I wanted to share some images with you that had me transfixed when I was a young boy (and still do to this day). I recall first seeing them in a hardback book of my father’s called Cosmos (which presumably accompanied the TV series that was being broadcast at the time).
The images depict the fate of our planet as the Sun transitions into a red giant star, at the very end of its life, some 4-5 billion years from now.
As the temperature of the Sun slowly increases, the oceans recede and our precious atmosphere is stripped away. Eventually the whole horizon is overwhelmed by the Sun in a bloated distended form, with the final image showing the Earth completely barren and parched.
I remember wondering at the time – where would all the people and animals be? Would we perish or find some new star to call our home? I think it was the first moment I glimpsed the immensity of stellar time scales and how tiny human lives and endeavours appeared to be next to these vast physical processes.
This is still what fascinates me most about astronomy and cosmology, and it’s amazing how something as natural and simple as looking up at the stars is a gateway into these incredible realms of the imagination.
Anyway here are the images, including their original captions. I was also pleased to find out that Adolf Shaller is still producing amazing art. Try an image search on Google with his name and enjoy.
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.
The northern lights looking over the Beauly firth towards the Black Isle, Inverness-shire
After reports of a KP6 geomagnetic storm predicted to strike Scotland over the weekend, and clear skies on Sunday evening, I headed out after sunset to try and catch the northern lights. This was a very early aurora excursion as nights have only just got dark enough for decent views of the night sky, let alone tracking down the faint and elusive northern lights.
My initial outing took my into the hills above Bunchrew where I bagged some lovely views of the summer Milky Way overhead. Turning my attention north I noticed a faint arc of light on the horizon, and sure enough some test shots picked up a vibrant band of purple and green auroral light. However little structure was evident until I moved to lower elevations, reaching the Bunchrew shoreline just after 10.30pm.
The Milky Way near Cygnus, framed between trees above Bunchrew.
From this new vantage, in the dark looking over the Beauly Firth, the northern lights stood out much more clearly as distant columns of white light, slowly morphing and scintillating above the horizon. Some of the images (attached) show nice structure and the suggestion of wave like movement.
As our nights get darker many more opportunities to view the aurora will present themselves. The best strategy is to simply get out there as often as you can when it’s clear, and try and escape the boundaries of light polluted towns and cities. Aurora forecasts should only be used as a guide as they’re seldom reliable. Remember to look north and where possible find some nice low horizons in this direction.
Good luck and clear skies.
The aurora is caused by the solar wind slamming into the earth’s atmosphere near the poles, ionising chemical elements which produce light at very specific quantised frequencies.
Video from the shores of Bunchrew looking over Ben Wyvis, panning from the north west to north east
The sunsets in the Highlands of Scotland are some of the best in the world when conditions are right, especially around the solstice when the setting Sun grazes just 8 degree below the northern horizon producing mesmerising night long sky glow.
On June 22nd I camped out at the Bunchrew shoreline with my daughter Violet and managed to capture some video and still images of the sunset looking north towards Ben Wyvis. Footage captured around 10.45pm.
Happy Solstice! Official time off the solstice today is at 3.54pm GMT when the north pole of the earth is maximally inclined towards the Sun.
In the north of Scotland we currently experience over 18 hours of daylight and no true night at all, as the Sun dips a mere -8 degrees below the horizon at its lowest point at 1.20am.
Official sunset time today is 22.20pm when the Sun will be at its greatest setting extremity towards the North. This is where the term Solstice comes from, Sol -Sistere, or Sun Standstill. The point when the Sun reaches its maximum declination in the sky or its furthest rising and setting points north of east and west on the horizon.
The situation is reversed for out friends in the Southern hemisphere of the planet who are currently marking the winter solstice.
Clear skies if you head out to take in the setting Sun!
A few weeks either side of the summer solstice is the best time to observe ‘noctilucent’ or ‘night shining’ clouds.
These wispy collections of ice crystals are the highest clouds on Earth, located in the mesosphere up to 50 miles overhead. They’re too faint to be seen in daylight and best observed when the Sun is between -6 and -12 degrees below the horizon.
At the moment at Highland latitudes this gives you an approximate window between 11.30pm and 3am in the morning.
In the north of Scotland we’re about four days away from losing all astronomical twilight and entering a period of sustained ‘nautical twilight’.
During this time the centre of the Sun’s disk never dips more than 12 degrees below the horizon, rendering our clear night skies a dark azure blue, with only the Moon, planets and brightest stars visible after midnight.
This will continue until mid July when astronomical twilight finally reappears.
Contrast this with London, where astronomical twilight continues right through mid summer, producing much darker night skies, but arguably less beautiful and prolonged sunsets.
We’re leaving astronomical twilight behind for several months here in the north of Scotland
Significantly darker night skies persist through mid summer in southern England. Here’s the contrasting data for London.