Stargazing at Scapa Festival 2019

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The milky way from the grounds of the Arkinglas Estate, Loch Fyne

I had another great time hosting outdoor astronomy and stargazing workshops at this years Scapa festival, held on 3-5th May near the shores of Loch Fyne at the Arkinglas Estate.

It was very busy, especially Friday evening when clear skies brought many folk streaming down into the gardens in anticipation of stargazing close to the shoreline.

As it happened we hit some cloud just as I was about to kick off, prompting a quick jump over to my backup projector and screen.  I was then able to deliver a 30 minute talk with Q&A, discussing things like the colour, temperature, distance of stars, the Milky Way, other galaxies, shooting stars and large impactors.  As ever the questions were fascinating.

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A passing satellite

Just as the talk wrapped up skies cleared and we were stargazing from the estate grounds.  Plenty of constellations and bright stars began appearing, and conditions improved further when a second group arrived to join in.

Similar conditions prevailed on the Saturday, when skies once again cleared up after my talk, allowing us to observe with the large case of binoculars I always bring to star parties.

Later on I was able to photograph some lovely shots of the Milky Way from the estate grounds, with the band of our galaxy sitting low and clear on the northern horizon.

Feedback has been great on the guiding so far, and I’m looking forward to getting involved again next year.

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Star Stories Photography and Aurora Special

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The aurora over Ceannabeinne Beach on the north coast by photographer Graham Bradshaw

Despite the stormy conditions earlier in the evening, skies cleared up beautifully at Abriachan on Saturday night for Star Stories.

Graham Bradshaw of Graham Bradshaw Photography was our guest speaker, talking about his fascinating experiences hunting and photographing aurora in some of the wildest and remotest parts of the Scottish highlands.  His talk included practical advice on seeking out aurora in the north of Scotland (which is much more prevalent than you might think), as well as showing many beautiful still images and stunning time lapses captured all over the highlands and further afield.

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Photographer Graham Bradshaw

Meanwhile I took two groups out stargazing and managed about 20 minutes of clear skies during the first outing until we were rained off by a very brief shower.  After heading back inside I switched to my backup slide deck on the science of aurora, talking about how the differential rotation of stars causes kinks in their magnetic fields, ultimately leading to the coronal mass ejections that produce the aurora.

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I got a nice capture of the Andromeda galaxy over the forest classroom (left), and a passing satellite.  This giant galaxy is over 2.5 million lights years away just visible naked eye.  It looks even more impressive in binoculars.

By the time Graham had finished his first talk, skies had cleared again and my second group had a much longer excursion under the stars.

As usual we took in broad sweeps of the night sky with the wonderful agility of binocular observing, hitting targets like the Orion nebula, Hyades and Pleiades star clusters, the Andromeda galaxy, Beehive cluster as well as numerous bright and massive red and blue giant stars.  The Milky Way was also clearly on display, even with the presence of an enchanting crescent Moon hanging in the South West.  We also saw Mars sitting above the Moon and had a go at finding Uranus (currently observable in the same binocular field as Mars).

During both streams Suzann Barr did some video interviews with some of the younger stargazers who’ve become regulars at the events, and captured feedback on our Star Stories wall chart.  Overall it was another great evening with good feedback from participants.

Our next event in March will be the last dark sky observing session for this season as skies begin to brighten.  The theme for this event will be galaxies, and I’ll have a backup presentation prepared on this topic should skies prove unfavourable.  There’s only a few tickets left available on Eventbrite here.

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Another good catch in my camera, this time the Milky Way in the region of Perseus, with the double cluster clearly visible on the left.

 

 

Milky Way

In the Scottish Highlands we’re blessed with many dark locations from which to view the Milky Way, the band of diffuse light revealing our place within a giant spiral galaxy.

Even if you live in a busy city like Inverness, a short drive is all that’s needed to escape to relatively dark skies. Regrettably, in many parts of the UK and central Europe this important connection with our home galaxy has been rubbed out due to light pollution.

Looking up at the Milky Way lets us connect with something vast and far bigger than ourselves – an important check on our own sense of self importance.

More needs to be done to curtail unnecessary outdoor lighting and to educate people on the basics of dark sky preservation.  Retaining access to our night skies needn’t be an economically crippling ideal.  There are simple practical steps people can take that make dramatic differences.  Please see this excellent guide on the International Dark Sky Association website for tips on how you can help.

I’ve made a short video celebrating our views of the Milky Way and how overwhelmed our position is amidst an estimated two trillion other galaxies in the observable universe.

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 Milky Way

With Moonless skies at the moment it’s a great time to view the Milky Way running from South to North and cutting through the zenith close to midnight.  Look for the bright central regions close to the horizon near Sagittarius and up past the dark bands of dense galactic material around the constellations Cygnus.

Even if the weather’s looking patchy get out for that late night walk somewhere dark. You might be rewarded with tantalising glimpses during breaks in the cloud.  It’s these excursions when expectations are low that I often find the most rewarding when the sky finally opens up.

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“There’s something fascinating about our own home galaxy. Even if we still cannot look at it from above and gaze at the full span of its arms, the sideway view offers a quite a showdown.

To me the central part of the milky way is the most spectacular sight of the night sky. It’s something you can clearly see with the naked eye when you are away from city lights. It’s a sight that really brings your down to Earth and lets you wonder at how small we are, while comforting you in the thought that you are part of this Earth and the Universe.”Adrien Mauduit

Abriachan Forest Trust Gains ‘Milky Way’ Dark Sky Discovery Status

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I was delighted to help Abriachan Forest Trust gain ‘Milky Way’ Dark Sky Discovery status this month after working on a joint nomination with Abriachan’s learning coordinator Suzann Barr.  This is the first site in the Inverness area to be awarded the status and it’ll hopefully attract winter tourism and lots of opportunity for astronomy based public engagement.

The Highlands really are blessed with excellent dark skies – we just need to do more to capitalise on it and perhaps emulate some of the great work that’s been done in the Scottish Borders where the Galloway International Dark Sky Park brings substantial benefits to the local economy.

After the status was formally awarded by Dan Hillier (who leads the Dark Sky Discover network from Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory) I generated a press release which several news bodies picked up, not least BBC Scotland.

Link to  BBC Scotland Article.

The Press and Journal also ran a full page article reproduced below:

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