If you live in mid northern latitudes there’s an undeniable familiarity to your night skies when facing north. One of the most prominent constellations is Ursa Major with its bright asterism known as The Plough, or Big Dipper. I call this collection of stars the Swiss Army Knife for stargazers, and for good reason. Please watch to find out why.
Music used with permission from Rising Galaxy (Cosmicleaf records, Greece)
My video stargazing guide to the constellation Ursa Major, known to stargazers and astronomers in the northern hemisphere by its famous asterism of the Plough or Big Dipper.
Many thanks to Rising Galaxy of Cosmicleaf Records for gifting the background music to this piece. If you like drone ambient or cosmic chill out music please check out their web stores for more of the same.
Stage all set for my stargazing show Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival. On both evenings sky conditions were good enough for the show to move outdoors under clearing skies,
The stars were out at Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival last weekend. Not those on stage, but the more distant and ancient ones up in the sky. I had loads of fun sky guiding outdoors with all the late night merrymaking around us – a markedly different experience to the stillness of SCAPA festival but none the worse for it. My portable PA came to the rescue and managed to win out against one of the louder music tents across the way and questions and answers were easily fielded.
On both evenings skies started cloudy but partially cleared by about 11.30pm, allowing me to take the show outside for a laser pointer assisted tour of the heavens.
Skies to the north were sufficiently clear to tour the rich pickings around Ursa Major, with its famous double star Mizar and its abundance of celestial pointers, leading to Polaris and many of the other bright stars in the sky
Amidst opening and closing patches of sky we saw red giant Arcturus, Vega, distant Deneb, the stars of Ursa Major, Cassiopeia (both pictured), Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila.
With binoculars folk were able to easily split some well known double stars including Mizar and Alcor in the handle of the dipper and the Double Double next to brilliant Vega.
The highlight, close to midnight, was viewing the Andromeda galaxy, which was just visible despite the very challenging conditions. A few people had never seen another galaxy before and amazed binoculars could produce such excellent views.
Thanks to everyone who came along, a safe homeward journey and clear skies! I look forward to returning next year.
I had the privilege of visiting Snowdonia this summer for a family camp in a beautiful river valley near Maentwrog. During the evenings I managed a bit of stargazing before moonrise and captured a few bright constellations over the Welsh hills.
Cassiopeia over the Welsh hills
I also captured a lovely close pairing between the Moon and the planet Jupiter.
Jupiter sits serenely below the waxing gibbous Moon
The highlight, however, was witnessing a beautiful partial eclipse of the Moon on Tuesday evening at around 11pm.
I took these pictures and a short video using my smartphone anchored to a simple pair of 8×40 binoculars (mounted for stability). The eclipse was already underway when the Moon rose into view and continued until well after midnight.
A lovely crescent Moon hung in the West for most of the evening
We enjoyed another superb evening of stargazing and storytelling up at Abriachan Forest last Saturday – the last dark sky session until stargazing returns in October 2019.
There were beautiful crisp skies all evening long, allowing me to guide both groups outside for views of the Milky Way and numerous open star clusters like the Hyades, Pleiades, Beehive and the stunning double cluster in Perseus.
We also studied the Orion star forming nebula, the great spiral galaxy in Andromeda and some fainter galaxies in Ursa Major (M81 and M82), and even had a go at sighting the triplet of galaxies in Leo, which some of the keen eyed youngsters successfully glimpsed in the 8×40 binoculars.
Clelland was also back in action with the story of Arden and the birth of Merlin in the roundhouse.
Thanks to everyone who came along. Please check my Facebook site for details of future summer events.
I had the great pleasure of helping the 2nd Balloch Brownies gain their Stargazers badge this evening. Brownie leader Gaener Rodger wanted an astronomer to lead the girls through basic constellations and star navigating, but I came prepared for both outdoor and indoor activities in the event of poor skies.
A captive and very excitable audience!
The location for stargazing was next to the Balloch hall (beside Balloch Primary) which has some fairly bright street lights nearby. Thankfully the skies were clear enough to make out the main constellations once we’d shifted our location to the gable end of the hall, away from the worse offending lights.
The plough or dipper is one of the best asterisms to orientate an audience and begin a stargazing tour with. Ursa Major is also home to dozens of interesting stars and deep sky objects.
The stargazing tour lasted about 30 mins and covered the following:
Ursa Major and the big dipper pointers stars
Polaris and circumpolar constellations
The story of Callisto and Arkos (The greater and lesser bears)
Cassiopeia and the story of Queen Cassiopeia and Cepheus
The great square of Pegasus and the legend of Perseus
The Northern Cross (Cygnus)
Stellar physics on the differences between the stars Vega, Deneb and our Sun
Although it was quite a large group (around 20 brownies), I was amazed at the number of really interesting questions the girls kept throwing at me – what’s a light year, what causes a supernova, how many stars are there? The science behind the stars seems to really engage the minds and imaginations of children.
After stargazing we headed back inside for some of the indoor activities I’d prepared. These included:
Demonstrating Moon phases using spheres on sticks and bright head torches
A competition to guess the distance from the moon to the earth (using scale ‘chocolate’ models)
Mars and Moon cratering using trays of flower, coca powder and lots of marbles!
Laying down the lunar soil
The latter experiment was messy but well worth the effort, and was a good opportunity to discuss planetary evolution – why the moon and inner planets have such clear cratering and what it tells us about their age and history.
All in all it was a great evening and more importantly the Brownies seemed to have a fantastic time.