The Summer Milky Way

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The summer aspect of the Milky Way, the great river of starlight marking our home galaxy.  A giant stellar disk containing 100s of billions of stars.  Photograph by Christopher Cogan, taken near Muie in east Sutherland, Scottish Highlands

Late summer is prime time for observing the Milky Way, and esp. catching the bright core visible near the southern horizon after dark. This bright area marks the central nucleus of our galaxy, some 30,000 light years away..

The Milky Way currently runs between Saturn and Jupiter, both low on the southern horizon, and intersects the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle asterism (Vega, Deneb and Altair). From south It runs overhead and terminates close to the constellation Perseus in the north East.

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For the best views you’ll want to get away from urban light pollution, ideally somewhere fairly rural. Let your eyes dark adapt for at least 15 minutes to give yourself the best possible views.

Clear skies.

2019 Star Stories And Urban Astronomy Dates

I’m delighted to announce the schedule of events for both the Star Stories Programme at Abriachan Forest and the Urban Astronomy evenings at the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve.  Some of these events may be subject to late change so please check back and keep tabs on my Highland Astronomy Facebook page for more details.  I’ll also post Eventbrite links for bookings here and on social media around a month prior to each event.

Star Stories at Abriachan Forest

Now entering its third year, Star Stories returns with another captivating programme of family friendly stargazing and storytelling events.  This year will see the erection of a wooden henge and sundial at the Abriachan site to compliment the program’s leaning towards ancient and observational astronomy.   Further ahead, and as a result of overwhelming feedback, we’re looking to fund an on-site video telescope to enhance the binocular observing and expand the outreach of the events via live streams.  Star Stories is in collaboration with Abriachan Forest Trust and part funded by the STFC’s Spark Award Scheme.

Location:  Arbrichan Forest (A Dark Sky Discovery site)

Oct 5th at 8pm – Ancient Astronomy.  Kicking off the observing season with a night of stargazing, storytelling and ancient astronomy learning (indoor and outdoor).  In collaboration with the Highland Archaeology Festival.  Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

Nov 23rd at 7pm – Dark Sky Man.  The first ‘Dark of the Moon event’ and another chance to let special guest astronomer and author Dark Sky Man (aka Steve Owens) guide you across the night sky.   Guest astronomer  Steve Owens.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum .

Dec 11th at 7pm – ‘Astronomy from the Moon:  studying the universe from our nearest neighbour’ is a talk delivered by Professor Martin Hendry of Glasgow University, joining us again in the forest classroom.  We’ll have a full Moon this evening allowing us to observe with video telescope and binoculars.  Guest speaker:  Prof. Martin Hendry.   Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh

Dec 21st at 7pm – Winter Solstice Special with guest storyteller and author John Burns.  Celebrate the longest night and the slow return of brighter days with a special dark sky Solstice special with our first ever guest storyteller, author John Burns.  We’ll also have outdoor stargazing and astronomy guiding (weather permitted) or a solstice inspired astronomy talk.  Guest storyteller:  John Burns.  Astronomy Outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh

Jan 10th 7pm – Eclipse Special.  A special night on the astronomy of eclipses with an opportunity to observe a live penumbra eclipse of the Moon via binoculars and video telescope.  Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

Feb 29th 7pm – KISS Astrophotography talk with guest Eric Walker from the Highland Astronomical Society.  Plus stargazing and astronomy outreach with astronomer Stephen Mackintosh.   Guest speaker: Eric Walker.  Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

March 21st 7pm – Equinox Special with a talk from local photographer Claire Rehr.  Plus stargazing and storytelling with Stephen And Clelland. Guest speaker: Claire Rehr. Astronomy outreach:  Stephen Mackintosh.  Storytelling: Clelland McCallum

The Glasgow Science Centre crew will also return in May for more hands on workshops.

 

Urban Astronomy Evenings at the Merkinch Nature Reserve

Since finding a permanent base of operations at the Sea Cadets Hall in Inverness, the Merkinch Urban Astronomy nights have attracted a growing number of participants.  This year we’ll be inviting some guest speakers and continuing our format of indoor astronomy talks with the additional option of walks to the nature reserve for live observing.  This programme is delivered in partnership with Caroline Snow and Friends of the Merkinch Local Nature Reserve.

Evening meetings:  Sea Cadets Hall, 44 Kessock Rd, Inverness IV3 8AJ.

October 3rd at 8.30pm – Saturn Special.  Opportunities to stargaze and observe Saturn from the local nature reserve and perhaps the setting Moon next to mighty Jupiter.  Guiding by local astronomer Stephen Mackintosh.  If sky conditions are poor we’ll stay indoors for an indoor presentation on Saturn.

November 7th at 8.30pm – Moon Special.  Come and observe the bright waxing gibbous Moon from the grounds of the Merkinch nature reserve.  Indoor Moon talk if skies are poor.

December 19th at 8.30pm – ‘A Telescope isn’t just for Christmas’.  A special Christmas event on getting started with observing, what to buy, what to avoid, where and when to observe.  With local astronomer Stephen Mackintosh.  Outdoor stargazing from the reserve if conditions are clear.

January 16th at 8.30pm – Supernova Special with guest speaker Dr Anthony Luke of UHI talking about the incredible science and chemistry behind exploding stars.  Opportunities for stargazing from the local nature reserve if conditions are clear.

February 20th at 8.30pm – Aurora Special with guest photographer Graham Bradshaw.  Graham will discuss aurora, how to find it and photograph it.  He’ll also share some of his amazing photographs and videos.  Opportunities to observe from the nature reserve if time and weather permits.

March 12th at 8.30pm – Venus Special.  With Venus now a beacon in evening skies we’ll have a special talk on the planet with astronomer Stephen Mackintosh,  Plus opportunities to observe it, and the stars, from the local nature reserve.

Space Camp in Thurso

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Some photo highlights from the Summer Space Camp up in Thurso’s band new Newton Room.  I had a great time delivering Mars and astronomy based workshops on day 2.  We covered the observational history of Mars, its surface geology, the night sky, the life and death of stars and spectroscopy.  Interactive sections included Mars cratering, galaxy frisbees, star cluster balloons and DIY spectrascopes.

Picture rights Skills Development Scotland.

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?

Stargazing at Scapa Festival 2019

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The milky way from the grounds of the Arkinglas Estate, Loch Fyne

I had another great time hosting outdoor astronomy and stargazing workshops at this years Scapa festival, held on 3-5th May near the shores of Loch Fyne at the Arkinglas Estate.

It was very busy, especially Friday evening when clear skies brought many folk streaming down into the gardens in anticipation of stargazing close to the shoreline.

As it happened we hit some cloud just as I was about to kick off, prompting a quick jump over to my backup projector and screen.  I was then able to deliver a 30 minute talk with Q&A, discussing things like the colour, temperature, distance of stars, the Milky Way, other galaxies, shooting stars and large impactors.  As ever the questions were fascinating.

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A passing satellite

Just as the talk wrapped up skies cleared and we were stargazing from the estate grounds.  Plenty of constellations and bright stars began appearing, and conditions improved further when a second group arrived to join in.

Similar conditions prevailed on the Saturday, when skies once again cleared up after my talk, allowing us to observe with the large case of binoculars I always bring to star parties.

Later on I was able to photograph some lovely shots of the Milky Way from the estate grounds, with the band of our galaxy sitting low and clear on the northern horizon.

Feedback has been great on the guiding so far, and I’m looking forward to getting involved again next year.

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GSC On Tour

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Ross teaching us how to make a comet in a bin bag!

We had a great day of outdoor and indoor astronomy learning with our guests from Glasgow Science Centre on Saturday.

Ross and Andrew travelled all the way up the A9 loaded with space and science kit to kick off our first 2019 daytime event for the Star Stories programme.

Ross ran a fascinating hands-on Comet making workshop in the outdoor woodcraft shed, demonstrating how Comets form and disintegrate as they travel around the Sun.

Meanwhile Andrew presented an indoor planetarium show using a projector and Stellarium software, taking audiences across the night sky and explaining some of the science and mythology of the constellations.

Everyone seemed to have a great time and we’re looking forward to continuing the summer programme with our Summer Solstice event on the 21st June.  Please check my facebook page for booking details in the weeks ahead.

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Interactive exhibits kept the youngsters entertained between learning streams

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Outdoor astronomy learning

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Andrew’s star hopping presentation

 

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