2020 Perseids Meteor Shower

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Photo of a brilliant green meteor taken over southern India by biologist and photographer Prasenjeet Yadav.

The annual Perseids meteor shower is now underway with peak activity predicted from August 11th until August 13th.

The best times to view the shower will be after midnight when the Perseus radiant is rising higher in the East.  However, you don’t need to look at the radiant to see shooting stars as they’ll appear to come from all directions.

A waning crescent Moon will also rise during the three days of peak activity but its light shouldn’t overpower some of the brighter meteors the Perseids are known to produce.  You might also have some luck on the days after the 13th when the Moon’s influence will diminish (but overall meteor rates will be lower).

What Causes a Meteor Shower

Meteors are the fine dust and particulates left over from comets and large asteroids which stray into our solar system.  Some of these are on predictable orbits and as they whizz around the Sun they melt and shed some of this material into space.  The Earth then travels through these giant dust trails as it orbits the Sun, producing predictable meteor showers.  The Perseids are generated by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which has a 133 year orbit.

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Observing the Perseids

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 camping mat and (if it’s cold) a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone, with family and friends, 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 phone screens 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 LEDs or touches are best for preserving you night vision.

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

Don’t Expect Too Much

You need to be patient with meteor showers.  Sometimes you’ll see many and other times very few or none at all.  Think of it as a great excuse to get out under the stars and breath in some fresh air.  Even if you don’t see much you probably won’t regret heading out and looking up.  Very rarely meteor showers can erupt into storms, like the Leonids in 1833 when over 100,000 shooting stars criss crossed the night sky1

Photographing the Perseids

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If your have a DSLR camera and tripod, or a suitable phone app like NightCap, you could try capturing some meteors with this rough guide.

  1. Firmly attach your camera or phone to the tripod.
  2. Disable autofocus and manually focus on some bright stars (make them as small and pin point as possible in your viewing screen)
  3. Set an ISO range somewhere between 1000-3000 depending on the capabilities of the sensor.  Mid 1000s is a good middle road.
  4. Turn off noise reduction or you’ll get big delays between each shot.
  5. Point your camera at a high and clear part of the sky.
  6. Shoot long exposures ranging from 10s to 30s, or simply use a remote shutter to take long manual exposures.  Note:  don’t go crazy with very long exposures or you’ll get amp glow from the sensor.
  7. Take lots and lots of shots and be patient!

If your camera has a time-lapse feature you can automate the shooting process and tell the camera to continually shoot 30 second exposures over a long interval.  Just watch out for dew forming on the lens if conditions are cold.  Some hand warmers stuffed into a sock wrapped around the lens will solve this particular issue.

Good luck and clear skies!

Stargazing at the Torridon with Giles and Monica

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Discussing the dark skies in the west of Scotland with Giles and Monica in the hotel lobby

There’s a short section at the end tonight’s Amazing Hotels on BBC 2, where I take Giles Coren and Monica Galetti out into the dark skies near the Torridon to go stargazing. 🌟🌟

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Star fields galore from the grounds of the hotel

The skies that evening were incredibly vibrant with the Milky Way clearly visible. The night time camera footage doesn’t really do the views justice, but I think the BBC team captured the magic of our night under the stars really well.

What you won’t know from the footage is that Giles laced the hot chocolate with a generous dose of single malt whiskey!

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Comet NEOWISE

Bright comet alert. Comet NEOWISE has caught many skywatchers by surprise. There’s now naked eye reports of it in early morning skies across much of northern Europe and north America. This image was snapped a few mornings ago by Paul Sutherland @suthers from Walmer on the SE tip of England.

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NEOWISE imaged by Paul Sutherland @suthers from Walmer, England

Or check out this incredible time-lapse of sunrise with Comet NEOWISE (with Noctilucent clouds) by Martin Heck (Insta @martin_heck) from Bayern, Munich

Observing Guide

A quick guide to locating Comet NEOWISE, valid for northern Europe and north America.

Time: You’ll need to stay up late or rise early and ideally be in position between midnight and 3am. Too early and the comet will be too low on the horizon. Too late the Sun will have risen too much, washing the comet out.  At the moment of writing 2am is probably a good optimal time to aim for, although this will change over the coming days and weeks.

Direction: The direction you need to look in from direct N (around midnight) to NNE (in early dawn skies). If visible you could use the bright star Capella in Auriga as a rough reference.

Equipment: Many observers in Europe claim to have see the comet naked eye. This might be possible but your best chance will be with binoculars. Any pair will do, they don’t need to be fancy astronomy binoculars. Low power and wide field is always best for viewing comets.

Clear skies and good luck.

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Changing Sunset Position

 

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Changing position of Sunrise from a fixed location over a year

The changing position of Sunrise throughout a year from a fixed location. The further north or south of the equator we live the more extreme our seasonal changes and the bigger shifts we perceive in the sunrise or sunset position during the year.  In such harsh and changing seasons it would also have been the more important for ancient cultures to mark the seasons.

Using the landscape to mark the seasons like this is called a horizon calendar. But what if your horizons are flat and featureless, or you require more accuracy, or you’re a powerful priest and wish to theatricise important changes in time?

Then ‘perhaps’ you construct an artificial horizon by placing large stones to mark the progress of the Sun – a henge.

Photo Credit: Zaid Alabbdi

Observing the Moon

Here’s a video (with some voice over) I shot last night when out Moon gazing from my back garden.

I never ever regret the tiny effort and time investment involved in digging out my binoculars or telescope to have a look at the Moon.

Clear skies.

Venus – Morning Star

 

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Waing crescent Moon next to Venus – Inverness

After blazing in the NW after sunset during the depths of lockdown, Venus has now completed its passage in front of the Sun (from our perspective) and now slowly emerging as a morning apparition.

At the moment you’ll need to rise very early to catch it due to very bright skies – binoculars or a telescope might be needed.

The morning of the 19th June is particularly special as both Venus and the wafer thin crescent Moon will sit very close to each other. In fact, later the same morning the Moon will occult (hide) Venus for around an hour.

Night Shining Clouds

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Noctilucent clouds over the Isle of Lewis by Emma Rennie

Longer days and brighter nights mean less time under the stars, especially if (like me) you live in the far north of Scotland, when astronomical twilight vanishes completely from around late May.

One advantage to this, however, is increased opportunities to observe some of the highest cloud formations on Earth, so called Noctilucent clouds – or ‘night shining’ clouds.

These beautiful, wispy and wave like clouds sit around 50 miles overhead in a region of our atmosphere known as the mesosphere.  The clouds themselves are composed of fine ice crystals and atmospheric dust, and can even be seeded from the disintegration of small meteors which burn up around the same altitude – called ‘meteor smoke’.

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Night shining clouds from Edinburgh by Chris Cogan

Specific conditions are required to see these clouds, and the further north you live generally the better (roughly between latitudes 50 – 70 degrees).

The Sun must be below the horizon in such a way that its rays light up the clouds from below.  Broadly speaking this can happen during a period known as nautical and astronomical twilight – when the Sun sits between 6 and 18 degrees below the horizon.  This means noctilucent clouds are normally only visible from mid-May to mid August from the British Isles.

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These clouds are normally only visible when the Sun sits within the nautical and astronomical twilight bands, between 6 to 18 degrees below the horizon.

Best Times to Observe

Times vary depending on your latitude but here are the earliest times for nautical twilight at various locations.  These times therefore represent the earliest you’re likely to be able to observe the clouds, although optimal times will likely be between 30 – 60 minutes after these times:

Shetland (60.5 degrees north) – 11.35pm

Inverness (57.5 degrees north) – 11.05pm

Glasgow (55.8 degrees north) – 10..45pm

Manchester (53.5 degrees north) – 10.15pm

London (51.5 degrees north) – 9.50pm

You might think these times suggest living further south affords you longer opportunities to observe them.  This isn’t true as the further south you live the more likely you are to experience periods of actual darkness later on, when the Sun dips below 18 degrees – too low to illuminate the cloud base.

Good luck and please post some pictures on my Facebook blog if you capture any.

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Captured by Gav Ross from Aberdeenshire