time delivering Mars and astronomy based workshops on day 2.  We covered the observational history of Mars, its surface geology, the night sky, the life and death of stars and spectroscopy.  Interactive sections included Mars cratering, galaxy frisbees, star cluster balloons and DIY spectrascopes.

Picture rights Skills Development Scotland.