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

Additional 2020 dates are still being finalised but we’ll have guest talks from Eric Walker of the Highland Astronomical Society in February and local photographer Claire Rehr in March.  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.

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.

 

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.