Last night, Thursday 27 February 2014, the UK was treated to one of the best displays of Northern Lights in the past twenty years. Twitter erupted with excitement, and then pictures, which my good friend @VirtualAstro and myself @darkskyman RT-ed and commented on throughout the evening.
Below is just a sample of some of the best images that came in last night, but before that let’s look at why this aurora display was so good.
Two days previously a large sunspot on the surface of the Sun erupted with a huge X-class flare, rated at X4.9, the strongest of the year so far. This flare blasted off material from the Sun’s surface in what’s known as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). We knew that this material wasn’t aimed straight at us, but last night, two days after the eruption, it sideswiped the Earth, getting caught in our magnetic field and funnelled to the north and south poles.
It just so happened that the angle of the impact, and the timing, was perfect for evening skywatchers across the UK, and with largely clear skies across the country reports started coming in around 7pm that we might be about to see storm level activity. In the end it was rated as G2 (moderate) but the position of the auroral oval meant that even this moderate storm produced some of the best views of aurorae in the UK that I can remember.
Don’t be downhearted if you missed it; there’s a chance (55% according to NOAA) that we might see more tonight as we move through the wake of the CME. It’s unlikely to be as good as last night’s show, but still worth a look.
I tweeted the best way to see the aurora:
Then images started coming in!
This from @garethpaxton in Central Scotland (a pic of the viewfinder of his camera):
Then this beautiful one from Jim Hunter Images in East Lothian:
From @ross1772 in Newmill, Scotland
Dave @makapala uploaded a bunch of images taken from Fife to his Flickr account:
Mark Tait @marktait78 got this amazing image from Aberdeenshire, showing the verticality of the aurora:
England also got some of the action with the aurora stretching as far south as Uttoxeter, in this image by @RichardH082:
And Whitby (from @whitbyglenn)
From Ravenscar (from @andy_exton)
And NE England (via @Astro_Matt27)
Northern Ireland got in on the action too, as this amazing image from Paul Martin shows:
But of course the best of it was in the north of Scotland, such as this stunning image from Innes Mackay in Lewis:
After the discovery recently of a supernova in the Cigar Galaxy, M82, it looks like we have another supernova candidate in a different galaxy M99.
Seen just three days ago, astronomers are still trying to work out whether this is indeed a supernova; it should be confirmed soon.
It’s been measured at magnitude +15.4 recently, much fainter than the nearby supernova in M82, which currently stands at brighter than +10 (over 100 times brighter).
You’ll catch the supernova in M82 using just a modest telescope, while the new potential supernova in M99 you’ll need a big scope to see it.
Happy supernova hunting!
UPDATE: It’s been confirmed as a supernova and has the designation SN2014L
It’s been confirmed today that an observation made by UCL astronomy students on Tuesday was of a new bright supernova in a nearby galaxy, M82. The supernova has been given the official designation Supernova 2014J.
SN2014J is currently around magnitude 11, meaning that you’ll need a telescope to see it, but a small-ish one will do; something at least 10cm diameter. However its spectrum suggests it’s a type Ia supernova – an exploded white dwarf star – and that it’s probably several days away from reaching its peak brightness, so it may well brighten enough to be visible through binoculars.
UPDATE: It’s peaked at mag 10.5
Luckily for northern hemisphere observers it’s very easy to find. It’s located in the galaxy known as M82, the Cigar Galaxy, which lies in the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, part of which is the famous Plough, or Big Dipper asterism.
Here’s a handy finder chart, generated by Stellarium:
So what will you see? Even through very powerful telescopes this supernova will appear as nothing more than a bright dot – looking like a star – embedded within the galaxy M82. It’s so bright compared to M82 that you might be forgiven for thinking that it was a foreground star in our own galaxy, many millions of times closer to us than it actually is. But in fact it’s a star within M82, over 11 million light years away, that has gone through a catastrophic explosion and temporarily brightened until it’s about as bright as all the other stars in that galaxy combined.
John Dobson, known as “the sidewalk astronomer“, and the inventor of the Dobsonian telescope mount, died yesterday 15 January 2014.
I had the pleasure of meeting John back in 2006 when he visited Glasgow Science Centre to give a talk in the planetarium. As planetarium manager at the time I was in John’s company for most of the two days he was in Glasgow, and became well used to his unorthodox – and mischievous – teaching style.
“How many stars are there in our solar system?” he asked, with a twinkle in his eye.
“One…?” I ventured, smelling a trap.
“Actually there are three. Jupiter and Saturn are stars too. They define a star as something that emits visible light. But Jupiter shines in infra-red; it gives off more than twice what it takes from the sun, but astronomers don’t see that, because they’re too retarded. You see, that’s the problem with talking to me – I throw you a curve ball.”
His most controversial views were regarding the Big Bang Model. It’s fair to say that John wasn’t a believer* – he told me he was “allergic” to it! He instead promoted a steady state model, where the receding galaxies “fell off the edge” and got recycled back in… To be honest I didn’t really follow his arguments to closely, but there’s no doubting the entertainment of his delivery.
Certainly the audience who came to Glasgow Science Centre’s planetarium to see John talk were thoroughly entertained. Perhaps not in a very orthodox way, nor with theories that were widely accepted in the astronomy community, nor indeed about what they thought they’d hear John speak about. The talk had been billed as “hear John Dobson, inventor of the Dobsonian telescope mount, talk about his revolutionary design and his passion for sidewalk astronomy”. He gave that five minutes at the start of the talk; the rest was non-standard cosmology and poking fun at the consensus.
He didn’t credit himself as the inventor of the Dobsonian mount. After all, astronomers had been using elements of it for a long time before John put them all together and began popularising this low-cost mount.
A Dobsonian mount is effectively a spinning plate with a cradle on it for holding the telescope. The plate spins allowing you to move the telescope from side to side (the azimuth co-ordinate, in astronomy speak) and the telescope can tilt in the cradle allowing you to move it up and down (the altitude co-ordinate). This is a far simpler mount than the alternatives, and can be built out of everyday items at low cost, meaning that more of your budget can go on the telescope tube itself, building larger tubes to collect more light (we call these large telescopes “light buckets”) and so get clearer, sharper images.
John himself never called them Dobsonians, instead referring to them as “sidewalk telescopes”. “For hundreds of years, wars were fought using cannon on ‘Dobsonian’ mounts; it’s nothing new,” he would say. But his design was innovative, and it brought the universe a little bit closer to us.
My primary telescope – the Skywatcher 250 PX – uses a Dobsonian mount. It’s an ideal scope for public astronomy events as it’s very quick to set up, and is really easy to operate. Want to move it? Just nudge or pull it.
John’s mount, and his passion for showing people the universe through a telescope, led to his popularising of “sidewalk astronomy”, which involves standing with a telescope out in a busy street in your town and showing passers-by views of the cosmos. Of course due to light pollution in towns and cities you’re limited as to what you can show, but the Moon and planets are easily visible from wherever you are. If your unsuspecting passer-by has never seen the rings of Saturn, or the moons on Jupiter, or mountain ranges and craters on our own Moon, you can be sure that their few minutes with your telescope will amaze them.
John Dobson will be remembered as the grandfather of sidewalk astronomy, but I’ll remember him most fondly as the very eccentric and enthusiastic man that I spent a couple of days with in Glasgow in 2006. The most vivid memory I have of John is taking him out for dinner the night he arrived in Glasgow, as I did with all visiting speakers. He didn’t eat meat, he informed me. And he didn’t eat processed food in restaurants. He saw that I was beginning to look worried. I suggested he might like a salad. With a grin he said “Why pay for a salad when there’s perfectly edible stuff just laying around?”, at which point he began rummaging in the flowerbeds for edible plants and weeds…
* Not that I’m a believer. I don’t believe in the Big Bang, rather I accept it as a model for the universe which fits all of the observations that we make. It’s true, to the limits of our current observations.
This year sees a brand new meteor shower possibly gracing our night skies, on 24 May 2014.
Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through a cloud of dust left behind by a comet. These clouds hang in space in the same place, and so meteor showers occur at the same time every year as the Earth revisits them.
But every so often a new comet comes along and creates a cloud of dust where none existed before. In the case of this anticipated shower the comet that left the cloud behind goes by the name of 209P/Linear. It was discovered in 2004 and passed near the sun in 2009, and will do so again this year in early May.
Current predictions are that the Earth will pass through the cloud of dust left by 209P/Linear on 24 May 2014. Quite how many shooting stars will be visible is unknown, but given that this is a fresh cloud of dust that hasn’t been “used up” before in previous meteor showers, we might expect a good display.
Stargazers in North America are probably best suited to see it, but in the UK it’s still worth looking out for. More accurate information regarding timings will become available nearer the time, but regardless of when exactly the Earth passes through the dust stargazers in the UK will have to wait until the sky is dark. It never gets truly dark in the UK in late May except in the south, and the Channel Islands, but the best time is between 0000 and 0200.
And where to look in the sky? As with all meteor showers it doesn’t matter where you look; the shooting stars streak across the sky in all directions. However if you trace the trails back they will all converge at the same part of the sky, called the radiant. Meteor showers are named after their radiants (e.g. the Perseids emerge from Perseus, and the Geminids from Gemini) and this new shower will appear to emanate from the dim constellation of Camelopardalis*, so they’ll be known as the Camelopardalids! Just flows off the tongue…
* Camelopard comes from the romanised Greek words for “camel” and “leopard”, and is the name for a giraffe, which the Greeks thought were part camel, part leopard!
The negative effect of light pollution on wildlife has long been known, specifically – but not exclusively – its effect on bats, bugs, and sea turtles. Now the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) are running an Early Bird Survey, asking people in the UK to monitor the pre-dawn feeding times of garden birds to see what – if any – effect light pollution is having.
To take part you need to get up before dawn* on 9** January 2014 (tomorrow, as I write this), watch your garden bird feeders, and record the times that the first ten species arrive to feed. You can download the full instructions here (pdf), and submit your observations here.
* dawn occurs at different times around the UK, so you should find your sunrise time and get up half an hour earlier than that, during civil twilight.
** observations on 10, 11, and 12 January are welcome too.
As the BTO website says:
Winter is not an easy time for birds. They need extra energy to keep warm, especially during long winter nights. To cope with this, they lay down extra fat reserves, though small birds quite often only lay down enough for a single night. Longer nights not only affect the amount of energy a bird uses, they also reduce the amount of time that birds can feed in. Birds, therefore, have to make the most of the daylight hours to replenish their energy reserves before it gets dark.
The 2004 BTO Shortest Day Survey, run in association with BBC Radio 4, investigated the patterns behind birds arriving at garden bird feeders first thing on a winter’s morning. Building on observations from the Shortest Day Survey, the Early Bird Survey will investigate what effect, if any, light and heat pollution have on the feeding patterns of birds during a cold winter’s morning.
The northern hemisphere winter solstice occurs on 21 December 2013, at 1711 GMT. At this point the Earth’s north pole will be tipped away from the Sun. As seen from Earth, the Sun will stop its slow daily decent south in our sky – over the past six months the Sun’s mid-day height above the horizon has been decreasing steadily – and once again turn north, getting higher in the sky at noon each day, until it gets to its highest point in midsummer 2013.
The actual day of the winter solstice – in this case 21 December 2013 – is commonly known as midwinter, the shortest day, and is the day when the Sun spends least time above the horizon. The further north of the equator you are, the more profound the effect. Indeed if you live within the arctic circle the Sun won’t actually rise today.