I’m very much looking forward to a return to the inky dark skies over the Isle of Lewis next February for the Hebridean Dark Sky Festival. The full lineup and details are available from organisers An Lanntair.
I’ve been reminiscing about last year’s festival, when I toured Lewis delivering outreach to a collection of remote communities under some of the best dark skies you’ll find anywhere. You can read my short account from last February on my blog page here. I look forward to more of the same in 2021, travelling to some new locations on the island.
Have you noticed the dazzling red star high in the East during late evening? That’s the planet Mars and it’s now nearing opposition on October 13th, offering some of the best naked eye and telescopic views possible.
Opposition is when Mars and Earth reach their closest approach to each other with respect to their independent orbits around the Sun. For Mars and Earth, this happens every 2 years and 2 months.
With the planet’s relatively high altitude and closeness around opposition, current views of the planet even with moderately powerful telescopes should be striking, perhaps revealing dim surface features and polar caps.
These images from Instagram’s @nightskyflying show the dramatic size and clarity change of Mars over a period of many months. If you don’t have a telescope it’s still worth looking up to appreciate the brightness of Mars as a naked eye planet at the moment.
The Milky Way over the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis. Jupiter and Saturn can be seen in this shot low above the horizon. By Emma Rennie of Callanish Digital Design. www.callanishdigitaldesign.com
Another stunning Milky Way shot by Christopher Cogan taken from Muie in Sutherland in the far north of Scotland.
Two stunning Milky Way images taken last night from the Scottish Highlands (and Islands). Both show the bright region of the Milky Way in the vicinity of the Summer Triangle, looking south.
If you imagine our Milky Way as a vast disk of stars, these views are peering further ‘into’ the disk, where the density of stars and stellar matter is greater, and hence brighter. Contrast this with the fainter regions we see in Winter near Orion, when we peer ‘out’ of the galactic disk.
The dark lanes you can see are part of the Cygnus Rift – a region containing vast clouds of dust that obscure some of the light from the billions of stars in the background.
With the Moon well out of the way and proper darkness returning late at night, now is a great time to go out and see the Milky Way for yourself.
Image Credit: R. Corradi, Nordic Optical Telescope
I recently stumbled across this stunning image of the famous Cat’s Eye nebula. It’s a false colour enhancement showing the extended ejecta from the dying star, imaged by the Nordic Optical Telescope on the Canary islands..
The cat’s eye is dubbed a ‘planetary nebula’. An erroneous label as this has nothing to do with planets whatsoever. Rather these nebulae are the beautiful symmetries left behind when stars of similar mass to our Sun enter their final gasps of life. Before collapsing down to a white dwarf (a compact star held in place by electron pressure), the star sheds its atmosphere is great puffs, producing these ghostly but beautiful clouds of ionised gas.
The outer gaseous tendrils seen in this image extend almost 3 light years across and probably represent earlier and more transient episodes of stellar influenza, before the star began its collapse in earnest.
Image Credit: R. Corradi, Nordic Optical Telescope
A direct image of an alien solar system orbiting a Sun like star, over 300 light years away!
I remember growing up in the 1980s hearing about the ‘high probability’ that other stars had orbiting planets, but there was very little evidence then, only some tantalising hints from the gravitational wobbles observed from specific stars.
Since then thousands of new exoplanets have been confirmed using the transit and radial velocity detection methods. I wrote a blog article about this a while back.
These methods are indirect ways of determining the existence of planets, and it’s very rare to actually be able to ‘see’ the planets themselves.
This image is therefore pretty incredible and for me suddenly normalises the idea that these star systems are real places we could, theoretically at least, visit in the distant future.
The image was captured by the European Southern Observatories Very Large Telescope and shows a young Sun like star (only 17 million years old) with two clearly defined giant planets in orbit. (The dots of light closer to the star are background stars and therefore not part of this particular planetary system)
These planets orbit the star at 160 and 320AU (1 AU is the Earth to Sun distance) so they’re much further away from the star than any planet in our solar system.
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. 🌟🌟
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!
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.