Upcoming Astronomy Outreach

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Here’s an updated list of events I’ll be hosting with Abriachan Forest, the Merkinch Nature Reserve in Inverness and others.  Tickets can be picked up via eventbrite (linked) or email contact.  Please follow the links below.

Saturday February 9th – Star Stories Aurora special with special guest Graham Bradshaw of Graham Bradshaw Photography.  Almost sold out, only a couple of adult and child tickets left.  Eventbrite link here.

Saturday 9th March – Star Stories Dark Sky Observing.  70% of tickets already allocated for this one.  Eventbrite link here.

Thursday February 28th – Stargazing and Guide to Deep Sky Observing at the Inverness Sea Cadet Hall and in partnership with the Merkinch Nature Reserve.  Event details here.

Thursday 28th March – The Life of Stars at the Inverness Sea Cadet Hall and in partnership with the Merkinch Nature Reserve.   Event details to be added.

I’ll also be involved in outreach at some festivals this year.  So far I can confirm my attendance at SCAPA Festival at Loch Fyne on the 3rd to 5th May  Details on the festival and booking info here.

 

Merkinch Astronomy Outreach – Beginners Guide to Observing

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Gazing Moonward from the grounds of the Sea Cadets Hall, Inverness

We had a very successful Merkinch astronomy evening last Thursday, the second I’ve hosted from our new base at the Sea Cadets Hall on Kessock Road.  All available tickets were allocated in advance and we had a healthy gathering of over 50 people in the end, along with some of the sea cadets.  Caroline had also secured a large consignment of 8×40 binoculars for this and future events, which we put to good use later in the evening.

I kicked proceedings off with a projector based talk on buying a first telescope, offering some recommendations for good beginner scopes that won’t break the bank.  Afterwards, we headed out into the carpark beside the hall for some projections of the Moon.  Despite high cirrus clouds the Moon was still very clear and we had workable views via video telescope, allowing us to discuss the infinitely enthralling topic of lunar geology.

A few stars popped out later on but not enough to warrant a walk over to the nature reserve – which was the original plan if skies were clearer.

The next event takes place on February 28th when I’ll discuss deep sky observing – including star clusters, nebulae, galaxies and supernova remnants – how to observe them and some of the incredible astrophysics behind them.  Links to this event here.

Merkinch Urban Astronomy Initiative

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A view of Orion from the Merkinch Nature Reserve at a previous event.  Credit Simon Garrod

I’m delighted to be continuing the urban astronomy initiative with the Merkinch Nature Reserve this year, in partnership with project manager Caroline Snow.

Going forward we now have a base of operations to host our astronomy gatherings, after a successful trial last year at the Inverness Sea Cadet hall on Kessock Road.  The venue allows us to host indoor talks and activities and is only a ten minute walk from the nature reserve itself, giving us the option to stargaze during open skies.

The first event planned for 2019 is an Introduction to Observing and Moon Night, where I’ll present a beginners guide to astronomy – what to consider buying to get started and what to potentially avoid.  We’ll take a break from proceedings to observe the gibbous Moon and stars if conditions are clear.  All booking enquiries should be directed to Caroline, who’s email is in the event link above.

We have plans to roll out further events as part of a larger 2019 programme.  Stay tuned here or on the Merkinch Facebook site for details as they develop.

 

The Winter Sun at Clava Cairns

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Looking south west from inside the north east cairn at Clava

As a family we have a yearly tradition of heading out for a longish walk on Christmas Eve.  We usually park up somewhere remote in the van, make some bacon rolls then head out along a forest trail or up a local hill.  This year we decided to see if we could catch the setting Sun at Clava Cairns, a beautiful bronze age site located only a mile or so from Culloden battlefield near Inverness.

During my astronomy outreach I’ve given quite a few talks referencing Clava Cairns in relation to the fascinating subject of ancient astronomy.  Often wild speculations are made about many prehistoric sites, in particular Stonehenge, with dubious claims of alignments to stellar constellations or complex planetary cycles.  But one thing is almost universally agreed by archaeologists and astronomers alike, that many of these ancient structures were configured to mark the passage of the solar year.

In Clava’s case, both main passage cairns have mid winter setting sun alignments facing towards the south west, such that for several days either end of the shortest day, the light from the setting Sun will shine down the central passage and light up the interior of the structure.

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Sun rays striking the winter solstice aligned passage.

Of course it’s one thing to read second hand accounts of this phenomena, and quite another to experience them first hand.  As luck would have it, when we approached the site around 3.30pm the Sun was clearly visible and just setting in the south west, allowing us to witness this amazing spectacle and to capture some photographs.

From inside the north east cairn, closest to the main entrance of the site, the passage was already brightly washed over with sunlight.  I was curious to determine if the sun’s position was low enough to light the passage when it was originally covered over (several thousand years ago), so crouched down within the passage to take some of my shots.  Sure enough, the rays of the Sun could be directly sighted down the camera lens.

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My daughter Violet standing in the sunlight directed down the main passage of the north east cairn.

The motivation for the astronomical alignment of these structures is still the topic of heated debate amongst historians and archaeologists, but one thing residents of the north of Scotland can appreciate first hand is the depressingly short days and long hard winters we experience at this time of year.  Some sort of large scale and perhaps communal confirmation that the south westerly extreme of the winter sunset (and its associated low midday elevation) had been reached would have been very reassuring to early agricultural societies.

It’s this concept of the Sun both halting its low elevation in the south at midday and the most southern extreme of its setting and rising positions that gives rise to the word Solstice – ‘sol ‘ sistere’ meaning Sun standstill.  The reverse applies during mid summer when the sun rises and sets at its most extreme positions to the north of east and west, and reaches its highest elevation at midday.

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The two main passage cairns at Clava have south westerly mid winter sunset alignments.

There are some researchers who go much further, and point to alignments between the stones at Clava Cairns with the Celtic cross quarter days and the more complex dynamics of major and minor lunar standstills.  Whilst these may be true it should also be remembered that it only takes two points to make a straight line!  As ever we need to be cautious with our wish to believe, and back everything up, where possible, with evidence.

Merkinch Astronomy Evening

I was delighted to be approached by Caroline Snow, who manages the local Merkinch Nature Reserve, to host an astronomy evening in March.  Our mutual friend Russel Deacon introduced us via Facebook and after some informal chat we agreed enough of an initial proposal for Caroline to begin promoting the event on social media and some local papers.

From a dark sky perspective the area isn’t perfect as there’s a fair bit of light pollution facing south and east back towards Inverness.  But it’s a beautiful location overall with lovely clear views north and west and perfectly acceptable dark skies in those directions.  It was also a good compromise between darkness and accessibility for the people we hoped to attract from the local area and beyond.

We initially planned the tour for Friday 24th of March but the weather was a bit patchy and looking better the following day.  So after some further discussion Caroline and I decided to go for for the clearest night possible, and delayed the event until Saturday.

The next day was sunny and clear as forecast and when twilight fell I headed over to the reserve to setup an hour or so early.  This was the lovely scene as the sun set over the observing site.

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Sunset at Merkinch Nature Reserve looking North West.

My first challenge arose when unloading the telescope beside the picnic benches at our chosen spot. I realised I had some company next to me in the form of a few local teenagers who were blaring out Johnny Cash and Elvis from a brightly flashing ghetto blaster!  I approached them to say hello and explain what I was doing here, and in return was offered a swig from a Buckfast bottle!  After declining and explaining I had my van with me, one of the party lurched towards me and gave me a giant bear hug, which was a lovely welcoming gesture but threatened to unbalance me and the large bag of astronomical equipment I was carrying!  Dusting myself down, I thanked them and invited them to join the tour when it got underway.  I then continued with my astronomical setup, calmed by the soothing melodies of ‘Love Me Tender’ drifting through the darkness.

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Elvis performing in front of a large comet.

The plan for the evening was a naked eye and binocular constellation tour, focusing on some interesting targets I’d prepared to discuss in advance.  The telescope would serve to give more detailed views of a few select objects we’d be looking at.  At this stage I was only expecting perhaps a dozen people to turn up but I severely underestimated Caroline’s promotional skills; over the course of the evening about 30-40 people appeared.  This was obviously fantastic but meant individual telescope time was going to be limited.

As the tour started the next challenge arose.  Both laser pointers we’d taken down with us failed, producing a pitiful beam only I could see.  An audience member came to the rescue and offered me his laser pointer, but incredibly that failed too!  The result was that only a few of the more experienced stargazers really knew what I was pointing at.  The only real way out of this pinch was to use the telescope to track to each object in turn and invite people over to the eyepiece.  This let everyone know the rough direction I was pointing at and afforded them a great view of each target.  Phew!

Eventually the pens warmed up and the party really kicked off when people started asking questions – really interesting ones.  What were supernova?  How large is the universe?  Why are stars different colours?  Where does the plane of the milky way sit?  The list was impressive and resulted to some great crowd chat and one to one conversations.  Some of the best questions came from the younger members of the audience, some of whom were so small they had to be lifted up to the eyepiece to see through the telescope (note to self:  bring a step next time).

In rough order our stellar tour took us through the following:

  • The Plough (Mizar/Alcor double, Alkaid) 
  • Plaeides cluster 
  • Aldebaran (the follower)
  • Hyades cluster
  • Orion (Rigel, Betelgeuse and the great Orion nebulae)
  • Double Cluster in Perseus
  • Beehive Cluster
  • Auriga (M37 and Capella)
  • M3 Globular
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Simon Garrod took this nice image of Orion from our observing position at the Merkinch Nature Reserve.

Highlights?  The Orion nebulae and the M3 globular cluster were real crowd pleasers in the scope.  M3 looked great in the eyepiece despite being in the light polluted eastern sky, its densely speckled core in clear evidence.

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The M3 globular cluster is a fantastic target even with moderate light pollution.

After an hour or so people began to filter off home but the stragglers were rewarded with Jupiter just beginning to rise in the East.  Despite a view impinged by a tree the telescope did a great job of bringing Jupiter and its moons in for some closeup action.  There was general gratitude and thanks all round, leaving Caroline and myself thoroughly rewarded by a successful night.

If you’d like more information on the Merkinch Nature Reserve and all the events Caroline’s coordinating visit their Facebook page at Friends of Merkinch Local Nature Reserve and look out for another astronomy evening later this year.