It’s worth saying at the outset that astrology is bullshit.
The MP for Bosworth, Mr Tredinnick, is well known for his whacky beliefs, so much so that he is often referred to as the MP for Holland and Barrett, the high street purveyor of supplements, homeopathic remedies, and flim-flam.
What makes Mr Tredinnick’s comments so worrying is that he sits on the health committee and the science and technology committee in the House of Commons.
What makes this even more worrying is that these posts are elected by other MPs, so this believer in all things pseudo-science was deliberately placed on these committees by his fellow MPs.
It’s hard to imagine anyone less suited to judging the merits of health and science policy than a man who thinks that the stars and planets somehow influence our lives. This is a pre-scientific notion, and has no place in a modern society.
Mr Tredinnick has attempted to head off criticism from the reality-based community by referring to those rationalists and skeptics who disagree with his fanciful notions as “bullies” who had “never studied the subjects”.
On the contrary, most astronomers have studied the universe to a far deeper degree than most astrologers, and have come to the realisation that:
- there are no mechanisms by which the stars and planets can influence our lives
- one only needs conjure up a new mystical mechanism to account for astrology if there is significant evidence that it works
- there is no evidence that astrology works: none
The northern hemisphere summer solstice occurs today, 21 June 2014 at 1051 UT (which is actually 1151 BST in the UK).
But surely the summer solstice is just the longest day. How can it “occur” at a specific instant?
That’s because we astronomers define the summer solstice as the instant when the Sun gets to its furthest north above the celestial equator. Or to put it another way, the instant when the north pole of the Earth is tilted towards the Sun as far as it can.
And this happens at exactly 1051 UT on 21 June 2014.
It’s important to remember though that while we are in the midst of summer, the southern hemisphere are experiencing their winter solstice, and their shortest day.
And how much longer is our “longest day”? In Glasgow, my home town, the Sun will be above the horizon for 17h35m12s today (21 June), a full one second longer than yesterday, and six seconds longer than tomorrow.
A brand new* supernova has flared up in a nearby galaxy, M106, according to astronomers. This supernova is located very near the bright core of the galaxy, as can be seen in the image below, making it a little trickier to see, and also making it harder to get a light curve to tell us more about it.
We do know that it’s a type II supernova, the kind that happens when an old supergiant star suddenly stops fusing elements in its core and collapses under its immense gravity. This collapse is so rapid that the outer shell of the star rebounds off the core in a huge explosion which rips the star apart, scattering its constituent elements into the cosmos, and temporarily brightening it significantly.
This supernova we discovered in April and recently imaged using a 17″ telescope on 21 May 2014. At the moment its brightness is put at around magnitude +15, which makes it pretty hard to spot with anything other than a very large telescope and very dark skies. Anyone in the UK desperate to see it can book a visit to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory or the Kielder Observatory; both facilities are well worth the effort anyway, and have scopes more than big enough to see the new supernova.
* The galaxy that this supernova is in is 23.5 million light years away so technically it went supernova 23.5 million years ago, and the light has only just got to us here on Earth. Galaxy M106 is the in the little-known constellation Canes Venatici, which despite its lack of any bright stars is still easy to find lying “beneath” the tail of Ursa Minor, the Great Bear.
The planet Mercury is the most elusive of all of the naked eye planets. It orbits nearest the Sun, and so always rises just before the Sun or sets just after it, appearing in the glow of twilight. For much of Mercury’s orbit it isn’t visible at all, lying too close to the Sun in the sky.
To see Mercury at its best you have to wait until it’s as far as possible from the Sun in the sky; what astronomers refer to as its maximum elongation. When Mercury is at its maximum eastern elongation it’s visible just before sunrise; when it’s at its maximum western elongation its visible just after sunset.
At the moment Mercury is nearing its maximum western elongation and so makes a perfect evening target.
Mercury’s range of maximum elongation is between 18° and 28°, and in this particular apparition it’s furthest distance from the Sun is 22.7°. This occurs on 25 May 2014. Between now and the end of May look west just after sunset to try and catch a glimpse of Mercury shining at magnitude +0.4. It’ll be low in the sky, very low, but if you look towards the west, find Jupiter shining brilliantly, and follow a line down to the right at an angle of approx. 45° you should see Mercury a few degrees above the horizon.
If you’re trying to observe it through a telescope then make sure you wait until the Sun has well and truly set below the horizon. Mercury exhibits phases like the Moon and Venus which can be seen through a telescope but shows no other detail through an earth-based scope; on 25 May the disk of Mercury facing the Earth will only be 40% illuminated, making a fat crescent shape. Mercury’s angular size is the smallest of all the planets save distant Uranus and Neptune.
If you’ve ever seen Jupiter or Saturn through a telescope then you’ll know that they look spectacular despite their relatively meagre size. On 25 May, for example, Jupiter will appear to have a diameter of 33 arcseconds (written 33″), Saturn 19″, Venus 15″, Mars 12″, and Mercury a paltry 8″.
And you can actually see all five of these planets on the night of 25 May (or any night between now and the end of May. Mercury is the trickiest to find, but Jupiter will be blazing low in the east, Mars high in the south, Saturn lower in the south-east, and if you’re keen to get up before sunrise you’ll see Venus low in the east. (Uranus and Neptune are dawn objects too at the moment).
This month sees a glut of amazing stargazing sights in the night sky, even as the days lengthen towards summer.
Saturn is coming to opposition this month (10 May) meaning it shines in the sky all night long throughout the month. A small telescope (even a pair of binoculars on a tripod) will show Saturn’s beautiful rings and one of its moons.
Mars is even brighter than Saturn, shining a soft orange colour in the constellation of Virgo, near the bright star Spica.
Jupiter is still an evening object although it sets in the west around 1am.
There’s the possibility of a spectacular new meteor shower on 23/34 May as the Earth passes through the dust trail of comet 209P/Linear.
And May sees the start of the noctilucent cloud season, where these elusive high-altitude begin to shine in deep twilight.
Full moon this month is on 14 May, when the Moon will sit near Saturn.
On 10 May 2014 the planet Saturn will be at opposition, making it ideally placed for observation. To be honest, though, Saturn will be a feature of our night sky throughout the spring and summer, only vanishing into the twilight glow of sunset in September. However, at opposition Saturn rises when the sun sets and sets when the sun rises, meaning it’s in the sky all night long.
Saturn looks like a bright star in the east at sunset, shining at magnitude 0, making it a little fainter than the other bright planets up there at the moment, Jupiter (at around magnitude -1.5) and Mars (at around magnitude -1), but still brighter than most other stars in the night sky, shining about as brightly as the star Arcturus.
Saturn is the furthest planet we can see with the naked eye (unless you head somewhere very dark and strain your eyes to catch a glimpse of Uranus), lying around 9 astronomical units from us (approx. 827 million miles). The reason we can see it shining so brightly is that it’s quite reflective (reflecting 47% of the Sun’s light that shines on it) and VERY big.
The disk of Saturn will appear larger (just) than the disk of Mars when seen through a telescope (18.7 arcseconds for Saturn compared to 15 arcseconds for Mars), but its rings stretch further, subtending 44 arcseconds.
Saturn really is the jewel of the solar system. It’s the planet that most people recognise, and I would bet that it ranks pretty high on most people’s bucket lists of “things to see through a telescope”. If you have a ‘scope, or know someone who does, it’s worth taking a look as Saturn arcs overhead this spring and summer.
You’ll also catch a glimpse, if observing with a small telescope, of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, the second largest moon in the solar system, larger the the planet Mercury. Saturn has 62 major moons, and countless smaller ones (the rings after all are made up of billions of pieces of ice and dust, mini-moons) but only Titan is visible through small scopes. To see the next four brightest (Dione, Enceladus, Tethys and Rhea) you’ll need a decent sized scope, say 8″.
Last Friday 25 April 2014 the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) released a report (pdf) entitled “Shedding Light: a Survey of Local Authority Approaches to Lighting in England”, that addresses the growing problem of light pollution in rural areas.
Light pollution from towns and cities spreads a long way, lighting the sky up and spoiling the view of the stars even in areas with few or no lights of their own. However that’s only the tip of the iceberg. According to CPRE:
Street lighting in England costs councils approximately £616m per year and can account for up to 30% of their carbon emissions so tackling light pollution will have a triple benefit – cutting costs and carbon too.
Although around one third of councils surveyed were switching lights off between midnight and 5am, when they aren’t needed, and around one half of councils dimming lights at similar times, there is still much more to be done.
According to Emma Marrington, CPRE Dark Skies Campaigner:
‘The results of our survey show that many local authorities are taking steps in the right direction to manage lighting more effectively. But much more can be done to encourage all authorities to take this issue more seriously.
‘We urge councils to do more to control lighting in their areas, and ensure that the right lighting is used only where and when it is needed. We often hear concerns that changing street lighting can impact on public safety but our research revealed no evidence to support this. We’re not advocating changes where they’re not appropriate, but why shine bright lights on residential streets, quiet roads and open countryside throughout the night when it’s not needed?
‘Genuine dark starry nights are becoming harder and harder to find which is why councils should take action to control it now. Light pollution blurs the distinction between town and country, ruins the countryside’s tranquil character and denies us the experience of a truly starry sky.’
CPRE ends the report by making nine recommendations:
- Light pollution policy All local authorities should have a policy to control light pollution in their Local Plan, in line with the National Planning Policy Framework and the associated National Planning Practice Guidance on light pollution. This should include identifying existing dark areas that need protecting.
- Street lighting policy Local authorities should consider preparing a Street Lighting Policy, which could include Environmental Lighting Zones to ensure that the appropriate lighting levels are used in each zone, with very strict requirements applying in identified dark areas.
- Part-night lighting schemes We encourage local authorities to investigate how part-night lighting schemes (e.g. switching off between midnight and 5am) or dimming could work in their areas, including examining the cost, energy and carbon savings. This should be done in full consultation with the local community.
- LANTERNS research project All local authorities who are switching off or dimming street lighting should monitor crime and accident statistics and consider taking part in the Institution of Lighting Professionals/LANTERNS research project which aims to quantify any effects of changes to street lighting on road traffic accidents and crime.
- LED lighting Local authorities should give careful consideration to the type of Light Emitting Diode (LED) lighting they use and consider the potential impacts that higher temperature blue-rich lighting has on ecology and human health.
- Targets for replacing lights Local authorities with responsibility for street lighting could set targets for replacing all their street and road lights with less light polluting types, such as full cut off flat glass lamps.
- Testing new street lighting New street lighting should be tested ‘in situ’ before a lighting scheme is rolled out across a wider area to ensure that it is the minimum required for the task and does not cause a nuisance to residents.
- Preserving dark skies Local authorities should have a strong presumption against new lighting in existing dark areas, unless essential as part of a new development or for public safety reasons that have been clearly demonstrated.
- Highways Agency guidance The Highways Agency should review the lighting section of the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges, which is used to design motorway and trunk road lighting, to ensure it remains relevant for local authorities.
The whole report makes for interesting reading, but a few things stand out:
- only 65% of councils in England have a policy on lighting
- 87% of these councils said it was a continuation of an existing policy; only 13% had adopted a new policy as a result of the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
- The top three reasons that councils were switching off lights at night are:
- 95%: Energy Saving
- 91%: Cost Saving
- 43%: Reduced Light Pollution
- The top three reasons that councils were switching off lights at night are:
- 97%: Energy Saving
- 78%: Cost Saving
- 54%: Reduced Light Pollution
- 11 councils said that dimming schemes had gone largely unnoticed by the community
- 91% of councils that are switching off lights are continuing to work with local police to monitor local crime statistics