Starry Skies for New Season of Star Stories

Thanks to everyone who came to Abriachan Forest on Saturday night. We had a fantastic opening event to kick off the 2021/22 Star Stories astronomy programme.

We enjoyed clear skies all evening and I was able to offer uninterrupted guiding of the whole night sky from north to south and east to west. Some of the highlights included:

– Views of Saturn and Jupiter low on the southern horizon, with telescopic views of Saturn’s majestic rings.

– A full power Milky Way glowing overhead from north to south with clear visibility of the dark lanes of obscuring galactic dust near the Cygnus Rift.

– Several bright meteors flashing past.

– The Pleiades open star cluster rising in the east followed by Taurus with the red giant Aldebaran.

– The Andromeda galaxy clearly visible naked eye and offering fantastic views in binoculars.

– Numerous bright stars and clusters.

Also a big thanks to the Abriachan team for the Bat walk + talk and Bat box workshop.

Tickets are now available for the next event on November 27th. Please follow my Highland Astronomy facebook page for the latest on tickets and events.

I managed a few pics at the end of the session inserted above (a little out of focus I’m afraid).

The Statistics of Large Space Rocks

Jupiter was recently hit by a giant space rock and astronomer @jose.luis_pereira (Instagram) was lucky enough to capture the impact in this incredible footage.

Encounters like this always remind me of our relative fragility on planet Earth. Although Jupiter’s gravity protects us from more frequent large impacts, there’s an inevitability when it comes to future encounters with big space rocks. You need only glance up at the Moon for clear evidence of this destructive heritage.

The statistics of space rock encounters are both reassuring (in terms of long timescales) but also gravely concerning (in terms of raw destructive power).

On average, every few hundred years, the Earth is hit by an object some 30-60 meters in diameter. Such an impact generates enough energy to devastate an entire city if the final shockwave is concentrated in the right position and direction. The 2013 Chelyabinsk and 1908 Tunguska events are recent example of such encounters.

Then every 10,000 years we’re hit by a 200-500 meter wide object, large enough to trigger short term but significant climate changes, potentially lowering global temperatures and disrupting crop growth and finely balanced ecological systems.

Then every million years a 2-4 kilometer wide impact can occur, releasing energy equivalent to the explosive output of every nuclear weapon on the planet!

Finally on a hundred million year timescale Earth can be visited by something like the Chicxulub event that wiped out the dinosaurs, an object some 10-20 kilometres across. That’s enough destructive power to wipe out vast swathes of life across the entire planet.

As a species we’re only a few million years old and our recorded history takes us back a paltry 10,000 years. It makes you wonder therefore, what unrecorded and long forgotten destructive encounters our distant ancestors experienced and survived? Or is our species yet to be challenged by any of the bigger impacts mentioned above?

2021 Perseids Meteor Shower

A bright meteor captured by Chris Cogan from his home in Sutherland, Scottish Highlands

The 2021 Perseids meteor shower is now underway with peak activity predicted in the early morning of August 11th, 12th and 13th.

The best times to view the shower will be close to and after midnight, when the Perseus radiant is rising higher in the East. However, you don’t need to look at the radiant to see shooting stars as they’ll appear to come from all directions.

This year a thin crescent Moon won’t impact the shower and will have set in the west before proper darkness sets in.  Look out for Jupiter and Saturn burning brightly on the southern horizon as you wait for shooting stars.

Observing the Perseids

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 camping mat and (if it’s cold) a warm blanket and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find, preferably away from urban light pollution. It’s an excellent activity to do alone, with family and friends, 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 phone screens 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 LEDs or touches are best for preserving you night vision.

For optimal viewing, head out close to midnight or in the darkness of the pre dawn sky., when the radiant is highest in the sky.

Don’t Expect Too Much

You need to be patient with meteor showers.  Sometimes you’ll see many and other times very few or none at all. Think of it as a great excuse to get out under the stars and take in some fresh air.  Even if you don’t see much you probably won’t regret heading out and looking up.  Very rarely meteor showers can erupt into storms, like the Leonids in 1833 when over 100,000 shooting stars criss crossed the night sky!

What Causes a Meteor Shower

Meteors are the fine dust and particulates left over from comets and large asteroids which stray into our solar system.  Some of these are on predictable orbits and as they whizz around the Sun they melt and shed some of this material into space.  The Earth then travels through these giant dust trails as it orbits the Sun, producing predictable meteor showers.  The Perseids are generated by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which has a 133 year orbit.

Photographing the Perseids

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If your have a DSLR camera and tripod, or a suitable phone app like NightCap, you could try capturing some meteors with this rough guide.

  1. Firmly attach your camera or phone to the tripod.
  2. Disable autofocus and manually focus on some bright stars (make them as small and pin point as possible in your viewing screen)
  3. Set an ISO range somewhere between 1000-3000 depending on the capabilities of the sensor.  Mid 1000s is a good middle road.
  4. Turn off noise reduction or you’ll get big delays between each shot.
  5. Point your camera at a high and clear part of the sky.
  6. Shoot long exposures ranging from 10s to 30s, or simply use a remote shutter to take long manual exposures.  Note:  don’t go crazy with very long exposures or you’ll get amp glow from the sensor.
  7. Take lots and lots of shots and be patient!

If your camera has a time-lapse feature you can automate the shooting process and tell the camera to continually shoot 30 second exposures over a long interval.  Just watch out for dew forming on the lens if conditions are cold. Some hand warmers stuffed into a sock wrapped around the lens will solve this particular issue.

Good luck and clear skies!

Very Active Peak Geminids

Andy Coley. Taken from Portskerra in Sutherland.

From my own exposure last night and the testimony of many eye witness accounts posted on my Facebook page, the peak of the 2020 Geminids was one of the most active meteors showers in several years. Many parts of northern Scotland had clear skies with reported activity reaching up to 40-50 meteors per hour.

From my own location at the western end of Inverness I was able to observe a flurry of bright shooting stars early in the evening was all set to head out into darker locations when clouds rolled in. Thankfully, skies opened up again after 11pm and I witnessed several more under partially clear skies, with a particularly bright example fizzing overhead towards the north west around 11.30pm.

I’ll leave you with some amazing photographs captured around the north of Scotland.

Chris Cogan up in Muie, Sutherland
By Louise Carle
A Geminid meteor and the Milky Way over Abriachan Forest by Laura Stewart

2020 Perseids Meteor Shower

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Photo of a brilliant green meteor taken over southern India by biologist and photographer Prasenjeet Yadav.

The annual Perseids meteor shower is now underway with peak activity predicted from August 11th until August 13th.

The best times to view the shower will be after midnight when the Perseus radiant is rising higher in the East.  However, you don’t need to look at the radiant to see shooting stars as they’ll appear to come from all directions.

A waning crescent Moon will also rise during the three days of peak activity but its light shouldn’t overpower some of the brighter meteors the Perseids are known to produce.  You might also have some luck on the days after the 13th when the Moon’s influence will diminish (but overall meteor rates will be lower).

What Causes a Meteor Shower

Meteors are the fine dust and particulates left over from comets and large asteroids which stray into our solar system.  Some of these are on predictable orbits and as they whizz around the Sun they melt and shed some of this material into space.  The Earth then travels through these giant dust trails as it orbits the Sun, producing predictable meteor showers.  The Perseids are generated by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which has a 133 year orbit.

Screenshot 2020-07-30 at 13.24.20.png

Observing the Perseids

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 camping mat and (if it’s cold) a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone, with family and friends, 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 phone screens 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 LEDs or touches are best for preserving you night vision.

For optimal viewing, head out late at night or in the darkness of the pre dawn sky., when the radiant is highest in the sky.

Don’t Expect Too Much

You need to be patient with meteor showers.  Sometimes you’ll see many and other times very few or none at all.  Think of it as a great excuse to get out under the stars and breath in some fresh air.  Even if you don’t see much you probably won’t regret heading out and looking up.  Very rarely meteor showers can erupt into storms, like the Leonids in 1833 when over 100,000 shooting stars criss crossed the night sky1

Photographing the Perseids

688x300_NightSkyCCD_ELMA_NPS_JeremyWhite

If your have a DSLR camera and tripod, or a suitable phone app like NightCap, you could try capturing some meteors with this rough guide.

  1. Firmly attach your camera or phone to the tripod.
  2. Disable autofocus and manually focus on some bright stars (make them as small and pin point as possible in your viewing screen)
  3. Set an ISO range somewhere between 1000-3000 depending on the capabilities of the sensor.  Mid 1000s is a good middle road.
  4. Turn off noise reduction or you’ll get big delays between each shot.
  5. Point your camera at a high and clear part of the sky.
  6. Shoot long exposures ranging from 10s to 30s, or simply use a remote shutter to take long manual exposures.  Note:  don’t go crazy with very long exposures or you’ll get amp glow from the sensor.
  7. Take lots and lots of shots and be patient!

If your camera has a time-lapse feature you can automate the shooting process and tell the camera to continually shoot 30 second exposures over a long interval.  Just watch out for dew forming on the lens if conditions are cold.  Some hand warmers stuffed into a sock wrapped around the lens will solve this particular issue.

Good luck and clear skies!

Geminids 2019

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Many thanks to Chris Cogan, a frequent contributor to my Facebook site, for sharing this spectacular Geminid fireball he caught up in Muie, Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands late on Saturday evening.

The facebook post created some interesting discussion, with several people claiming to have seen the same fireball as Chris.  This is very likely.  Last year when I kicked off the 2018 Star Stories programe we witnessed a similarly bright fireball flaring overhead.  By amazing coincidence Chris also photographed this one around 70 miles north of our position.  You can read about that encounter here.

This year’s Geminids appear to have been very active and despite an almost full Moon reports came in from people claiming to have sighted dozens over a reasonably short interval.  My wife I can testify to this after witnessing three in very quick succession after only 5 minutes viewing under light polluted skies.

The next meteor shower to look out for is the Quadrantids, peaking between the 3rd and 4th January 2020.

Star Stories – Glasgow Science Centre On Tour Special

glasgow-science-centre

As part of the Star Stories programme up at Abriachan Forest we’ve invited the On Tour outreach team at Glasgow Science Centre to kickstart our daytime events on April 27th.

The GSC team will deliver indoor stargazing activities as well as meteorite handling, and comet and crater making. They’ll also be bringing a sample of their interactive science exhibits.

If you’d like to attend please book via the eventbrite link here and also look out for more astronomy events over the brighter months.  We have plans to purchase a Hydrogen alpha telescope in the next few weeks which will form the basis for some outdoor solar events.  Follow this blog or keep tabs on my facebook page for developments.

There’s still a few tickets left for the last dark sky observing session in March available here.