Big thanks to astronomer Steve Owens and Celtic storyteller Alis Ballance for hosting our astronomy and storytelling streams this evening up at Abriachan Forest.
Cosmosis was realised by a combination of Alis’s captivating Gaelic creation myths and Steve’s tour de scientific of the Solar System.
Although skies started off cloudy we were blessed with decent patches of open sky at the end for a deftly guided laser pointer finale, taking in Orion and other bright constellations. Plus binocular and telescopic views of the crescent Moon
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!
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.
Venus has been a constant jewel in the evening sky recently, popping into view during twilight in the south west and burning with an astonishing intensity in the western skies after darkness.
I’ve been taking my telescope out a few evenings in a row to view the planet from kerb side and marvelled at how well resolved it is at high power. It’s a half crescent right now, revealing a lovely hazy terminator where Venusian day meets night. Eager to record its majesty, I trained my video setup on it this evening, using leg stabilisers and a barrow to maximise the surface area per pixel captured on my Samsung’s CCD chip. Here’s what I captured.
The visual scale of Venus is impressive here compared to general viewing with eyepiece observation. This is one of the advantages of having a smaller CCD sensor. Whilst more limited for large deep sky objects (without focal reduction) it permits big and bold presentations of the planets with just a modest x2 barlow lens.
Notice the pronounced atmospheric haze and refraction of light at the terminator between day and night. Venus has a thick cloud covered atmosphere which is highly reflective – giving the planet its bright white appearance. There’s also the slightest hint of mottling or streaking on the surface. These fine streaks are large cloud structures that ebb and flow slowly within the Venusian atmosphere.
Not so long ago Venus was the target for many pulpy science fiction stories. These authors imagined the planet full of swamps with dinosaurs and primitive tribes battling across vast continents. These fantasies were shot down after robotic probe and satellite recognisance of the planet was undertaken, first by the Soviets and later NASA.
Our current understanding of Venus is that it’s a planetary embodiment of hell. An atmosphere of nearly 96% carbon dioxide traps heat from the sun, raising the pressure to 92 times that of earth, with surface temperatures approaching those inside the finest Italian pizza ovens. This pizza analogy would apply to any human making it all the way down to the surface of Venus!