Meteoric Start to New Star Stories

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The Milky Way glows overhead between thin tendrils of cloud.  Deneb and Vega shine brightly next to the bright and dark lanes of the Cygnus Rift.  By photographer Claire Rehr

The new Star Stories astronomy programme for the 2018/2019 season got off to a great start up at Abriachan Forest Trust last Friday, with plenty of clear breaks in skies for Milky Way observing and binocular stargazing. This was despite very unsettled weather predicted by the MET office as storm Callum blew in from the west.

This first event was in collaboration with the Highland Archaeology Festival, and pitched on a loose Neolithic stargazing theme which I had worked into a backup talk in the event of cloudy skies.  As it happened we had enough clear conditions to stargaze all evening and the talk was parked for another occasion.

Due to the healthy turnout we split the night into two streams, with one group joining Abriachan’s Clelland for Celtic tales around an open fire, while the other group joined me under darkness for a laser pointer and binocular tour of visible constellations.  We then swapped over at half time.

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Some broken clouds looking East with the Pleiades rising next to Perseus.  By photographer Claire Rehr.

Both stargazing groups saw plenty of open sky despite fast moving cloud, and we were able to field test the new hand held binoculars funded by our STFC grant.  The Milky Way and summer triangle were on fine display in the south with bright lanes of glowing star fields high overhead.  We also saw most of the northern circumpolar constellations, including Ursa Major, and discussed Polaris at some length before sighting the Pleiades in the East and the rich clusters within Perseus and Cassiopeia.

But the most dramatic event was gifted to the first group of stargazers, when a spectacular burning meteor soared overhead towards the north, briefly lighting up the whole sky.  A subsequent discussion on social media prompted another observer in Lairg – Chris Cogan – to post a picture of a very bright meteor he also saw streaking north and lighting up an entire hillside.

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The tail end of a bright meteor lighting up Lairg’s skies.  Photo by Chris Cogan.

This generated a lively discussion and some investigation into how far away two observers can be situated and still see the same bright meteor.  It turns out pretty far!

Due to the high altitude meteors burn up in the atmosphere, about 40 – 60 miles overhead, it’s very possible for two observers hundreds of miles apart to see the same meteor.  The only requirement is they lie along the same approximate vector as the burning space rock.  In this specific case, Abriachan and Lairg are both in a rough line travelling north.  The time recorded on Chris’s picture also checks out with our observing time at Abriachan.  So, all told, reasonably convincing evidence we witnessed the same fireball, seventy miles apart.

Overall feedback on the night has been great so far and I’m already looking forward to the Leonids Special in November, when we will be joined by guest speaker Dr Anthony Luke of UHI, talking about the chemistry of stars and meteors.

Clear skies!

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The Milky Way against the backdrop of the wooded hills at Abriachan.  Brilliant Altair and the constellation Aquila sit middle left.  By photographer Claire Rehr.

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Clelland spinning more starry tales around the open fire.  Photo courtesy Abriachan Forest Trust

The night sky photographs for this piece were kindly donated by Claire Rehr .  Please visit her Instagram account ‘rehr_images’ to see more of her stunning pictures.

 

 

The Perseids 2018

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The period between August 11th -13th will mark peak activity for the annual Perseid meteor shower.  Like all annual meteor showers the Perseids occurs due to the Earth ploughing through the fine debris left behind by a short period comet, in this case Comet Swift-Tuttle.  Rates of shooting stars could be as high as 60-70 per hour at peak although this figure is under the most favourable of conditions and you’ll likely see less.

This year’s Perseids looks set to be the best shower of the year due to favourable Moon conditions.  A thin crescent Moon will set before the shower gets properly underway providing excellent sky conditions if you’re sufficiently away from urban lighting and (of course) have clear skies.

Even if you don’t see any shooting stars you can always look out for Saturn and Mars in the south, both setting between 2 – 4am in the morning, and appreciate the increasing number of stars popping into view as our subarctic skies gradually darken.

The radiant for the shower is within the constellation Perseus the hero, although you don’t need to look in this direction to see them.  In fact some of the longest fireballs and streaks caught on camera will be picked up looking away from the radiant.

Due to the brightness of skies this far north you’ll want to wait for the Sun to dip as far below the horizon as possible to achieve the most favourable darkness, this means you’ll want to observe as late as possible, ideally close to or after midnight if you can.

Shooting stars and meteor showers are one and the same phenomena – fine lumps of material impacting the earth’s atmosphere about 40-60 miles overhead.  These tiny pieces of debris are travelling so fast they superheat when entering the atmosphere and burn up rapidly.  Occasionally a larger piece will impact resembling a spectacular fireball.

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Remember, you don’t have to look directly at the radiant to see a meteor shower, this is just the area of space they’ll originate from.

Observing Meteor Showers

You don’t need any special equipment to view a meteor shower, in fact binoculars or telescopes will just narrow your field of view. Grab a deck chair or a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink, wrap up warm and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone or if you have children they’ll love an excuse to get outside for some after dark play.

Put away any lights or bright mobile phones and simply look up and wait. Remember it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to fully dark adapt and any exposure to bright lights will start the process all over again. If you need a light red touches are best for preserving your night vision.

Clear skies!

The Geminids

One of the most energetic meteor showers of the year is fast approaching with activity predicted between Dec 4th – Dec 16th. With the best possible observing conditions the Geminids can produce displays of up to 120 meteors per hour, although you’ll likely see rates much lower than this in reality.

Occasionally and unpredictably, meteor showers can erupt into storms. One of the most famous ‘storms’ happened in 1833 when the Leonids produced over 100,000 meteors per hour! Who knows what this December will bring.

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Observing Meteor Showers

You don’t need any special equipment to view a meteor shower, in fact binoculars or telescopes will just narrow your field of view. Grab a deck chair or a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink, wrap up warm and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone or if you have children they’ll love an excuse to get outside for some after dark play.

Put away any lights or bright mobile phones and simply look up and wait. Remember it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to fully dark adapt and any exposure to bright lights will start the process all over again. If you need a light red touches are best for preserving you night vision.

Good luck and clear skies!

 

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