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.

The Geminids 2018

The Geminids, one of the most reliable and active meteor showers of the year is upon us with peak activity predicted between Dec 13th – Dec 14th.  Under the very best possible observing conditions the Geminids have been known to produce displays of up to 100 meteors per hour, although you’ll likely see rates much lower than this.

Occasionally and unpredictably, meteor showers can erupt into storms. One of the most famous happened in 1833 when the Leonids produced over 100,000 meteors per hour! Who knows what this December’s Geminids will bring?

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Observing the Geminids

You don’t need any special equipment to view a meteor shower, in fact binoculars or telescopes will just narrow your field of view. Grab a deck chair or a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink, wrap up warm and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone or if you have children they’ll love an excuse to get outside for some after dark play.

Put away any lights or bright mobile phones and simply look up and wait. Remember it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to fully dark adapt and any exposure to bright lights will start the process all over again. If you need a light red touches are best for preserving you night vision.

For optimal viewing, head out late at night after the Moon sets or in the darkness of the pre dawn sky., when the Gemini radiant is highest in the sky

Good luck and clear skies!

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Venus Morning Star

 

 

 

Venus, the third brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon.  Sky photograph taken from Inverness.

The planet Venus is a brilliant morning star at the moment. Catch it rising in the south east ahead of the Sun between 5.30am and 7.30am.

With keen eyesight and binoculars you should be able to discern Venus’s phase, currently a beautiful crescent. A telescope will make this much clearer as demonstrated by this video footage I shot last year, when Venus was ‘the evening star’.

Over the month of November Venus will get brighter as its phase waxes from a thin crescent to a 25% illuminated disc at month end.  Despite this brightening Venus is actually travelling away from us and after December 2nd its brightness will begin to diminish as it pulls further away from earth and its disc size shrinks .

Once Venus passes behind the Sun it will eventually reappear as an evening star around mid August 2019.

Clear skies!

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World Class Darkness at The Torridon

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The Plough facing north from the grounds of the Torridon Resort

I had a great time with hotel guests at the Torridon Resort this weekend, stargazing under Bortle 1 class dark skies. We were clouded out on Friday evening but had spectacular skies on the Saturday, with galaxies in particular brighter than I’ve seen them before.

The Torridon Resort was the base of operations for this luxury astronomy break.  It’s situated in one of the most remote extremities of the Western Highlands, well within the Bortle 1 and 2 classifications for darkness.

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Stars appear at twilight, facing south from the grounds of the Torridon Resort

Our main excursions took us high above the hotel on the slopes overlooking loch Torridon, near Balgy.  On a previous scouting mission to find good observing locations I bumped into a nice chap called Nigel who owns self catering cottages in the vicinity, at ‘Baden Mhugaidh’.  He had kindly invited me to take the stargazing party onto his land over the weekend, and as we pulled the van up he joined us for some dark sky observing.

Although there were some thin clouds in the north and on the eastern horizon, overall sky quality and seeing was spectacular with the bright band of the Milky way on display overhead and vivid depth evident in the Cygnus region of the galaxy near Deneb and Vega.

Galaxies were popping with brilliant vibrancy in binocular views, with Andromeda showing bright lane detail and Bodes galaxy in Ursa Major clearer than I’ve ever seen it in field glasses.

We took in a tour of the main constellations, including the beautiful clusters in Perseus, the Pleiades and even some double stars, including Alberio which was easily split in the larger set of binoculars.

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M82 and M83 in Ursa Major were the brightest I’ve seen them in binoculars.  They popped into view when scanning the star fields, like two nebulous lanterns

Good views were also possible back at the hotel grounds, and the staff kindly accommodated my request to kill the driveway lights a few times.  The hotel also let us commandeer the library for our meals, allowing me to present some power point talks during dinner on Friday and Saturday evening.  My guests were very friendly and interesting company, with questions and conversation flowing easily.

Unfortunately, I neglected to take my camera into the field, so only took a few snaps from the hotel grounds at sundown. Look out for more Torridon dates in the future.

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The Torridon is situated under some of the darkest skies on earth.

Meteoric Start to New Star Stories

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The Milky Way glows overhead between thin tendrils of cloud.  Deneb and Vega shine brightly next to the bright and dark lanes of the Cygnus Rift.  By photographer Claire Rehr

The new Star Stories astronomy programme for the 2018/2019 season got off to a great start up at Abriachan Forest Trust last Friday, with plenty of clear breaks in skies for Milky Way observing and binocular stargazing. This was despite very unsettled weather predicted by the MET office as storm Callum blew in from the west.

This first event was in collaboration with the Highland Archaeology Festival, and pitched on a loose Neolithic stargazing theme which I had worked into a backup talk in the event of cloudy skies.  As it happened we had enough clear conditions to stargaze all evening and the talk was parked for another occasion.

Due to the healthy turnout we split the night into two streams, with one group joining Abriachan’s Clelland for Celtic tales around an open fire, while the other group joined me under darkness for a laser pointer and binocular tour of visible constellations.  We then swapped over at half time.

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Some broken clouds looking East with the Pleiades rising next to Perseus.  By photographer Claire Rehr.

Both stargazing groups saw plenty of open sky despite fast moving cloud, and we were able to field test the new hand held binoculars funded by our STFC grant.  The Milky Way and summer triangle were on fine display in the south with bright lanes of glowing star fields high overhead.  We also saw most of the northern circumpolar constellations, including Ursa Major, and discussed Polaris at some length before sighting the Pleiades in the East and the rich clusters within Perseus and Cassiopeia.

But the most dramatic event was gifted to the first group of stargazers, when a spectacular burning meteor soared overhead towards the north, briefly lighting up the whole sky.  A subsequent discussion on social media prompted another observer in Lairg – Chris Cogan – to post a picture of a very bright meteor he also saw streaking north and lighting up an entire hillside.

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The tail end of a bright meteor lighting up Lairg’s skies.  Photo by Chris Cogan.

This generated a lively discussion and some investigation into how far away two observers can be situated and still see the same bright meteor.  It turns out pretty far!

Due to the high altitude meteors burn up in the atmosphere, about 40 – 60 miles overhead, it’s very possible for two observers hundreds of miles apart to see the same meteor.  The only requirement is they lie along the same approximate vector as the burning space rock.  In this specific case, Abriachan and Lairg are both in a rough line travelling north.  The time recorded on Chris’s picture also checks out with our observing time at Abriachan.  So, all told, reasonably convincing evidence we witnessed the same fireball, seventy miles apart.

Overall feedback on the night has been great so far and I’m already looking forward to the Leonids Special in November, when we will be joined by guest speaker Dr Anthony Luke of UHI, talking about the chemistry of stars and meteors.

Clear skies!

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The Milky Way against the backdrop of the wooded hills at Abriachan.  Brilliant Altair and the constellation Aquila sit middle left.  By photographer Claire Rehr.

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Clelland spinning more starry tales around the open fire.  Photo courtesy Abriachan Forest Trust

The night sky photographs for this piece were kindly donated by Claire Rehr .  Please visit her Instagram account ‘rehr_images’ to see more of her stunning pictures.

 

 

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.