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Cosmology, Astronomy and Abstract Mathematics


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South Loch Ness Tourist Guide

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Starry Skies over Loch Ness by Claire Rehr

Here’s a small piece I wrote for the South Loch Ness tourist website on stargazing in the Highlands.

South Loch Ness Tourist Site – Night Sky

Excerpts:

“For me stargazing is about reconnecting people with the night sky, not just the raw science which is fascinating enough, but also the star lore, mythology and human connections with it.  That’s something we’ve undoubtedly lost in recent times not only in terms of light pollution but also our tendency to inhabit virtual spaces within our phones and gadgets.  As a people we seem to be increasingly looking down rather than up! 

 ‘In the Highlands we’re still fortunate to have access to some of the darkest skies in Europe, and it’s something I hope we’ll do our best to preserve for future generations.  Visitors from populated areas of England and the central belt of Scotland are always blown away by what they can when they get into the wilds under a moonless sky.  Under the right conditions you can see over 5000 stars out here, compared to just a few hundred from urban areas. ”

 “For visitors to the South Loch Ness area I recommend just heading out to some high vantage points, killing your lights and letting your eyes dark adapt.  You’ll be amazed when you look up.  You can also head up to Abriachan where there’s good access and parking for larger groups of stargazers”.  “When the moon is new you can see breathtaking views of the Milky Way galaxy soaring overhead – a humbling reminder that we’re just a tiny part of a giant spiral galaxy surrounded by billions of other stellar companions.” 

 “Because of our northerly latitude (57 degrees north) we also have the privilege of witnessing many circumpolar constellations – stars that are always above the horizon.  This lets us become more familiar with specific groupings like the two bears Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and rich constellations like Perseus, Draco, Auriga and Cassiopeia.  During the winter months the shorter days up here also lend themselves to extended opportunities for observing.  It’s a rewarding pastime that makes the cold and long winter nights much more inviting.’

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Mercury Opportunity

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Mercury is only 40% larger than the moon but very difficult to spot

The planet Mercury can be very tricky to observe.  It’s close proximity to the sun means we generally only have brief opportunities to observe it low on the horizon either before or after sunset.

Right now Mercury is approaching maximum eastern elongation (on March 15th to be precise) meaning the planet is up for longer after the sun sets.  The window is still pretty brief with only about 45 mins of useful time to work with after sunset.

Your best chance is to pick a clear evening and head out somewhere with a good unobstructed view to the West.  You don’t need dark skies as the Sun will still be producing a lot of light between 6 and 8pm.

At the moment, and at Highland latitudes, the action starts about 6.30pm just after the Sun sets.  Wait a while then scan the western horizon and you should see Venus first, which will appear brighter.  Use this as a guide for finding Mercury which will sit slightly above it over the next few days.

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6.20pm 14th March 2018, 57 degrees north

The longer you wait after the sunset the easier Mercury will be to see due to darkening skies but also harder due to it moving lower and lower towards the horizon, adding more atmospheric distortion to your views.

If you do see it take a note of its crescent phase.  We almost always see Mercury as a crescent because it would be too close to the sun to see it in a full or new aspect.  One exception to this is during a solar transit when Mercury crosses directly across the disc of the sun.  The next opportunity to witness this will be 11th November 2019, which gives you plenty of time to prepare a solar filter for safe observing of the solar disc.  Happy planet hunting meanwhile.

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Transits reveal the true scale of the Sun


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Mesolithic Stargazing at Abriachan

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Stargazing at Abriachan – Photo by Ken Armstrong – Castlehill Photography

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.

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Mesmerising colours – Photo by Ken Armstrong – Castlehill Photography

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.

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The Summer Triangle and the Cygnus Rift, captured by photographer Claire Rehr

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.

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More stunning aurora, captured by photographer Claire Rehr

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.

 


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Orionids Meteor Shower

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The Orionids meteor shower will peak this month on October 20th, radiating close to the prominent constellation of Orion the hunter.

At Highland latitudes the hunter will rise in the East after 10pm and gain a decent observing altitude around midnight. The radiant for the shower lies just to the left of the hunter and close to the orange supergiant Betelgeuse.

While you wait for shooting stars why not scan below the hunter’s belt with binoculars and marvel at the stunning Orion nebula – one of the best binocular and telescope targets in the night sky.

As ever, you’ll have the best chance of seeing activity if you head to a nice dark site well away from town and city glare.

Be patient, wrap up warm and bring a hot drink to sip while you wait. Good luck and clear skies!


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New Comet Alert!

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Look out for a new bright comet visible in night skies now and for the next couple of weeks.

Comet C/2017 O1 ASAS-SN is presently sweeping its way between the constellations Auriga (The Charioteer) and Perseus (The Hero). Later in Ocober it will move into the boundaries of the faint constellation Camelopardalis.

At magnitude 7 or 8 a good dark site and binoculars will be essential for viewing.

Right now at Highland latitudes, Perseus and Auriga start the evening about 20 degrees above the hoizon in the NE before rotating higher and higher in the sky towards the East beyond midnight. Viewing opportunities will therefore get better as the night progresses.

With a calculated orbital period of 17.000 years this will be a rare viewing opportunity.  Happy hunting.

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