Star Stories Photography and Aurora Special

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The aurora over Ceannabeinne Beach on the north coast by photographer Graham Bradshaw

Despite the stormy conditions earlier in the evening, skies cleared up beautifully at Abriachan on Saturday night for Star Stories.

Graham Bradshaw of Graham Bradshaw Photography was our guest speaker, talking about his fascinating experiences hunting and photographing aurora in some of the wildest and remotest parts of the Scottish highlands.  His talk included practical advice on seeking out aurora in the north of Scotland (which is much more prevalent than you might think), as well as showing many beautiful still images and stunning time lapses captured all over the highlands and further afield.

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Photographer Graham Bradshaw

Meanwhile I took two groups out stargazing and managed about 20 minutes of clear skies during the first outing until we were rained off by a very brief shower.  After heading back inside I switched to my backup slide deck on the science of aurora, talking about how the differential rotation of stars causes kinks in their magnetic fields, ultimately leading to the coronal mass ejections that produce the aurora.

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I got a nice capture of the Andromeda galaxy over the forest classroom (left), and a passing satellite.  This giant galaxy is over 2.5 million lights years away just visible naked eye.  It looks even more impressive in binoculars.

By the time Graham had finished his first talk, skies had cleared again and my second group had a much longer excursion under the stars.

As usual we took in broad sweeps of the night sky with the wonderful agility of binocular observing, hitting targets like the Orion nebula, Hyades and Pleiades star clusters, the Andromeda galaxy, Beehive cluster as well as numerous bright and massive red and blue giant stars.  The Milky Way was also clearly on display, even with the presence of an enchanting crescent Moon hanging in the South West.  We also saw Mars sitting above the Moon and had a go at finding Uranus (currently observable in the same binocular field as Mars).

During both streams Suzann Barr did some video interviews with some of the younger stargazers who’ve become regulars at the events, and captured feedback on our Star Stories wall chart.  Overall it was another great evening with good feedback from participants.

Our next event in March will be the last dark sky observing session for this season as skies begin to brighten.  The theme for this event will be galaxies, and I’ll have a backup presentation prepared on this topic should skies prove unfavourable.  There’s only a few tickets left available on Eventbrite here.

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Another good catch in my camera, this time the Milky Way in the region of Perseus, with the double cluster clearly visible on the left.

 

 

Milky Way

In the Scottish Highlands we’re blessed with many dark locations from which to view the Milky Way, the band of diffuse light revealing our place within a giant spiral galaxy.

Even if you live in a busy city like Inverness, a short drive is all that’s needed to escape to relatively dark skies. Regrettably, in many parts of the UK and central Europe this important connection with our home galaxy has been rubbed out due to light pollution.

Looking up at the Milky Way lets us connect with something vast and far bigger than ourselves – an important check on our own sense of self importance.

More needs to be done to curtail unnecessary outdoor lighting and to educate people on the basics of dark sky preservation.  Retaining access to our night skies needn’t be an economically crippling ideal.  There are simple practical steps people can take that make dramatic differences.  Please see this excellent guide on the International Dark Sky Association website for tips on how you can help.

I’ve made a short video celebrating our views of the Milky Way and how overwhelmed our position is amidst an estimated two trillion other galaxies in the observable universe.

Merkinch Astronomy Outreach – Beginners Guide to Observing

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Gazing Moonward from the grounds of the Sea Cadets Hall, Inverness

We had a very successful Merkinch astronomy evening last Thursday, the second I’ve hosted from our new base at the Sea Cadets Hall on Kessock Road.  All available tickets were allocated in advance and we had a healthy gathering of over 50 people in the end, along with some of the sea cadets.  Caroline had also secured a large consignment of 8×40 binoculars for this and future events, which we put to good use later in the evening.

I kicked proceedings off with a projector based talk on buying a first telescope, offering some recommendations for good beginner scopes that won’t break the bank.  Afterwards, we headed out into the carpark beside the hall for some projections of the Moon.  Despite high cirrus clouds the Moon was still very clear and we had workable views via video telescope, allowing us to discuss the infinitely enthralling topic of lunar geology.

A few stars popped out later on but not enough to warrant a walk over to the nature reserve – which was the original plan if skies were clearer.

The next event takes place on February 28th when I’ll discuss deep sky observing – including star clusters, nebulae, galaxies and supernova remnants – how to observe them and some of the incredible astrophysics behind them.  Links to this event here.

Star Stories with Dark Sky Man

Despite cloudy skies up at Abriachan Forest we had a fantastic evening of astronomy and storytelling on Saturday 12th January with special guest Steve Owens, aka Dark Sky Man.

Steve is the author of the popular Stargazing for Dummies book. He was presented with the Federation of Astronomical Societies 2010 award for Outstanding Achievement in Astronomy, and the Campaign for Dark Skies 2010 award for Efforts in Dark Sky Preservation.

Due to the weather the evening was split into two streams – an indoor talk on dark skies with Steve, and storytelling with Clelland in the forest.  Since I was off the hook I managed to capture some film and compiled a short vide of the evening below.

Orion The Hunter

With the mighty Orion holding court over our southern skies at the moment I thought I’d put together a short video tour of the main sights within the constellation, one of the oldest catalogued outside those of the ancient celestial pathway (or Zodiac).

This was also an opportunity to collaborate with some purveyors of quality ambient music.  For this video I’d like to thank artist Mlt and Nick Miamis and the team at Cosmicleaf Records for their fantastic music.

In future videos I plan to collaborate with some more artists, starting with tracks donated by Japan’s Kay Nakayama and Robert Hundt of Glitchy Tonic Records in Berlin.

Clear skies.

Merkinch Urban Astronomy Initiative

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A view of Orion from the Merkinch Nature Reserve at a previous event.  Credit Simon Garrod

I’m delighted to be continuing the urban astronomy initiative with the Merkinch Nature Reserve this year, in partnership with project manager Caroline Snow.

Going forward we now have a base of operations to host our astronomy gatherings, after a successful trial last year at the Inverness Sea Cadet hall on Kessock Road.  The venue allows us to host indoor talks and activities and is only a ten minute walk from the nature reserve itself, giving us the option to stargaze during open skies.

The first event planned for 2019 is an Introduction to Observing and Moon Night, where I’ll present a beginners guide to astronomy – what to consider buying to get started and what to potentially avoid.  We’ll take a break from proceedings to observe the gibbous Moon and stars if conditions are clear.  All booking enquiries should be directed to Caroline, who’s email is in the event link above.

We have plans to roll out further events as part of a larger 2019 programme.  Stay tuned here or on the Merkinch Facebook site for details as they develop.

 

Winter Solstice Astronomy Outreach

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A captivating Clelland in full swing over the fire

Following the fantastic summer solstice  gathering last June we decided to add an astronomy themed winter solstice event to the Star Stories programme up at Abriachan.

Instead of stargazing the event was billed as a ‘Solstice and Moon night’, as I quickly realised the almost full Moon would be prominent in the sky and wash away significant views of the Milky Way and fainter galaxies and clusters.

As it was the evening was a fantastic success, with a bright mid winter Moon powering through some scattered light clouds and offering us lovely views of its surface via binoculars and video telescope.

 

 

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Before the Moon observing I presented a short indoor talk on the cultural and observational significance of the solstice, linking in various older mid winter traditions such as Saturnalia and Yuletide and outlining the folk connections with modern Christmas.

We also examined the importance of mid winter markers for the ancient settlers of high northern latitudes, where pitifully short days and long winters no doubt motivated a collective and religious celebration of the ‘turning point’ of the Sun’s midday altitude and its rising and setting points.  We followed this with a look at various solar aligned prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge and, much closer to home, the wonderful Clava Cairns which I visited recently with my family on Christmas Eve.

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Presenting my solstice talk before we stepped outside to observe the Moon

After the talk we moved outside to observe the Moon in binoculars and video telescope, with the aid of an outdoor projector and screen I had setup earlier.  The giant screen allowed everyone to see some of the striking features on the lunar surface up close and personal, like Tycho’s crater, the Apennine Mountains and various seas including the famous Sea of Tranquility where the first Apollo astronauts landed.

Meanwhile, Clelland took the second group into the forest for some dramatic campfire storytelling.  This evening he told a solstice inspired Celtic tale involving the mythological hero figure King Arthur, who some think may be connected with Welsh folk legend.  Participants also gathered up and tied together clumps of herbs to burn in the fire as they made new year wishes, another old winter tradition practiced in the Highlands and further afield.

 

 

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Feedback on this one has been great and we may well followup with a March Equinox event.  We’re also seeing many returning families and enthusiastic youngsters, which is fantastic.  Going forward Suzann and I will endeavour to capture some film interviews from some of the keenest young astronomers, recording their thoughts and feedback on their learning experience for future dissemination.

All pictures in this piece (aside from the Moon picture) are courtesy Abriachan Forest Trust.