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The Great Northern Lights Display of 27 Feb 2014

February 28, 2014 1 comment

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.

Aurora over Aberdeenshire, by Mark Tait @marktait78

Aurora over Aberdeenshire, by Mark Tait @marktait78

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:

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Northumberland and Coll: The Newest International Dark Sky Places

December 9, 2013 2 comments

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) announced today it has designated two new International Dark Sky Places in the UK, including one representing the largest land area of protected night skies in all of Europe. This brings to six the total number of IDA International Dark Sky Places in the UK, second only to the United States.

IDA is proud to recognise Northumberland  Dark Sky Park and Coll Dark Sky Island for their exceptional efforts in helping preserve and promote dark night skies over Britain.  I have worked with both of these areas as a dark skies consultant, advising them on the process of achieving dark sky status. To date this puts the number of dark sky places that I have been heavily involved in to five; more than anyone else in the world, I think!

The reasons for these areas seeking dark sky status are many and varied. Off-season winter astronomy tourism is one main driver, while for councils the economic and environmental benefits of night-sky-friendly zero-waste lighting are paramount. Northumberland County Council have recently announced an investment of £24million to refit all public street lights in the county to energy efficient LED lights, fittings which pay back the initial investment within 6-8 years through reduced operating costs, and which have a significantly reduced carbon footprint, due to their efficiency and the fact that no light is wasted – it all shines down to the ground where it’s meant to be, rather than into the sky.

Stargazers at Cawfields, Northumberland Dark Sky Park

Stargazers at Cawfields, Northumberland Dark Sky Park

Northumberland International Dark Sky Park

A UK National Park and adjacent forestry plantation encompassing nearly 580 square miles (1500 km2) of public lands in northern England, Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park are the first IDA-recognized International Dark Sky Park consisting of two independent parkland units.

Once at the frontier of Roman Britain where Hadrian’s Wall repelled Pictish invaders, Northumberland International Dark Sky Park now serves as a bulwark against the incursion of harmful light pollution into one of the darkest locations in England.

With today’s IDA announcement, National Parks UK and Forestry Commission England adds dark skies to their portfolio of protected natural resources including the largest manmade woodland and reservoir in northern Europe. Kielder Forest provides Britain with 200 million board feet (475,000 m3) of timber annually.

The dark night sky attracts an increasing number of visitors to the region. Kielder Observatory, the UK’s largest and most active public observatory, widely promotes local astronomy events and activities. “Dark skies and astronomy have become a passion in the area,” according to Heidi Mottram, Chair of the Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust and Chief Executive of Northumbrian Water.

As both Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park began to vie independently for IDA recognition, it quickly became evident that two heads were better than one.  “It made perfect sense to work together to protect one of our greatest assets and make it available to more people,” Mottram said.

Park officials hope that protecting dark skies through the promotion of responsible outdoor lighting will increase the allure of Northumberland as a tourism destination.

“Becoming a Dark Sky Park will reinforce the status of Northumberland as an unspoiled destination offering a true sense of tranquility and wildness – a tonic in this day and age,” said Tony Gates, Chief Executive of Northumberland National Park.

Coll International Dark Sky Island

A sparse population and geographic isolation make the night skies over the Isle of Coll among the darkest in Europe. The island adopted a quality outdoor lighting management plan to ensure Coll remains dark for many future generations of residents and visitors.

Coll lies about six miles (10 km) west of coastal Argyll and hosts just over 200 residents. It attracts dozens of bird species according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which owns an extensive reserve at the west end of the island and hosts one of Coll’s recognized night sky viewing sites on its land. Nature tourism in part draws thousands of visitors to the island each year.

“Achieving dark skies status will be great for the island in many ways,” Julie Oliphant, hotelier at the Coll Hotel, explained. “Not only will it ensure that any future development on the island is done in a way that protects Coll’s natural and unspoiled beauty, but it will also help promote winter tourism.”

Fred Hall of the Argyll and Bute Council echoed the sentiment. “The Isle of Coll is a unique island in many ways, not least of which is its beautiful countryside and sea views but also the lack of light pollution,” he said. “I can think of no better island in the inner Hebrides to gain the Dark Skies accolade.”

Northumberland  is IDA’s thirteenth International Dark Sky Park, while the Isle of Coll becomes the world’s fifth International Dark Sky Community. They join four existing International Dark Sky Places in Britain: Galloway Forest Park in Scotland, Isle of Sark in the Channel Islands, Exmoor National Park in England, and Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales.

If you’re interested in gaining dark sky status for your area, then get in touch!

Comet ISON Finally A Naked-Eye Object

November 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Yesterday Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) brightened suddenly, meaning that it’s now visible to the naked eye – just.

Comet ISON,  imaged by Nick Howes, Ernesto Guido and Martino Nicolini

Comet ISON, imaged by Nick Howes, Ernesto Guido and Martino Nicolini

According to astronomer John Bortle Comet ISON brightened from magnitude +8.5 on Monday and +7.3 on Wednesday,  to +5.4 on Thursday, meaning that it is now visible to stargazers without the aid of binoculars or telescopes – although those devices will help!

You’ll have to be determined to see it, as it rises in the east just before dawn, so an early start is required. At the moment it’s not spectacular, although some astronomers are still holding out hope that it might become the Comet of the Century as was predicted earlier this year. We’ll need to wait and see whether it continues to dramatically brighten. If it does then it may be visible high in the night sky in December.

How Best to See Comet ISON

Here are three simple steps you can take to maximise you chances of seeing this comet.

1. Find somewhere dark with a clear eastern horizon

Although it is now a naked-eye object, any light pollution in the sky will make it next to impossible to see, so head to your local dark sky site. If you don’t know how to find one then have a look at this light pollution map of the UK to give you an idea. In general you want to make sure that any nearby town or city is behind you, so head to the east of any populated are. You’ll need a flat horizon too – east coast is ideal – as hills and trees will block your view. At the moment the comet is still low in the sky when twilight brightens the sky making it impossible to see.

2. Keep an eye on the weather forecast

There’s no point heading out if it’s cloudy towards the east, but just because it’s raining when you go to bed doesn’t mean that it will still be raining at 6am. Check local weather forecasts for predicted cloud cover before dawn.

3. Find Mercury and Spica

The planet Mercury rises around 6am, and at that point the star Spica, in the constellation of Virgo, will be only a few degrees above the horizon. Comet ISON lies above and to the right of, approx. 10° higher than Mercury in the sky. Here’s a simple finder chart for approx. 6am.

cometisonchart

Comet ISON marked with a red cross, approx. ESE in the pre-dawn sky mid November. Image via Stellarium

Stargazing Weekend Breaks 2013-14

October 19, 2013 Leave a comment

There’s a great piece in Guardian Travel today about stargazing breaks in and around Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park. The article was written by Kevin Rushby, who visited the park earlier this year, and who I took out stargazing on a beautiful night.

It really is an amazing place, and on a clear winter’s night you can see thousands of stars, the Milky Way, shooting stars, nebula, galaxies, satellites… and much more.

But for most people the night sky is a confusing place, and having a guide to lead you around is an ideal way to begin stargazing. (Ahem! A good guide book is handy too…) I run regular stargazing weekends and evenings at a number of hotels near Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park (and one down in Exmoor!) over the course of the winter. Here are the dates for the weekends I have planned for this coming winter:

1-3 November 2013 Selkirk Arms Hotel, Kirkcudbright
29 November – 1 December 2013 Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart (SOLD OUT)
6-8 December 2013 Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart
31 January 2013 – 2 February 2014 Yarn Market Hotel, Exmoor
28 February – 1 March 2014 Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart
28-30 March 2014 Selkirk Arms Hotel, Kirkcudbright

I also run bespoke stargazing nights at Glenapp Castle, Ballantrae.

iPhone Astrophotography: ‘magnifi’ iPhone case.

January 26, 2013 3 comments

This is a guest post by Andy Hewitt @andyuk71

I received a 6” reflecting telescope for Christmas – a Jessops’ TA900-114EQ. Blessed with clear skies and a glorious full moon, I focused the 20mm eyepiece and brought the moon in to sharp relief. Memories from my childhood came flooding back of a Prinz Astral ‘scope my father had bought my brothers and I, many Christmases ago, and I was thrilled to feel the same excitement I had had as a child. Naturally in today’s digital age, I wondered if it was possible to capture these wonderful pictures on my iPhone. I soon discovered that the iPhone is not naturally disposed to taking these kind of images, but a quick search on the net revealed that there’s quite a number of amateur astronomers out there obtaining passable results with them. The light-metering of the phone means that unless the phone is clamped in some way to the lens, unwanted light will leak in and decent results will be hard to get. Some kind of clamp arrangement would also possibly guarantee correct alignment between the phone’s lens and the eyepiece’s aperture. The image below was obtained by holding my phone to the telescope’s eyepiece.

Image

HR12.5mm lens.

A reasonable result after cropping and some tweaks in iPhoto, but the difficulty of aligning the lens with the eyepiece, coupled with the promise of even better results made my mind up to research if there was a better solution out there.

Image

Searching online, I found a couple of different options available in the form of cases, and decided to plump for the ‘magnifi’ (seen above), a Kickstarter project from the States that received enough backing to launch it into production. Not currently available direct from the UK, purchasing is easy enough via PayPal, though the mooted Custom’s charge was a suck it and see event… The device isn’t exactly cheap at £61.53, though I was prepared to take a risk, hoping the results would justify the expense. With international postage charges of £9.83, and an £8 Royal Mail handling charge, the grand total came to £79.36. It arrived in just under two weeks, as promised, and on opening, included everything listed on the website. The package comes with 4 rubber ring adapters to attach to your lenses to ensure a snug fit – in practice, this works without a hitch – and they fit very tightly to the lenses themselves; some people may find them a bit fiddly to put on, but no more than that. The case and lens attachment aren’t fitted together in transit, but again, this is really simple to do.

I took the first opportunity that came along to use the magnifi case, with the moon as my target object. It was at this point that certain realities became apparent. Firstly that the lenses supplied with my Jessops 6” reflector, are probably, erm, not the best thing about the telescope.

Image

As you can see in the picture, the barrels are short and the higher-powered the lens is, the less black plastic there is to clamp the magnifi to. Fortunately, the HR20mm is sufficient in this area and a good lens to view the moon with. The old moon in the new moon’s arms promised a lot with a terminator giving good contrast and cutting down the glare, but ultimately results were disappointing, and for a number of reasons.

Image

With the phone slotted into the magnifi case and the case clamped to the lens, a relatively large mass is added to your scope – at this point you get the measure of your mount. With the phone turned on to the camera app, it’s possible to view the moon via the phone’s screen and even bring in into focus. However, the fun starts when, after carefully aligning and framing your (moving) object, you press the button to take the picture and hey presto, you’ve introduced camera-shake. I tried numerous different strategies to overcome this issue with varying degrees of success. Undaunted, I moved my sights onto Jupiter and was rewarded through my telescope’s lens, by seeing the familiar bands of Jupiter with my own eyes – my first time – and rather unbelievably, the four visible-from-Earth moons (I think). I badly wanted to capture these images digitally, and did, but there was too big a gap in quality between what I was viewing through the eyepiece and what was being displayed on my phone, and ultimately being recorded.

Image

A frustrating interval of several cloudy night skies ensued then, but I was far more successful at my next attempt. Steve had pointed me in the direction of an iPhone app called SlowShutter and this proved to be a revelation. With a full moon to aim at on this occasion, I was determined to justify the expense I’d laid out. SlowShutter enables you to set the exposure time and also factor in a delay for shutter release. I set a 0.5 second exposure and a 5 second delay. After a bit of trial and error, dividends were soon in abundance and the gap between the eyepiece and iPhone was metaphorically narrowed.

Image

Full moon, HR20mm lens, some tweaks in iPhoto.

Some pros and cons. SlowShutter is a great app but, unlike the iPhone’s camera app, it doesn’t permit a digital zoom of the image in view – sometimes this is necessary to overcome the black circle effect that occurs with some lenses when using magnifi, dependent on their viewing aperture diameter. Depending on lens aperture size, the black circle can manifest in two ways, one you can zoom-in past, or one you can’t. I need to test this further though with some different/better eyepieces. Frustratingly, the barrels on my lenses are just physically too short to clamp magnifi to satisfactorily. I’m still very new to astronomy and astrophotography. I know barrels can be replaced or extended but I’m not entirely certain on how this affects the focal length of the lens.

Unless you have a rock-solid mount, pressing the button to take the picture will inevitably introduce blur to your image, which of course is the last thing you want, even the smallest movement is of course, magnified greatly: shutter delay overcomes this. Another problem is exposure. Images like the moon are very bright and play havoc with the light meter of the iPhone’s camera. However, I experimented with tapping on the screen in the light and dark areas, allowing the phone to re-meter and give a better exposure – SlowShutter has this facility too and even has an exposure lock feature, which aids between shots as normally the app would re-expose for the next shot.

Magnifi does allow you to take pretty decent images of what you’re seeing through your telescope, and as far as iPhone astrophotography contraptions go, it certainly offers a professional looking and well-made, thought-out practical option. It’s still early days for me and my use of magnifi. I live in a busy city with depressingly high levels of light pollution, so I’m limited to possible objects to capture. However, I envisage that with more experience, better lenses and of course, dark skies, the magnifi will prove to be an invaluable piece of equipment for me and other amateur astrophotgraphers.

Image below captured with HR12.5mm lens.Image

Leap Seconds

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Today the International Telecommunications Union are voting on whether to abolish the leap second. This miniscule measure of time is added in to our time-keeping systems every so often to make sure they align more accurately with the time as measured by the spin of the Earth.

The original definition of the second was 1/86400 of a mean solar day which is related to the speed of the Earth’s spin about its axis. We might call this the “Earth second”. However the Earth’s spin in not regular. To begin with the Earth is slowing down by a couple of milliseconds per century due to tidal breaking. This breaking action is as a result of the drag of the Earth spinning beneath the tides created by the Moon. In effect the Moon is “stealing” energy from the Earth, increasing in its orbit about us while our spin slows.

In addition to this discrepancy the Earth is occasionally wobbled off course by major geological events, such as earthquakes. The 2004 Pacific earthquake which resulted in the Boxing Day Tsunami actually caused the Earth to speed up by over 2 milliseconds.

To avoid the problem of an irregular length of day – and therefore an irregular length of second – scientists adopted the much more regular SI second, which is the length of time it takes for 9,192,631,770 cycles of vibration of atomic caesium. This “atomic clock second” is accurate to one part in ten billion, and since 1972 this has been the international standard in timekeeping.

But time kept using the the SI second doesn’t match exactly with time kept based on the spin of the Earth, which after all is the time we experience every day. In order to make these two time signals match leap seconds are added every so often. Since 1972 25 leap seconds have been added. The last leap second was added at 23:59:59 on 31 December 2008, and the next one is due to be added at 23:59:59 on 30 June 2012. But leap seconds themselves are irregular, and are decided on by the ITU whenever the two time signals drift by more than 0.9 seconds.

The argument for abolishing these additional leap seconds is that it creates problems for modern computing and navigation systems that use the atomic clock second. Every time one of these irregular leap seconds is added the world’s hi-tech time keeping devices need to check and adjust by one second. It would be far simpler for us to use only “atomic clock seconds”.

However if we were to ditch the leap second then our civil time keeping would begin to drift with respect to “real” Earth time, so that in thousands of years time our clocks might read 8am just as the Sun is setting. This might seem like a minor concern right now – after all a millennium is a long time – but it’s something that astronomers and scientists do need to consider to avoid future problems. One alternative would be to introduce a “leap hour” to be introduced every few hundred years to keep the clock aligned with the real world.

London Borough Of Ealing Declared International Dark-Sky Reserve: Spoof

January 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Hilariously, I have been “quoted” in a fictitious article on the website The Spoof. This article boasts the headline: “London Borough Of Ealing Declared International Dark-Sky Reserve”!

The police have been inundated by calls from anxious Ealing residents, worried about strange white dots in the night sky

The piece continues:

‘London is an international centre of excellence for numerous endeavours,’ explained Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. ‘It was total madness that Londoners had to travel to the mountains of Chile or to Exmoor, wherever they are, to get a decent view of the night sky.’

So the author(s) of the piece know their stuff: the Atacama Desert in Chile is widely recognised as one of the very best places for stargazing on the planet, while Exmoor became an International Dark Sky Reserve in November 2011, following on from Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park in 2009, and Sark Dark Sky Island in 2010.

The article introduces me as:

UK astronomer Steve Owens, chair of the IDA‘s Dark Sky Places Development Committee

again true, but not nearly so widely known. They must really have done their homework on this story. They then put words in my mouth that are entirely reasonable:

‘To be declared an International Dark-Sky Reserve,’ he explained, ‘an area must possess an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights. Light pollution from conurbations is the most significant barrier to this aspiration, and areas in London possess quite exceptional challenges in that respect.’

Ha! Very true. Then the article continues:

As part of the bid for Reserve status for Ealing, street lights were disabled within a ten mile radius… In addition, local byelaws were passed to enforce the use of blackout curtains after dark within the Reserve area. Car headlights and other sources of light, necessary to facilitate travel, were required to be red in order to not affect night vision.

From now on my analysis of this article might read as somewhat po-faced, as I point out their errors, but it does at least allow me to talk a little bit about what it means to be a Dark Sky Place.

The IDA doesn’t require the extinguishing of all street lights, nor black out curtains, nor red car headlights. All nice ideas though, from an astronomical point of view. Just not very practical.

The article then quotes several fictitious Londoners:

‘Since the changes, I have been almost constantly working outside at night,’ said emergency paramedic and ambulance crewperson, Ursula Major. ‘I often point out the constellations to distract RTA and other casualties from their injuries.’ [actually, studies have shown no connection between reduced light at night and RTAs.]

‘Sometimes,’ admitted Leo Regulus, an unemployed young person from Boston Manor, ‘I stop when lootin’ from Ealin’ Broadway ta wunda at the splenda of the Miwkey Way. Last week,’ he continued, ‘I even went back ta Argos ta nick a Newtonian reflecta telescope, init.’ [similarly, there is no good evidence that reduced light at night increases crime.]

Astronomers from across the UK have visited Ealing to avail themselves of its crystal clear view of the heavens. ‘Many initially complained about mugging and the loss of equipment,’ admitted sergeant Izar Bootes from the Metropolitan Police, ‘but the ability to repurchase their kit, or better gear, at Leeland Road market on Saturday mornings has more than compensated for such inconveniences.’ [see above]

Even everyone’s favourite astronomer Prof Brian Cox gets a mention:

The quality of the sky over Ealing means that key astronomical features are clearly visible for the first time in over two centuries. The police have been inundated by calls from anxious residents, worried about the appearance of strange white dots in the night sky.

‘It looks like that Brian Cox bloke was telling the truth, after all,’ said one amazed Northfields resident.

Make sure you read the whole article, but remember: the London borough of Ealing isn’t really an International Dark-Sky Reserve!

 

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