Saturn’s Rings

71713121_2407907526112852_3541754633577824256_o.jpg

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).

71312838_2407908792779392_7168152034493857792_n.jpg

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 moonless 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.

Image result for saturn rings moon pan

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

Image result for mars pictures best nasa

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

1024px-Helkivad_Ööpilved_-_Noctilucent_Clouds_(1)_copy-2

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.

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.

Mercury and Jupiter Conjunction

 

Mercury.png

Have you ever seen the planet Mercury with your own eyes? It’s notoriously difficult to catch being situated so close to the Sun and often hard to pinpoint. You’ll only ever see it as a tiny disc in binoculars, very close to sunrise or sunset.

Over the next couple of days, centred on the Dec 21st solstice, there’s a unique opportunity to see Mercury as it forms a conjunction with bright Jupiter low in the south east in morning skies.

You’ll need a good unobstructed horizon to the SE to catch it. Use Venus as a guide to first find Jupiter, then look through your binoculars and you should see Mercury sitting above.

The window is pretty narrow, from around 7.30pm to 8.30pm. The longer you wait the higher Mercury will rise but the brighter the sky, as the Sun rises.

Good luck and clear skies.

merc.jpg

Mercury through a 10 inch telescope

Star Stories Astronomy Outreach Update

DSC_0028

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).

DSC_0027

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.

DSC_0031

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).

DSC_0026

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.