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.

Total Lunar Eclipse 21st January 2019

Look out for a spectacular total lunar eclipse next Monday 21st January, when the full Moon will turn blood red in the sky.  I’ve put together a video guide below with details of the timings for the full event at northern GMT latitudes.

You’ll have to get up early in the morning on the 21st to witness totality, with the best observing times spanning 4.42am – 5.45am.  Set your alarms!

The last total lunar eclipse was only 5 months ago, when I photographed the red Moon briefly emerging from clouds.

Big thanks to Kay Nakayama of Chillscape Art & Music for the accompanying music.

Winter Solstice Astronomy Outreach

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A captivating Clelland in full swing over the fire

Following the fantastic summer solstice  gathering last June we decided to add an astronomy themed winter solstice event to the Star Stories programme up at Abriachan.

Instead of stargazing the event was billed as a ‘Solstice and Moon night’, as I quickly realised the almost full Moon would be prominent in the sky and wash away significant views of the Milky Way and fainter galaxies and clusters.

As it was the evening was a fantastic success, with a bright mid winter Moon powering through some scattered light clouds and offering us lovely views of its surface via binoculars and video telescope.

 

 

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Before the Moon observing I presented a short indoor talk on the cultural and observational significance of the solstice, linking in various older mid winter traditions such as Saturnalia and Yuletide and outlining the folk connections with modern Christmas.

We also examined the importance of mid winter markers for the ancient settlers of high northern latitudes, where pitifully short days and long winters no doubt motivated a collective and religious celebration of the ‘turning point’ of the Sun’s midday altitude and its rising and setting points.  We followed this with a look at various solar aligned prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge and, much closer to home, the wonderful Clava Cairns which I visited recently with my family on Christmas Eve.

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Presenting my solstice talk before we stepped outside to observe the Moon

After the talk we moved outside to observe the Moon in binoculars and video telescope, with the aid of an outdoor projector and screen I had setup earlier.  The giant screen allowed everyone to see some of the striking features on the lunar surface up close and personal, like Tycho’s crater, the Apennine Mountains and various seas including the famous Sea of Tranquility where the first Apollo astronauts landed.

Meanwhile, Clelland took the second group into the forest for some dramatic campfire storytelling.  This evening he told a solstice inspired Celtic tale involving the mythological hero figure King Arthur, who some think may be connected with Welsh folk legend.  Participants also gathered up and tied together clumps of herbs to burn in the fire as they made new year wishes, another old winter tradition practiced in the Highlands and further afield.

 

 

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Feedback on this one has been great and we may well followup with a March Equinox event.  We’re also seeing many returning families and enthusiastic youngsters, which is fantastic.  Going forward Suzann and I will endeavour to capture some film interviews from some of the keenest young astronomers, recording their thoughts and feedback on their learning experience for future dissemination.

All pictures in this piece (aside from the Moon picture) are courtesy Abriachan Forest Trust.

Christmas Wirtanen Sighting

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Comet Wirtanen to the left of bright Capella, above Bunchrew, Inverness

I’m almost always rewarded in some form when I head out to observe, even in less than perfect conditions.  As it happened I knew comet Wirtanen was in a favourable position over Christmas and close to the 6th brightest star Capella.  I posted about it on Facebook here.

Despite the unfavourable early rising of the Moon and some patchy skies on Christmas eve I decided to take a short walk in the woods over Bunchrew, in the off chance I might catch the comet.

When I was sufficiently well away from the western lights of Inverness I looked up, and there was the comet faintly visible in binoculars.  Not the clearest I’ve seen it this year, but probably under the darkest conditions.

The took the picture above before I continued my walk, with the comet and Capella sitting above the trees.

Happy comet hunting!

Star Stories Astronomy Outreach Update

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Starry skies above Abriachan, with Vega and Lyra at the extreme right of the shot.

The Star Stories astronomy programme at Abriachan Forest is going from strength to strength, with tickets selling out far in advance of each event.  Since the last update we’ve hosted two stargazing evenings, involving guest speakers Dr Anthony Luke (UHI) and Professor Martin Hendry (Glasgow University).

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More star studded skies above the classroom, close to brilliant Deneb in the Cygnus region of the Milky Way

The November event was a Leonids special, held near the peak of the annual meteor shower on Nov 16th, with the promise of perhaps observing some early atmosphere skipping Leonids.

Dr Anthony Luke presented a fascinating set of lectures on the chemistry of meteors and stars in the forest classroom, touching on the incredible pressure and heat generated within stellar forges that produce all the elements we see around us.

Meanwhile, I led the stargazing component outside with perfectly clear skies allowing us to take in the brightest stars, and views of the gibbous Moon in video telescope.  The lunar observing was particularly captivating, prompting discussion on the formation lunar maria, the highlands, and the Theia Moon origin hypothesis.

Clelland was also in action over the forest campfire making wooden star models for the younger participants.  There were no dramatic meteor sightings to match October’s spectacle but the event certainly whetted everyone’s appetite.

 

Then on December 5th, Glasgow University’s Professor Martin Hendry (of gravitational wave fame) joined us under dark skies for a Wednesday night special.

Martin is a hard working and inspirational advocate of all things astronomy and space.  Prior to me collecting him at his hotel he had already delivered a packed day of outreach to Inverness schools and hadn’t had a bite to eat since lunch.  Despite this he was incredibly grateful for the cold pizza I offered him on our drive out to Abriachan, and this meagre fare fuelled him sufficiently to deliver two fantastic talks on dark matter and gravitational waves in the forest classroom.  His talk highlighted some of the latest discoveries and simulations from the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) team.

The following day he was off on the train again to speak to more schools in the far north.

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The Pleiades and red giant Aldebaran

We were also blessed with lots of clear breaks on the 5th, so I once again led the observing component outdoors, this time taking groups further back into the darker areas above the classroom where the Milky Way was ablaze, and fainter fuzzies like the Andromeda galaxy leapt out at us in our binocular and naked eye views.  Amongst many things we discussed the evolution of hot massive stars like Betelgeuse and the Kepler exoplanet survey, which has been scanning vast numbers of star systems close to Cygnus and Vega, cataloging extrasolar planets.

Prior to packing away the binoculars I snapped some pictures of the starry skies close to the forest classroom (attached).

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Orion rising in the east from Abriachan Forest

Both evenings have garnered fantastic feedback and we’re looking forward to the next events, listed below.

As always a big thanks to learning coordinator Suzann Barr, Ronnie, Clelland and the rest of the Abriachan team who help make these events so welcoming and successful.  We’re also grateful to grant funding from the STFC, allowing us to invest in observing equipment, free transport and to extend the scope of this year’s programme.

Future Star Stories Events

Winter Solstice Special (21st December 2018) – Solstice talk and Moon observing with astronomer Stephen Mackintosh, turn of the year campfire twists with Clelland.

Stargazing with Dark Sky Man Steve Owens (12th Jan 2019) – Stargazing with author of Stargazing for Dummies Steve Owens

Star Stories Photography Special with guest Graham Bradshaw (9th Feb 2019) – Local landscape, aurora and night sky photographer Graham Bradshaw shares his stories of nights spent on exposed hillsides and offers tips to budding photographers.

Sky Watching in Turkey

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The waxing crescent Moon sits low on the western horizon over Bodrum, Turkey

On holiday in Turkey, and supposed to be taking a break, but couldn’t resist snapping the waxing crescent Moon over the clear but very light polluted skies above Bodrum.

What’s very apparent sky watching from this latitude, compared to Scotland, is the much steeper angle the ecliptic makes with the horizon, resulting is quicker sunsets and a much more pronounced ‘bowl’ orientation to the Moon near the horizon.

It’s also interesting to consider the religious significance of the Moon in Muslim countries like Turkey, where a lunar phase calendar is still in active use for religious ceremonies (marked by the crescent Moon and stars in many Muslim national flags).

Because 12 synodic months is 11 days shorter than the solar year, festivals like Ramadan end up drifting through the seasons.

This is in contrast to the West where the link with the Moon and the month was severed by the introduction of the Julian calendar around 40BC. Since then our civil and religious calendars have been entirely solar, with the Gregorian correction making our current calendar accurate to 1 day in every 3236 years.

Waning Gibbous Moon

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A waning gibbous Moon, photographed near Abriachan

I’m always snapping the waxing crescent Moon so here’s the waning gibbous Moon for a change. I took this on the trails above Abriachan around midnight on Friday, after a very wet and stormy evening in the camper van.

The word ‘wane’ is associated with weakness or sickness, and describes the diminishing aspect of the Moon after full. There’s a clear analogy of birth and death in the phases of the Moon that no doubt fascinated our forebears.

Astronomers often give the Moon a rough time due to its habit of spoiling dark skies, but it’s undoubtably one of the most mesmerising objects to look at. A complete world with the most incredible impact scars, recording the chaotic and violent formation of our solar system.

Observing the Moon each night is a dynamic experience as the terminator – the band where light meets dark – drifts back and forth across the lunar surface, revealing new features to contemplate.  In a telescope the terminator itself is a wonderful region to view, revealing kilometre long shadows from mountains and crater rims.  I like to imagine myself standing on the Moon in these regions, watching the Sun setting low on the lunar horizon.