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, and we discussed the formation of the lunar maria and highlands, and the Theia Moon formation 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.

Total Lunar Eclipse

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This Friday (the 27th of July) the Moon will rise into view in the south east around 9.30pm with an unusual red colour. This is due to a rare phenomena known as total lunar eclipse – when the Earth sits directly between the Moon and the Sun.

But why doesn’t the Moon darken if its light supply is cut off by the Earth, and why will it turn a red colour?

The best way to think about this is to imagine yourself standing on the surface of the Moon as the Earth slowly passes in front of the Sun.

As the disc of the Earth begins to occult the Sun it will start to darken until finally the whole of the Earth sits in front of the Sun. But as this takes place something amazing happens. The Earth’s atmosphere refracts the sunlight into an intense circle of vibrant sunset. It’s this ring of fire around the Earth that illuminates the Moon during totality, giving it an eerie red colour.

This far north between 9.30pm and 10.30pm it’ll still be pretty bright outside but the colour change should still be obvious to see. As the evening progresses the eclipse will become partial and will be almost over by midnight.

Totality for this lunar eclipse will be 103 minutes making it the longest in this century. As my animation below shows we won’t be able to witness the start of this eclipse, only its middle and end.

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Times:

Peak Eclipse 9.21pm
Moonrise (at 57 deg north) 9.35pm
Total eclipse ends 10.13pm
Partial eclipse ends 11.19pm
Eclipse ends 12.28am

Clear skies and happy Moon watching!

 

Marking the Solstice

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The setting Solstice Sun – Image courtesy of Abriachan Forest Trust

We had a fantastic summer solstice event up at Abriachan last Thursday evening.  Despite being a mid week evening the event sold out and we had a lovely gathering of people joining us to learn all about the solstice and why it was such an important cultural and astronomical marker.

The evening started with a round of Sunset Mocktails, crafted by my wife Judith from a wild fruit concentrate, orange juice and lemonade.  We were also blessed with a lovely sunny evening and enough wind to keep the midges at bay, allowing everyone to mingle and chat outdoors.

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A Sunset Mocktail

After waiting for some late arrivals I took the adults and older children into the forest classroom for a talk on the solstice and ancient astronomy, whilst the very young children made flower crowns and Sun mandalas in the greenhouse.

To kick things off I presented a quick ‘what’s up’ guide to June’s night skies and the fantastic collection of planets visible over the next few months – Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Vesta, the second largest body in the main asteroid belt.

The talk then progressed onto the observational dynamics of the Sun in the sky – its elevation, setting and rising points and the resulting shape the Sun will make when photographed at the same time each day for a year – an Analemma.  We then looked at the reason behind these dynamics (the Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt) and compared our seasons to that of Mars, a world whose 25 degree tilt and highly eccentric orbit produces some of the most extreme seasonal changes of all the planets.

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This is the shape the Sun makes in the sky if photographed at the same time over a year.  Ancient people probably knew about this by instead looking at the shadow projected from a straight object.  Was this shape tied to the mathematical symbol for infinity, or even Pictish and Celtic knot art?

From there we covered the construction of a primitive wooden solar calendar and looked at various examples of ancient solar markers from across the word, including many of Scotland’s mid winter aligned covered cairns (for example Clava Cairns in Culloden).

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The cairns in Clava have an obvious mid winter sunset alignment and an interesting array of  surrounding stones which raise in elevation towards the South West.

After the talk we broke for more refreshments and it was then over to Clelland for the rest of the evening.

Clelland stared off with a walk and talk describing the various plants which were important during the mid summer months and how the Sun was believed to lend magical power to the plant lore in olden times – boosting their healing and nutritional value.  Everyone then gathered in the green shelter around an open fire as Clelland told a local story to illustrate the way fact and legend are intermingled and passed down through the generations.

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As a final gesture towards the setting sun on the longest day folks were asked to write a wish on paper, set it alight and place it in the loch – a reenactment of an old Scots tradition of sending your wishes tumbling into the loch in burning balls of hay!

Feedback on the event has been great and we’ll almost certainly do something again next year. A big thanks as ever to Suzann, Ronnie and the staff at Abriachan for helping make the event so successful.

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Making a Solstice wish

Spica and the Precession of the Equinoxes

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A line of the Moon, Jupiter and the bright star Spica can be seen tonight in the S/SW as the Sun sets (try after 11.30pm or later if it’s still too light).  Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo and was the star that helped unearth the 26,000 year cycle known as the Precession of the Equinoxes.

As the story goes a temple in Thebes built around 3000 BC was originally aligned with Spica but the Heliacal sighting was found to have significantly drifted off target some 3200 years later.  This fact was taken up by the Greek astronomer, mathematician and geographer Hipparchus who used this and other data to approximate the precessional cycle time of the heavens (as he saw it) to be over 30,000 years.  An over estimate but a respectable first guess.

Of course we now know the real reason for this apparent cyclic drift of the constellations over long time scales – 25,772 years to be accurate.  A wobble in the earth’s local axis of rotation (see animation below) caused by the gravitational influence of the Moon and Sun on Earth’s equatorial bulge.

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There are a couple of interesting side effects of this dynamic.  Firstly our pole star slowly changes over thousands of years.  In ancient Egyptian times (3000 BC) the northern  pole star was Thuban in the Constellation Draco, and in around 12000 years time the pole star will have moved close to brilliant Vega.

The other effect is that the dates of the original Zodiacal star signs are now completely out of sync with the position of the Sun. A child born today (June 24th) is still designated as a ‘Cancer’ (because the Sun is supposed to be in the constellation Cancer right now).  But the Sun isn’t in Cancer – it’s actually in Taurus.

Solstice Special at Abriachan

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The summer Solstice goes largely unmarked these days. Join me up at Abriachan forest on the longest day to learn all about the Sun’s standstill and why it resonated so deeply with our ancestors.

Join us at Abriachan Forest to celebrate the longest day with a Solstice evening of anicent astronomy and storytelling.

We’ll kick off with a talk from local astronomer Stephen Mackintosh, learning about solar and lunar time keeping, horizon calendars & henges, seasonal constellations and more. Stephen will also give an overview of June’s night skies, including a feast of planetary opportunities and tips on how to get the best views.

We’ll then step back in time and sample the entertainment of our ancestors, as storyteller and countryside ranger Clelland McCallum recounts an ancient tale around the flames of an open campfire.

A warm welcome from the Abriachan Staff with refreshments to toast the Sun’s standstill.  All ages welcome. Tickets are £6 per person. Children 8 years and younger go free.

Booking essential via Eventbrite.  Ticket link here.