Highlands Astronomical Society Guest Talk

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An Island Universe – or ‘galaxy’ as we more commonly refer to these vast stellar structures.

I’m looking forward to delivering my guest talk on Island Universes for the Highlands Astronomical Society on Jan 7th. This is a repeat of a talk I presented at the 2019 Inverness Science Festival.

Start time is 7.15pm at the Smithton-Culloden Free Church, Murray Road, Smithton, IV2 7YU. Open to all members of the public and free entry for new visitors.

Please find full event details here.

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Geminids 2019

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Many thanks to Chris Cogan, a frequent contributor to my Facebook site, for sharing this spectacular Geminid fireball he caught up in Muie, Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands late on Saturday evening.

The facebook post created some interesting discussion, with several people claiming to have seen the same fireball as Chris.  This is very likely.  Last year when I kicked off the 2018 Star Stories programe we witnessed a similarly bright fireball flaring overhead.  By amazing coincidence Chris also photographed this one around 70 miles north of our position.  You can read about that encounter here.

This year’s Geminids appear to have been very active and despite an almost full Moon reports came in from people claiming to have sighted dozens over a reasonably short interval.  My wife I can testify to this after witnessing three in very quick succession after only 5 minutes viewing under light polluted skies.

The next meteor shower to look out for is the Quadrantids, peaking between the 3rd and 4th January 2020.

Milky Way Over Loch Morlich

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ISS cuts through the glowing band of the Milky Way, reflected in the waters of Loch Morlich in the Scottish Cairngorms

I enjoyed a pre equinox wild camp beside Loch Morlich last night. Amazing dark skies with the Milky Way bright enough to be faintly reflected on the loch’s surface.

Saturn and Jupiter shone in the early twilight before ISS made an appearance after 9pm, cutting through the bright band of the Milky Way.

Later still the Moon rose spectrally above the hills looking east, lighting up the loch like a beacon.

Happy equinox when it comes. Official time is Monday 23rd September at 8.50am.  Click below for more pictures.

 

2019 & 2020 Astronomy Programmes

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Exciting 2019/2020 astronomy programmes are coming together for Star Stories at Abriachan Forest and the Urban Astronomy evenings at the Merkinch Nature Reserve.

Both programmes kick off from 3rd and 5th October.  This year we’re aiming to invite both guest astronomers and storytellers to Abriachan, with author John Burns standing in for Clelland during a special dark sky Solstice event on the 21st December, for example.

Look out for a full list of event dates going up soon, with booking links for the first few.

First Urban Astronomy gathering:  Thursday 3rd October, Inverness

First Star Stories at Abriachan Forest:  Saturday 5th October, in collaboration with Highland Archaeology Festival.

Star Stories is in collaboration with Abriachan Forest Trust (A Dark Sky Discovery Site) with funding support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

The Urban Astronomy Evenings are in collaboration with Friends of Merkinch Nature Reserve.

Belladrum Boffinarium

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Catch me at Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival this week.  On Thursday at 8pm I’ll present a Beginner’s Guide to Stargazing and the Night Sky in the Boffinarium.

Then on Friday and Saturday night from 11pm I’ll take groups out for binocular and naked eye stargazing (weather permitting). Fallback for cloudy skies will be a repeat of Thursday’s stargazing talk and planetarium software guiding.

Practical group sizes for stargazing will be about 25 people so outdoor guiding will be on a fist come first served basis.

Clear skies 🌟

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

ISF Talks – Island Universes

I’ve recently finished delivering two public lectures on Galaxies at this year’s Inverness Science Festival.

The theme of my talks was ‘Island Universes’, telling the tale of when and how we discovered our Milky Way isn’t the only galaxy, and how the teeming multitudes of spiral nebulae, hitherto believed to be collapsing dust clouds, were in fact individual galaxies.

The talk started with some observational astronomy, before discussing the great debate of 1920 between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis.  The main unresolved issue here was the distance to the spiral nebulae, particularly Andromeda, which was unknown.  This lead us into pulsating stars and the work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who systematically analysed and determined the period luminosity law for cepheid variable stars.

Finally we discussed Edwin Hubble and the ramifications of his observations on the red shift of distance galaxies, and how this has informed our current understanding of the history and future dynamics of the universe.

I’ll let some choice slides do the talking from here on.

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Our own galaxy ‘The Milky Way’ is big.  If you tried to travel from our position to the galactic nucleus at the speed of the Voyager spacecraft it would take you over 400 million years.

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A 1900s image of the Andromeda nebula.  Back then the consensus was these spirals were large collapsing dust clouds, a bit like the star forming Orion nebula.  The idea that they could be separate galaxies like our Milky Way seemed inconceivable, yet that’s where the evidence eventually lead in the 1920s.

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Determining the distance to spiral nebulae (as they were known pre 1900) required a new way of determining distance from so-called ‘standard candles’.  Leavitt’s law was invaluable when Hubble turned his attention to Andromeda in 1922.

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Hubble discovered the galaxies were all rushing away from us.  However this phenomena is actually a metric expansion of space itself, and therefore has no intrinsic centre.  Some of the most distant galaxies are receding away at faster than the speed of light – again due to the expansion of space itself, which has no speed limit imposed.

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There were lots of questions on M87, the giant elliptical galaxy whose black hole was recently imaged by the Event Horizon telescope.

Q&As are always lively after astronomy and space talks, and the younger audience members always surprise me with their amazing knowledge and frank curiosity.  Some choice sample from the two evenings below.  Answers on a postcard please .

1. Is the singularity at the end of a black hole the size of the Planck length?

2. If a giant hole suddenly appeared in the Earth how many Pluto’s could you fit inside it?

3. Do supermassive black holes continue to grow until they devour the host galaxy?