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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.

Winter Solstice 2011

December 21, 2011 3 comments

The northern hemisphere winter solstice occurs on 22 December 2011, at 0530 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 2012.

The actual day of the winter solstice – in this case 22 December 2011 – 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.

I’m not that far north, but by most standards I’m pretty far north, in Orkney delivering a midwinter astronomy festival. Orkney sits between 58°41′and 59°24′ North, and on midwinters day the Sun rises around 0905 and sets around 1515, and only spends 6h10m above the horizon. The winter nights in Orkney are long and dark.

But the morning after midwinter, the days will be lengthening. For many cultures then, midwinter symbolised the rebirth of the year, and ancient peoples often built monuments to celebrate the returning of the light.

And people in neolithic Orkney built some of the most incredible midwinter monuments that still exist. I’ll be spending this afternoon inside the 4700 year old chambered cairn at Maeshowe, built so that the passageway – which one has to crawl through to get into the inner chamber – points directly towards sunset on the shortest day.

Maes Howe sections

Given clear skies, the last rays of midwinter sunlight stream into the burial chamber for a few moments before the sun sets.

Maeshowe midwinter sun, Charles Tait

The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown said of midwinter at Maeshowe:

The most exciting thing in Orkney, perhaps in Scotland, is going to happen this afternoon at sunset, in few other places even in Orkney can you see the wide hemisphere of sky in all its plenitude.

The winter sun just hangs over the ridge of the Coolags. Its setting will seal the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. At this season the sun is a pale wick between two gulfs of darkness. Surely there could be no darker place in the be-wintered world than the interior of Maeshowe.

One of the light rays is caught in this stone web of death. Through the long corridor it has found its way; it splashes the far wall of the chamber. The illumination lasts a few minutes, then is quenched

Winter after winter I never cease to wonder at the way primitive man arranged, in hewn stone, such powerful symbolism.

Dark Skies Orkney – A Midwinter Astronomy Festival

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m heading up to Orkney for two weeks to run a midwinter astronomy festival. I love Orkney, and the chance to visit there in the darkest of the year is a real treat. For astronomers the long winter nights in Orkney have a lot to offer. It’s not just the relative absence of light pollution above Orkney, but also the fact that in the weeks around midwinter there are over twelve hours of pitch blackness between astronomical twilights.

Aurora over the stones of Stenness

The full programme of events is here, and I hope to blog about a few of my activities too.

The programme is funded by an STFC Science in Society Grant

The Merry Dancers

April 24, 2011 5 comments

While visiting Orkney (a group of islands to the north of Scotland) earlier this month I heard people talking time and again about The Merry Dancers. Amazingly this is the name that locals give for an astronomical phenomenon all too rarely seen in the south of the UK, but on display regularly above Orkney – the Northern Lights.

The Northern Lights

I was struck by how dark the skies are in Orkney. Indeed that was the purpose of my trip – to begin working with island communities there so that they can become Dark Sky Places under the International Dark-skies Association programme.

But what also struck me was how connected people there are with the night sky, a connection that is all but lost in most of the rest of light-polluted UK.

I did several talks to public audiences while in Orkney – in Kirkwall, in North Ronaldsay, and in Stronsay – and at each of these talks the locals were full of questions, and I got a chance to speak to many of them afterwards, and it was during these conversations that I got the sense that here were communities still living under a dark night sky, who knew its changing face under the waxing and waning moon, and knew too the marvels that were visible overhead each night.

But time and again I was told about how amazing the “merry dancers” were in Orkney. I had never heard of them before and initially I was confused, as they were being brought up in the context of astronomy and the night sky, but very quickly I came to realise that the Merry Dancers is the name given to the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, by Orcadians.

These are people so in touch with their night sky that they had a pet name for an astronomical phenomenon, and everyone knew them by that name!

The origin of the name is a bit obscure, but in gaelic the Northern Lights are known as Na Fir-Chlis. In Gaelic “Na” is the definite article, while “fir” is the plural of “fair”, meaning man, or one. “Chlis” means quick, lively, or nimble.

So Na Fir-Chlis  can be translated as “the nimble ones” or “the lively ones”, which is a suitable name for the Northern Lights. Legend has is that these “nimble ones” were inclined to violence, as in the proverb

When the mirrie dancers play, they are like to slay.

And this gives a clue as to the origin of the phrase “merry dancers”, as they are referred to by many people in Orkney today. It is, in fact, probably a mis-pronouncing of the word “mirrie” which means shimmering, a very suitable description of the Northern Lights.

Thus from Na Fir-Chlis, the nimble / lively ones, we have the sense of motion, of “dancers”, while the description as shimmering, or “merrie”, completes the name, properly The Mirrie Dancers.

That “mirrie” sounds very similar, especially in the Orcadian tongue, to the English “merry” leads to them being called The Merry Dancers, with connotations of happiness, but the name more properly describes their shimmering nature, and as legend has it, they are often far from happy, fighting in the sky and staining the morning moss blood-red!

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