Lyrids Meteor Shower 2015

April 18, 2015 3 comments

UPDATE 24/04/15 Now that we’re past the peak it looks like the Lyrids meteor shower performed as expected. Reports from the Society for Popular Astronomy suggest that plenty of meteors were seen over the UK.lyr2015overview

A wider survey made by volunteers submitting data to the International Meteor Organisation shows that a peak with ZHW=18 occurred more or less on cue around midnight on 22/23 April, with a possible second several hours later around 0700UT where the rate if anything was a little higher, with ZHR=22.

 

Over the next week one of spring’s best meteor showers will start to put on a show. The Lyrids meteor shower peaks overnight on the night of 22/23 April 2015, and should be best around midnight.

lyrid-meteor-shower-592x309

It’s quite hard to predict when exactly the peak will occur, and indeed you’ll still see some Lyrid meteors on the nights either side of the peak, so whenever you’ve got clear dark skies between now and 25 April it’s worth gazing skywards (isn’t it always?) in the hope that you’ll see a shooting star.

Why is the Lyrids Meteor Shower Happening This Week?

Meteor showers like the Lyrids happen when the Earth passes through a cloud of dust in space, These clouds are left behind by comets as they orbit the Sun, and the cometary cast-offs burn up in our atmosphere causing lots of bright streaks of light which we call meteors, or shooting stars. On any clear dark night you should see a few shooting stars, as random bits of space dust burn up overhead, but on the nights around the peak of a meteor shower, when the Earth is passing through a dense cloud of comet-dust, the rates can dramatically increase.

How Many Lyrids Will I See? There are a few ways you can maximise your chances of seeing some Lyrids (see The What, How, Where, When and Why of Meteor Showers) but the best way is to get somewhere dark, like one of the UK’s International Dark Sky Places. On the peak of the Lyrids meteor shower, under ideal conditions, you might see around 18 meteors per hour.

The peak of this particular shower doesn’t last very long, and so the rate on either side of the peak might be quite a bit less. Nonetheless it’ll still be well above the background rate of meteors. However the Lyrids occasionally surprises us and puts on a much better show. Back in 1982 there was a short-lived burst of Lyrid activity that saw the rate increase from 18 to 90. The same thing could happen this year: you never know until you look!

Ideal Conditions It’s the “ideal conditions” clause above that’ll reduce the rate from this maximum of 18. Ideal conditions are: perfectly clear skies; perfectly dark skies, free of light pollution; and the meteor shower radiant (the point where they all appear to emanate from) sitting directly overhead. The Lyrids’ radiant will be around 30° above the horizon at midnight, when the peak is meant to occur, but you can begin your meteorwatch as soon as it gets dark enough. You’ll then have until the sky brightens again pre-dawn. . The number of meteors that you will observe every hour depends on a number of factors:

  • the density of the cloud of dust that the Earth is moving through, that is causing the shower in the first place;
  • the height above the horizon of the radiant of the shower, the point from which the meteors appear to radiate;
  • the fraction of your sky that is obscured by cloud;
  • the naked-eye limiting magnitude of the sky, that is a measure of the faintest object you can see.

Crunching the Numbers The Lyrids meteor shower has a maximum zenith hourly rate (ZHR) of  around 18. This is the number of meteors that you can expect to see if the radiant is directly overhead (the point in the sky called the zenith), and you are observing under a cloudless sky with no trace of light pollution.

However conditions are rarely perfect. In the UK, for example, the radiant of the shower will not be at the zenith; it will be around 20° above the horizon at 2200, 30° above the horizon at 0000, 50° at 0200, to a maximum height of 70° pre-dawn.

Assuming a clear night, the other factor is the limiting magnitude of the sky, a measure of the faintest object you can see. Man-made light pollution will be an issue for most people. From suburbia the limiting magnitude of the sky is ~4.5 (around 500 stars visible), so you will only be able to see meteors that are at least this bright; the fainter ones wouldn’t be visible through the orange glow. In a big city centre your limiting magnitude might be ~3 (only around 50 stars visible); in a very dark site like Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park the limiting magnitude is ~6.5 (many thousands of stars visible), limited only by the sensitivity of your eye. So in most cases it’s best to try and get somewhere nice and dark, away from man-made light pollution.

The calculation that you need to make in order to determine your actual hourly rate is:

Actual Hourly Rate = (ZHR x sin(h))/((1/(1-k)) x 2^(6.5-m))

where h = the height of the radiant above the horizon

k = fraction of the sky covered in cloud

m = limiting magnitude

Let’s plug the numbers in for the Lyrids 2015.

ZHR = 18 (maximum) h = 30° at 0000 (assuming the maximum occurs at midnight; it might not) k = 0 (let’s hope!) m = 6.5 (if you get somewhere really dark)

So your actual hourly rate under clear dark skies is (18 x sin(30))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 9 meteors per hour If you’re observing in suburbia you need to divide this by around 4, and in bright cities by 10! Nonetheless, even in a city you’ll see a few Lyrids over the course of the night.

International Dark Skies Week 13-19 April 2015

April 13, 2015 Leave a comment

This week is International Dark Skies Week, 13-19 April 2015.

Created in 2003 by high-school student Jennifer Barlow, International Dark Sky Week has grown to become a worldwide event and a key component of Global Astronomy Month.

I want people to be able to see the wonder of the night sky without the effects of light pollution. The universe is our view into our past and our vision into the future . . . I want to help preserve its wonder.” – Jennifer Barlow

This year’s International Dark Skies Week coincides with the International Year of Light, which makes it particularly appropriate.

Why not head outside at night and explore dark skies? You could head to any International Dark Sky Places. In the UK we have six:

Any of these sites will provide excellent views (weather permitting!) of a real dark sky.

If none of these are convenient why not visit a Dark Sky Discovery Site near you. These are sites that have been identified by local communities as being convenient for stargazing, although they don’t have the light pollution control measures that the International Dark Sky Places do.

Solar Eclipse 20 March 2015

January 15, 2015 Leave a comment

UPDATE: Teachers! Educators! Don’t miss out on the learning opportunity of a lifetime! This partial eclipse will be the best seen in Scotland and much of the UK since 1999, and the best until 2090. And you don’t need eclipse glasses to experience it. 

Indeed, looking at the Sun is a very minor part of the experience. The most incredible thing to happen on Friday morning will be the darkening of the day, as the Sun gets covered by the Moon and much of its light gets blocked out. This will create a dusk-like atmosphere; birds will start singing, insects will come out, flowers – if you can find any – may close up! This is such an unusual and rare event that I really hope every school pupil in the country will get the opportunity to experience it. The best time for this is straight after register (0900) until around 0945.

If you have eclipse glasses you could let some of the pupils use those but I understand that you probably don’t have many pairs and fear the younger children might not use them correctly. Don’t use them then! Just get outside, tell the kids not to look at the Sun, and explore the wonderful daytime darkness. I really hope you can turn this into the learning opportunity of a lifetime.

On the morning of Friday 20 March 2015 there will be a total eclipse of the Sun. Between 0830 and 1042 the Moon will pass across the face of the Sun, blocking out part of its light. The maximum extend of the eclipse will happen at 0934 for a few minutes.

A Total Eclipse of the Sun, visible from the Faroe Islands on 20 March 2015

A Total Eclipse of the Sun, visible from the Faroe Islands on 20 March 2015

Unfortunately the “path of totality”, i.e. those parts of the world that will see a total eclipse, is in the far north Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Residents of the Faroe Islands get a ring-side seat at the total eclipse.

Path of Totality, Friday 20 March 2015

Path of Totality, Friday 20 March 2015

That said, it will still be a dramatic event in the UK, south of the path of totality, as we will see a partial solar eclipse where the Moon blocks some but not all of the Sun’s light.

A partial eclipse from Anamosa, Iowa. Credit: Steve Wendl - See more at: http://astrobob.areavoices.com/page/112/#sthash.ElDDdLAg.dpuf

A partial eclipse from Anamosa, Iowa. Credit: Steve Wendl – See more at: http://astrobob.areavoices.com/page/112/#sthash.ElDDdLAg.dpuf

The further north you are in the country the more of the Sun will be obscured, but wherever you are in the UK it’ll look quite dramatic. Here’s a handy table showing what % of the Sun’s disk will be obscured by the Moon from where you are.

Town/City % Eclipse on 20 March 2015
Lerwick, Shetland 96.8%
Kirkwall, Orkney 96.6%
Inverness 95.6%
Aberdeen 93.9%
Glasgow 93.7%
Edinburgh 93.1%
Belfast 93.0%
Newcastle 90.7%
Liverpool 89.4%
Manchester 89.1%
Birmingham 87.3%
Cardiff 86.7%
London 84.4%

Compare this with the August 1999 eclipse, where totality passed across the SW of England. During that eclipse the further south you were in the UK the better. Indeed the SW of England and the Channel Islands saw a total eclipse.  I was in Glasgow and saw an 82% eclipse. For me, this eclipse will be even better. In fact for anyone north of Liverpool, the 2015 eclipse is better than that in 1999!

Town/City % Eclipse on 11 August 1999
Lerwick, Shetland 67.9%
Kirkwall, Orkney 68.7%
Inverness 76.8%
Aberdeen 77.6%
Glasgow 82.2%
Edinburgh 81.8%
Belfast 86.8%
Newcastle 84.8%
Liverpool 90.5%
Manchester 90.1%
Birmingham 93.5%
Cardiff 97.2%
London 96.6%

Wherever you are in the UK though it’s worth watching, but BE CAREFUL. Never look at the Sun directly, even when it’s eclipsed. Here are some safety guidelines for viewing eclipses.

Stargazing Hotel Breaks And Cruises 2015

December 20, 2014 3 comments

In 2015 I’m delighted to be hosting a range of stargazing events, from stargazing weekend breaks under some of the UK’s darkest skies, to a cruise to one of the most remote islands in the world, steeped in astronomy history.

Steve Owens’ contribution was perfect. We liked how he joined in with the guests at meals etc and held the group together. He has a gift of being able to convey his knowledge in terms easy to understand.His lecture with slides was really informative and interesting as was the enthusiasm he put into answering our every question or listening to our accounts of minor brushes with stars!!

Here’s a list of the hotels I run stargazing breaks at:

Glenapp Castle, Ballantrae, Scotland (Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park)
Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart, Scotland (Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park)
Selkirk Arms Hotel, Kirkcudbright, Scotland (Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park)
Yarn Market Hotel, Dunster, Exmoor (Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve)

And here’s the cruise I’m hosting:

Stargazing and astronomy cruise, 4-22 May 2015, Cape Town to St Helena. On this stargazing tour you will have the opportunity to stargaze from a truly unique place – St Helena. The island is steeped in astronomical history, and you’ll visit the sites of Halley’s observatory (he of comet fame), as well as those of the other astronomers who have visited St Helena over the centuries. Its location near the equator means that virtually every constellation in the sky is visible at one time or another from St Helena, and visitors from the UK will be amazed to see a whole new collection of stars in the southern hemisphere that simply aren’t visible from Europe: the famous Southern Cross, the Magellanic Clouds, and the galactic centre of the Milky Way.

Here’s a list of the weekends I’m running throughout the year. Click the links for the hotels above to find out more or to book!

Stargazing weekend break, 20-22 February 2015, at the Yarn Market Hotel, Dunster, in Exmoor International Dark Sky Reserve

Stargazing weekend break, 13-15 March 2015, at the Selkirk Arms Hotel, Kirkcudbright, near Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park

Stargazing weekend break and Solar Eclipse Special, 20-22 March 2015, Kirkcudbright, near Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park (this weekend break can be extended to a three night stay to watch the partial eclipse of the sun at sunrise on Friday 20 March!)

Stargazing weekend break, 9-11 October 2015, at the Selkirk Arms Hotel, Kirkcudbright, near Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park

Stargazing weekend break, 4-6 December 2015, at Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart, in Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park

Stargazing weekend break, 11-13 December 2015, at Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart, in Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park

 

Geminids Meteor Shower 2014

December 8, 2014 2 comments

One of the most active and reliable meteor showers, the Geminids, happens every year in mid-December. This year’s display promises to be a good one for those meteorwatchers with clear skies.

The maximum rate of Geminids is predicted to occur between sunset on 13 Dec and sunset on 14 Dec, so the night of 13 Dec is the best bet, although nights on either side will still show plenty of shooting stars.

UPDATE: The excellent International Meteor Organisation (imo.net) have issued a live graph of Geminid activity. Last night the peak rate was around 46/hr +/- 21/hr. That rate will only increase overnight tonight, to a peak of around 120/hr.

When Gemini Sends Stars to Paranal  Image Credit & Copyright: Stéphane Guisard (Los Cielos de America), TWAN

When Gemini Sends Stars to Paranal
Image Credit & Copyright: Stéphane Guisard (Los Cielos de America), TWAN

There are a few ways you can maximise your chances of seeing some Geminids (see The What, How, Where, When and Why) but the best way is to get somewhere dark, like one of the UK’s International Dark Sky Places. I’ll be heading down to Galloway Forest in SW Scotland.

The Geminids’ radiant (the point in the sky where all the meteors appear to emerge from) rises at sunset, so you can begin your meteorwatch as soon as it gets dark enough. You’ll have until near midnight under dark skies, at which point the last quarter moon will rise to brighten the sky a little and drown out some of the fainter meteors.

The number of meteors that you will observe every hour depends on a number of factors:

  • the density of the cloud of dust that the Earth is moving through, that is causing the shower in the first place;
  • the height above the horizon of the radiant of the shower, the point from which the meteors appear to radiate;
  • the fraction of your sky that is obscured by cloud;
  • the naked-eye limiting magnitude of the sky, that is a measure of the faintest object you can see.

The Geminids meteor shower has a maximum zenith hourly rate (ZHR) of  around 120 (the highest of any meteor shower). This is the number of meteors that you can expect to see if the radiant is directly overhead (the point in the sky called the zenith), and you are observing under a cloudless sky with no trace of light pollution.

However conditions are rarely perfect. In the UK, for example, the radiant of the shower will not be at the zenith; it will be around 10° above the horizon at 1800h, 25° above the horizon at 2000h, 40° at 2200h,, 60° at 0000h just as the Moon rises to spoil the view a little.

Assuming a clear night, the other factor is the limiting magnitude of the sky, a measure of the faintest object you can see. Man-made light pollution will be an issue for most people. From suburbia the limiting magnitude of the sky is ~4.5 (around 500 stars visible), so you will only be able to see meteors that are at least this bright; the fainter ones wouldn’t be visible through the orange glow. In a big city centre your limiting magnitude might be ~3 (only around 50 stars visible); in a very dark site like Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park the limiting magnitude is ~6.5 (many thousands of stars visible), limited only by the sensitivity of your eye. So in most cases it’s best to try and get somewhere nice and dark, away from man-made light pollution.

The calculation that you need to make in order to determine your actual hourly rate is:

Actual Hourly Rate = (ZHR x sin(h))/((1/(1-k)) x 2^(6.5-m)) where

h = the height of the radiant above the horizon

k = fraction of the sky covered in cloud

m = limiting magnitude

Let’s plug the numbers in for the Geminids 2014.

ZHR = 120 (maximum)

h = 10° at 1800, 25° at 2000, 40° at 2200, 60° at 0000

k = 0 (let’s hope!)

m = 6.5 (if you get somewhere really dark!)

So your actual hourly rate under clear dark skies is

(120 x sin(10))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 21 meteors per hour at 1800
(120 x sin(25))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 50 meteors per hour at 2000
(120 x sin(40))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 77 meteors per hour at 2200
(120 x sin(60))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 104 meteors per hour at 0000

If you’re observing in suburbia you need to divide these numbers by around 4, and in bright cities by 10! Nonetheless, even in a city if you’re out at midnight during peak activity you’ll see around 10 meteors.

Remember though that these numbers are assuming perfectly clear skies under perfectly dark conditions, and are assuming a peak rate of 120 at each of these times. It probably won’t be nearly this good, but the bottom line is: there’s never a better night to see meteors!

Orionids Meteor Shower 2014

October 9, 2014 Leave a comment

October sees a fine meteor shower, the Orionids, grace our skies. While not reaching the maximum rates of one of the Big Three Meteor Showers (Perseids, Geminids, and Quadrantids), this month’s shower is still impressive, coinciding as it does this year with the new moon, meaning dark skies and lots of meteors for those who can get out of towns and cities.

Orionids Meteor Shower

Orionids

See: Meteor Showers: The What, How, Where, When, Why 

All meteor showers happen as the Earth passes through a cloud of dust left behind by comets (or in rare cases asteroids). The Orionids is associated with the most famous of all comets, Halley’s Comet, which orbits the Sun every 75.3 years.

The best time of night to watch the Orionids meteor shower is from local midnight onwards, once the radiant (the point from where the meteors appear to originate) rises well above the horizon. The maximum rate for this shower is due to occur on 21 October 2014, but unlike the big three meteor showers the Orionids peak is very broad, lasting several days rather than several hours, and so it’s worth watching on any night for a few days either side of the peak.

The ZHR of the Orionids during 2012, from imo.net

The ZHR of the Orionids 2012, from imo.net

Compare this chart with that for the Perseids meteor shower peak, which is much narrower (although because the Perseids is a much more active shower the ZHR stays high – above 20 – for roughly the same amount of time!):

Perseids 2013 Rate, from imo.net

The ZHR of the Perseids 2013, from imo.net

The number of meteors that you will observe every hour depends on a number of factors:

  • the density of the cloud of dust that the Earth is moving through, that is causing the shower in the first place;
  • the height above the horizon of the radiant of the shower, the point from which the meteors appear to radiate;
  • the fraction of your sky that is obscured by cloud;
  • the naked-eye limiting magnitude of the sky, that is a measure of the faintest object you can see.

The Orionids meteor shower has a maximum zenith hourly rate (ZHR) of  around 25 (sometimes the ZHR can be higher, up to 40, sometimes even 70, but that isn’t expected this year). This is the number of meteors that you can expect to see if the radiant is directly overhead (the point in the sky called the zenith), and you are observing under a cloudless sky with no trace of light pollution.

However conditions are rarely perfect. In the UK, for example, the radiant of the shower will not be at the zenith; it will be around 15° above the horizon at midnight, 30° above the horizon at 2am, 45° at 4am, and reaching a maximum height of 50° due south before dawn

Assuming a clear night, the other factor is the limiting magnitude of the sky, a measure of the faintest object you can see. Man-made light pollution will be an issue for most people. From suburbia the limiting magnitude of the sky is ~4.5 (around 500 stars visible), so you will only be able to see meteors that are at least this bright; the fainter ones wouldn’t be visible through the orange glow. In a big city centre your limiting magnitude might be ~3 (only around 50 stars visible); in a very dark site like Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park the limiting magnitude is ~6.5 (many thousands of stars visible), limited only by the sensitivity of your eye. So in most cases it’s best to try and get somewhere nice and dark, away from man-made light pollution.

The calculation that you need to make in order to determine your actual hourly rate is:

Actual Hourly Rate = (ZHR x sin(h))/((1/(1-k)) x 2^(6.5-m)) where

h = the height of the radiant above the horizon

k = fraction of the sky covered in cloud

m = limiting magnitude

Let’s plug the numbers in for the Orionids 2014.

ZHR = 25 (maximum)

h = 15° at 0001, 30° at 0200, 45° at 0400

k = 0 (let’s hope!)

m = 6.5 (if you get somewhere really dark!)

So your actual hourly rate under clear dark skies is

(25 x sin(15))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 6.5 meteors per hour at 0001
(25 x sin(30))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 12.5 meteors per hour at 0200
(25 x sin(40))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 17.7 meteors per hour at 0400

If you’re observing in suburbia you need to divide these numbers by around 4, and in bright cities by 10!

Remember though that unlike other meteor showers where the peak lasts only a few hours these rates for the Orionids can last days, so any time you’re outside at night it’s worth looking up!

*UT = Universal Time = GMT, so for UK times (BST) add one hour to these

Autumn Equinox 2014

September 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Today, 23 September 2014, marks the moment of the Autumn Equinox. At 0229 UT (0329 BST) the Sun will cross from the northern hemisphere sky to the southern, and we’ll begin the slow approach to the Winter Solstice on 21 December.

The equinoxes (one in spring and one in autumn) are the two instances every year when the Sun makes that crossing from north to south and vice versa, and they’re commonly thought to be the days when day and night are equal length, but they’re really not, for reasons I’ve outline before:

  • Astronomers measure the timings of equinoxes, sunrises and sunsets based on the middle point of the Sun’s disk in the sky, so when you read a sunrise time it means the time that the centre of the Sun’s disk rises above the horizon. For a few minutes before that time the top of the Sun’s disk will already have risen, giving “daylight”.
  • Even before this happens the sky is lit up by the Sun below the horizon, and we experience twilight. Most people would think that the sky is bright enough to call it “daytime” long before the Sun pops above the horizon, during the phase of civil twilight.
  • So today, even though day and night are said to be equal on the equinox, the “daytime” (i.e the start of civil twilight) started about 0625BST in Glasgow (where I am) and will end this evening around 1950BST, giving me approx. 13.5 hours of “daylight”. (Londoners will have from about 0615 until 1930BST, or approx. 13.25 hours of “daylight”).

The day this year where I have exactly 12 hours of “daylight” (i.e. between the morning start and the evening end of civil twilight) is 11 October and this day is called the equilux. (In London the equilux falls on 12 October).

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