Sirius the Glitter-ball

 

A video of Sirius (the brightest star in the night sky) twinkling on the horizon, captured by Steve Brown @sjb_astro. Many people think they’re seeing a low altitude aircraft or UFO when they witness this.

This phenomenon occurs (to a lesser extent) with any bright star low on the horizon due to the vast amount of atmosphere you’re seeing it through. As stars gain elevation, and less atmosphere is between us and them, they shine more steadily, and views are hugely improved.

The difference in the amount of atmosphere you look through with elevation is very striking (as demonstrated in the sketch below).  Particularly for faint deep sky objects like galaxies, high elevations makes a dramatic difference to the quality of visual or photographic images you’ll collect.

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How much atmosphere you look through with observing angle.  At the zenith (overhead) you look through over 2/3 less atmosphere than at the horizon.

Star Stories Astrophotography Special

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Eric presenting his guest talk up at Abriachan

There were only a few stars up at Abriachan Forest tonight for our Star Stories Astrophotography special, but some nice early views of the waxing crescent Moon and Venus before the weather really turned and a mini snowstorm descended.

Many thanks to our guest speaker Eric Walker from the Highlands Astronomical Society for delivering a fantastic talk on astrophotography.  Eric showcased a ton of amazing images he’s taken over the years demonstrating his passion for astronomy and observing.

Clelland also entertained in the round house with storytelling and we had a nice impromptu discussion about the night sky over the campfire between changeovers.

The next Star Stories is our Vernal Equinox special in March, which will be the last opportunity for dark sky observing this season before the return of longer days.

Eventbrite link here

Urban Astronomy Aurora Special

Many thanks to Graham Bradshaw of Graham Bradshaw Photography for tonight’s fascinating guest talk on hunting down and photographing the Aurora. Here’s one of the beautiful time lapses Graham shared with us during his presentation.

 

Graham also provided a lovely selection of his images (see below) along with camera settings to help budding night sky and aurora photographers.

We also took advantage of some clear breaks in the sky after the talk and walked up to the Nature Reserve to view some bright constellations and star clusters.

Thanks to everyone who came along. The next Urban Astronomy event is our Venus special on March 12th. Booking link here.

Stargazing in the Outer Hebrides

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Pre dawn Milky Way on the Isle of Lewis, during the 2020 Hebridean Dark Sky Festival

As a family we’ve visited the Western Isles of Scotland during the warmer summer months, attracted by the wild open spaces, stunning beaches and abundant locations for camping.  Unfortunately the long summer days and short nights are too bright to stargaze, so I’ve never had the opportunity to sample the fantastic dark skies the island has to offer.  I therefore jumped at the opportunity of participating in this year’s Hebridean Dark Sky Festival, organised by An Lanntair and programmed by Andrew Eaton-Lewis.

My outreach involved delivering astronomy talks and stargazing events at community hubs across the island of Lewis.  Over three nights on the island I visited communities at Balallan, Comunn Eachdraidh Nis in North Lewis and the aptly named Edge Cafe over in the west at Aird Uig.

Despite some very wild weather both before and during the festival the three events were a big success, with starry skies materialising in some form at each session.  Skies, when clear, were astonishingly dark, with star clusters and galaxies clearly visible with the naked eye and a glorious sweep of Milky Way evident between the fast moving weather.

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Starry skies from Ness Beach

When presenting my stargazing talks in Scotland I always try to persuade people of the merits of binocular and naked eye observing over telescopes when weather conditions are changeable.  This mantra was well demonstrated during these events, with the agility of binocular observing allowing us to quickly head in and out when breaks in the sky presented themselves.

Travelling to each event in my camper van and sleeping out in the wilds was also a memorable experience.  Wind, sleet, rain and hail all assailed me at various points during my wild camps, but I was always rewarded with frequent starry skies opening above me when I headed out for fresh air.

The people of the island are also some of the friendliest folk you could meet, with Highland hospitality well in evidence wherever I went.  Bounteous servings of tea and cake were never far away!

I very much look forward to participating in the festival again and encourage anyone with an interest in stargazing to consider the Outer Hebrides as a viable winter destination, particularly if you’re seeking some of the very best dark skies available.

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Satellites aplenty

Stargazing a Gateway into Nature

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Stargazing can provide mental perspective and wellbeing.  Problems we’ve amplified in our heads can seem much less important under the amazing canopy of the night sky.

Here’s some interesting stats to think about. 

1. The average person in Scotland spends less than 30 minutes a day outdoors.
2. This equates to over 50 years of an average person’s life spent indoors.

This despite growing levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

Yet one of the best, and absolutely free, ways to alleviate stress and anxiety is being in nature, and stargazing gives us that little bit of extra motivation to head outside, especially during the long periods of darkness we experience over winter in Scotland.

Even if you don’t see anything, packing your binoculars and heading out for an evening stroll under open skies is almost never a waste of time. At the very least you get some exercise, and if you’re lucky, a beautiful night sky to gaze up at.

Clear skies.

Aldourie Primary Astronomy Outreach

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One of the objects we observed was the star forming nebula in Orion’s sword, imaged here by local aurora hunter and photographer Chris Cogan.

I had a fun astronomy outreach session with pupils and parents from Aldourie Primary near Loch Ness on Friday evening. At 6pm kick off we saw some captivating glimpses of dazzling Venus before it set below the tree line.

Due to initially changeable weather we moved between my indoor presentation and outdoor stargazing, but ended up getting a brilliant spell under the stars mid session.

Despite its relative closeness to Inverness skies are dark enough out here to see the Milky Way very clearly. 

Lots of the youngsters (and parents) tried their hand at binocular stargazing for the first time, peering at open star clusters, double stars, the Orion nebula and Andromeda galaxy.

If you’d like to book an outreach session for your school please message me on my facebook site, Highland Astronomy.

Supernova night at Inverness Nature Reserve

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The main constellations were visible over the Merkinch nature reserve in the west of Inverness, and even a hint of Milky Way.

We had a great evening at the Merkinch Urban Astronomy gathering tonight.  Big thanks to Dr Anthony Luke for delivering a fascinating talk on the chemistry of stars and supernovas. We learnt all about the synthesis of elements and compounds forged in the heart of stars.

Afterwards we were rewarded with clear skies, so I led a group up to the nature reserve for a blustery stargazing session over the Beauly Firth.

Overlooking the water we had lovely views of Orion, the Pleiades and even a hint of the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy.

The next event is an Aurora Special on Feb 20th with guest Graham Bradshaw.