Saturn’s Rings

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One of the most stunning images ever take of Saturn by the Cassini space probe – the planet backlit by the distant Sun, with the normally faint E ring glowing in a blue halo of light.

At the kick off for the new Merkinch Nature Reserve astronomy programme tonight, I got to talk about one of my favourite planets of all time – Saturn and its mind blowing ring system.

The dynamics of the rings are so subtle and complex. Some of the gaps in the rings are made by moonlets clearing paths, whilst other moons are actually replenishing the rings.

The small moon Enceladus is a fascinating example. It’s spewing out frozen ice from its south pole due to tidal heating, effectively generating Saturn’s faint E ring (the faint blue outer ring pictured above).

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Enceladus, a small icy Moon with a salty internal ocean.  Tidal stresses imparted by Saturn produce great jets of water from the southern pole of Enceladus, which instantly freeze, adding icy material to Saturn’s E ring.

You could sit on a moonlet of Saturn and watch the rings forming little wavelets in real time around you. Some of the larger rings actually wash back and forth like waves on a giant ocean.

Many of the smaller moonless orbiting Saturn have a polished or smooth aspect to them. This is due to fine particulates from the rings being drawn towards them due to gravity, effectively power coating the surface and covering over any craters or blemishes.  This accretion of material onto the moons has been imaged by Cassini.

We had great turnout for the kickoff.  The next event is a Moon special on Nov 7th.  Look out for eventbrite links here on on my Facebook page.

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The tiny moon Pan, clearing a path through Saturn’s rings.  Its gravity is strong enough to produce beautiful ripples within the rings.  As it orbits, Pan receives a fine power coating of frozen dust from the rings lending the moonlet a smooth, polished appearance.

 

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.

 

 

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.

2019 & 2020 Astronomy Programmes

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Exciting 2019/2020 astronomy programmes are coming together for Star Stories at Abriachan Forest and the Urban Astronomy evenings at the Merkinch Nature Reserve.

Both programmes kick off from 3rd and 5th October.  This year we’re aiming to invite both guest astronomers and storytellers to Abriachan, with author John Burns standing in for Clelland during a special dark sky Solstice event on the 21st December, for example.

Look out for a full list of event dates going up soon, with booking links for the first few.

First Urban Astronomy gathering:  Thursday 3rd October, Inverness

First Star Stories at Abriachan Forest:  Saturday 5th October, in collaboration with Highland Archaeology Festival.

Star Stories is in collaboration with Abriachan Forest Trust (A Dark Sky Discovery Site) with funding support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

The Urban Astronomy Evenings are in collaboration with Friends of Merkinch Nature Reserve.

Urban Astronomy Inverness

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The formation of a young protostar following the collapse of a previously inert dust cloud

We had a great turnout for March’s Urban Astronomy session last week at the Sea Cadet’s Hall in Inverness.  The indoor presentation massively benefited from our new giant screen, expertly erected by Robbie (pictured below).  Here’s a selection of slides from my presentation on naked eye observing and the life of giant stars.

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Robbie putting the final touches to our new giant screen for indoor astronomy presentations and virtual sky guiding

Topics covered:

– Naked eye and binocular observing
– Satellites: Iridium Flares and ISS
– Colour, temperature and mass of stars
– The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram
– Protostar formation from dark nebulae
– Main sequence burning and final fate of stars
– White dwarfs, supernovae, neutron stars and black holes.

As ever there were some superb questions during and after the talk.  Stay tuned for upcoming events as myself and Caroline roll out the program.

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In the simplest terms stars behave like black body radiators with colour linked to their surface temperatures.

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The brightest stars in the night sky can be close – like Sirius – or giant stars very far away (eg. Betelgeuse, Rigel, Deneb).

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The HR diagram.  An elegant and reliable tool for describing the evolution of stars from main sequence burning into their final stages of life

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.