Venus and Mercury Conjunction

A rare opportunity to observe a Venus  and Mercury conjunction over the next few days.

From tonight (Monday) Mercury will appear progressively closer to Venus in the NW sky after sunset, leading to conjunction on Thursday and Friday night. An excellent chance to see Mercury in binoculars or observe the phase of both planets in a garden telescope.

Mercury is much dimmer and more challenging to see than Venus so my advice is to use Venus as a reference for finding Mercury in your binoculars or telescope. Those, like myself, living in the north of Scotland might need to wait a little longer after sunset to see the planets (due to pervading daylight).  This makes it more of a challenge as both planets will be closer to the horizon by then.

Moreover, as both planets will only be around 10 degrees above the horizon at conjunction you’ll need to get away from tall trees or buildings that might obscure your view NW. Hopefully those pesky clouds stay away too.

Clear skies and good luck.

Venus and Mercury

85024035_2842536592490527_233392740522524672_o.jpgThis is how low Mercury grazes the horizon at the moment. A superb shot of Venus and Mercury from Will Cheung this evening.

If you want to sight Mercury for yourself the best chance is right now in the early evenings just after sunset.  Using Venus as a guide, scan the low horizon with binoculars or naked eye.  An unobstructed horizon like the one in the picture above is essential.

Clear skies.

Saturn’s Rings

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One of the most stunning images ever take of Saturn by the Cassini space probe – the planet backlit by the distant Sun, with the normally faint E ring glowing in a blue halo of light.

At the kick off for the new Merkinch Nature Reserve astronomy programme tonight, I got to talk about one of my favourite planets of all time – Saturn and its mind blowing ring system.

The dynamics of the rings are so subtle and complex. Some of the gaps in the rings are made by moonlets clearing paths, whilst other moons are actually replenishing the rings.

The small moon Enceladus is a fascinating example. It’s spewing out frozen ice from its south pole due to tidal heating, effectively generating Saturn’s faint E ring (the faint blue outer ring pictured above).

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Enceladus, a small icy Moon with a salty internal ocean.  Tidal stresses imparted by Saturn produce great jets of water from the southern pole of Enceladus, which instantly freeze, adding icy material to Saturn’s E ring.

You could sit on a moonlet of Saturn and watch the rings forming little wavelets in real time around you. Some of the larger rings actually wash back and forth like waves on a giant ocean.

Many of the smaller moonlets orbiting Saturn have a polished or smooth aspect to them. This is due to fine particulates from the rings being drawn towards them due to gravity, effectively power coating the surface and covering over any craters or blemishes.  This accretion of material onto the moons has been imaged by Cassini.

We had great turnout for the kickoff.  The next event is a Moon special on Nov 7th.  Look out for eventbrite links here on on my Facebook page.

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The tiny moon Pan, clearing a path through Saturn’s rings.  Its gravity is strong enough to produce beautiful ripples within the rings.  As it orbits, Pan receives a fine power coating of frozen dust from the rings lending the moonlet a smooth, polished appearance.

 

2019 Star Stories And Urban Astronomy Dates

I’m delighted to announce the schedule of events for both the Star Stories Programme at Abriachan Forest and the Urban Astronomy evenings at the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve.  Some of these events may be subject to late change so please check back and keep tabs on my Highland Astronomy Facebook page for more details.  I’ll also post Eventbrite links for bookings here and on social media around a month prior to each event.

Star Stories at Abriachan Forest

Now entering its third year, Star Stories returns with another captivating programme of family friendly stargazing and storytelling events.  This year will see the erection of a wooden henge and sundial at the Abriachan site to compliment the program’s leaning towards ancient and observational astronomy.   Further ahead, and as a result of overwhelming feedback, we’re looking to fund an on-site video telescope to enhance the binocular observing and expand the outreach of the events via live streams.  Star Stories is in collaboration with Abriachan Forest Trust and part funded by the STFC’s Spark Award Scheme.

Location:  Arbrichan Forest (A Dark Sky Discovery site)

Oct 5th at 8pm – Ancient Astronomy.  Kicking off the observing season with a night of stargazing, storytelling and ancient astronomy learning (indoor and outdoor).  In collaboration with the Highland Archaeology Festival.  Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

Nov 23rd at 7pm – Dark Sky Man.  The first ‘Dark of the Moon event’ and another chance to let special guest astronomer and author Dark Sky Man (aka Steve Owens) guide you across the night sky.   Guest astronomer  Steve Owens.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum .

Dec 11th at 7pm – ‘Astronomy from the Moon:  studying the universe from our nearest neighbour’ is a talk delivered by Professor Martin Hendry of Glasgow University, joining us again in the forest classroom.  We’ll have a full Moon this evening allowing us to observe with video telescope and binoculars.  Guest speaker:  Prof. Martin Hendry.   Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh

Dec 21st at 7pm – Winter Solstice Special with guest storyteller and author John Burns.  Celebrate the longest night and the slow return of brighter days with a special dark sky Solstice special with our first ever guest storyteller, author John Burns.  We’ll also have outdoor stargazing and astronomy guiding (weather permitted) or a solstice inspired astronomy talk.  Guest storyteller:  John Burns.  Astronomy Outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh

Jan 10th 7pm – Eclipse Special.  A special night on the astronomy of eclipses with an opportunity to observe a live penumbra eclipse of the Moon via binoculars and video telescope.  Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

Feb 29th 7pm – KISS Astrophotography talk with guest Eric Walker from the Highland Astronomical Society.  Plus stargazing and astronomy outreach with astronomer Stephen Mackintosh.   Guest speaker: Eric Walker.  Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

March 21st 7pm – Equinox Special with a talk from local photographer Claire Rehr.  Plus stargazing and storytelling with Stephen And Clelland. Guest speaker: Claire Rehr. Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

The Glasgow Science Centre crew will also return in May for more hands on workshops.

 

Urban Astronomy Evenings at the Merkinch Nature Reserve

Since finding a permanent base of operations at the Sea Cadets Hall in Inverness, the Merkinch Urban Astronomy nights have attracted a growing number of participants.  This year we’ll be inviting some guest speakers and continuing our format of indoor astronomy talks with the additional option of walks to the nature reserve for live observing.  This programme is delivered in partnership with Caroline Snow and Friends of the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve.

Evening meetings:  Sea Cadets Hall, 44 Kessock Rd, Inverness IV3 8AJ.

October 3rd at 8.30pm – Saturn Special.  Opportunities to stargaze and observe Saturn from the local nature reserve and perhaps the setting Moon next to mighty Jupiter.  Guiding by local astronomer Stephen Mackintosh.  If sky conditions are poor we’ll stay indoors for an indoor presentation on Saturn.

November 7th at 8.30pm – Moon Special.  Come and observe the bright waxing gibbous Moon from the grounds of the Merkinch nature reserve.  Indoor Moon talk if skies are poor.

December 19th at 8.30pm – ‘A Telescope isn’t just for Christmas’.  A special Christmas event on getting started with observing, what to buy, what to avoid, where and when to observe.  With local astronomer Stephen Mackintosh.  Outdoor stargazing from the reserve if conditions are clear.

January 16th at 8.30pm – Supernova Special with guest speaker Dr Anthony Luke of UHI talking about the incredible science and chemistry behind exploding stars.  Opportunities for stargazing from the local nature reserve if conditions are clear.

February 20th at 8.30pm – Aurora Special with guest photographer Graham Bradshaw.  Graham will discuss aurora, how to find it and photograph it.  He’ll also share some of his amazing photographs and videos.  Opportunities to observe from the nature reserve if time and weather permits.

March 12th at 8.30pm – Venus Special.  With Venus now a beacon in evening skies we’ll have a special talk on the planet with astronomer Stephen Mackintosh,  Plus opportunities to observe it, and the stars, from the local nature reserve.

Destination Mars

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The surface of Mars, image credit NASA

I’m very happy to be partnering with Skills Development Scotland and the Science Skills Academy to deliver day 2 of the ‘Destination Mars’ three day programme for S1 and S2 pupils in Thurso’s recently built Newton Room (22nd – 24th July).

On day 2 I’ll be exploring Mars impact geology, the solar system, night sky tours and a workshop on optics and spectroscopy.

Full programme details and registration details in the link below:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/destination-mars-tickets-61154289125

Night Shining Clouds

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A few weeks either side of the summer solstice is the best time to observe ‘noctilucent’ or ‘night shining’ clouds.

These wispy collections of ice crystals are the highest clouds on Earth, located in the mesosphere up to 50 miles overhead. They’re too faint to be seen in daylight and best observed when the Sun is between -6 and -12 degrees below the horizon.

At the moment at Highland latitudes this gives you an approximate window between 11.30pm and 3am in the morning.

Clear skies.