This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in July 2019.
The last fortnight’s glorious calm weather has given us some fantastic nights for stargazing. Many visitors to the observatory in the last couple of weeks have told stories of unbelievable skies (I believe them) later on in the evenings. Campers especially seem to be the lucky ones with late night toilet trips. One perk to sleeping under canvas if ever you needed one!
I have also been asked on one memorable occasion this week if I can make the sky darker during the observatory’s open hours, to which the answer, sadly, is no. This might be high season for Scilly but it’s low season for astronomers.
In any case, the nights are drawing in – slowly! – so by 11pm you’ve got near complete darkness. Better than nothing.
Now if there’s one planet that you must view through a telescope once in your life it has to be Saturn. Even the most die-hard, seen-it-all astronomer will still get a kick from viewing Saturn at this time of year. It really is a beauty. And it has an exquisite ring system, unmatched by any other planet.
Saturn has reached opposition this week – which in short means it’s as close as it gets to Earth all year. We’re talking a few thousand kilometres closer, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t far, so to be honest, all month is good for viewing! The best time to view is around midnight, when it’s highest in the sky. Technically it rises above our horizon around 9pm, but because of the lightness then, good luck spotting it any time before half ten!
Saturn can be spotted relatively low in the Southern Sky, at the moment, below and to the left of the very bright Jupiter as you’re looking. We’re lucky here on Scilly because it’s southern position means we’ll largely be viewing it above the sea, as low a horizon as you could wish for. Saturn’s not as bright as giant Jupiter – bear in mind that not only is it smaller, it is also twice as far away. But Saturn IS brighter than any nearby stars. You can tell this because you’ll see it with the naked eye well before any other stars come out. If you need any more clues to its identity, you’ll see it’s got a noticeably yellowish hue. I looked at it last night through my modest binoculars and could just make out an oval shape, which includes the rings. Add in a small telescope and you’ll see the rings clearly. A 14 inch Meade such as we have at the Observatory might blow your mind!
Before we get dark however there’s a super atmospheric phenomenon that we can witness just after sunset, in the name of Noctilucent Clouds – aka NLCs. These are the highest clouds on Earth and occur in a narrow layer some 80km up in the atmosphere. Because they’re so high up, they even reflect the Sun’s light during the hours of darkness. Noctilucent means ‘night shining’. The ideal time to look for them is 1 and a half to 2 hours after sunset, and to the northwest horizon. Alternatively, if you’re an early riser, look Northeast an hour or so before sunrise. Noctilucent clouds may look electric blue against an otherwise darkening sky. They’re very pretty and you’ll be able to spot them from now up until the start of August.
So there you have it - Saturn and Noctilucent Clouds – beauties to marvel at when it’s dark….and getting dark.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in June 2019.
Hello from the Observatory on St Martin’s. I’ve been wowed by the Moon rising a glorious shade of orange this week – it’s rising late at the moment, just before and now just after midnight. If you’ve been awake to catch it, you might well be awestruck – as I was – by its vivid orange colour. This isn’t what we call a blood moon, but a result of the Earth’s atmosphere. The colour occurs when the Moon is low in the horizon, because you’re looking at it through more of the Earth’s atmosphere.
That atmosphere is filled with particles that absorb and scatter light. In short, the longer the lightwaves, the redder they appear. So when the light from the Moon travels through more atmosphere, the Moon appears redder in the sky. It’s the same reason – in principle – why sunsets appear red and orange.
To other glowing wonders in the sky. You can’t miss glorious Jupiter at the moment, fairly low in the Southern sky. It might be hard to spot in a built up city but not here on Scilly with our long, low horizons. You’ll be able to see it with the naked eye anytime from 10 o’clock – even when the sky isn’t fully dark. At magnitude -2.5 or thereabouts it’s the brightest thing in the sky after the sun sets. And well after that.
When you look at it with the naked eye, or at least when I do, it seems a little orangey and very bright! Remember it’s much, much closer to us than any of the stars we can see, so its light isn’t having to travel so far. And that’s even light reflected by the Sun – Jupiter doesn’t emit any of its own.
A telescope even of modest proportions will show the planet as a flattened disc, and you’ll be able to see two of its darker bands of clouds. The Southern band of cloud is home to the famous Great Red Spot. Bear in mind that you might not see it as Jupiter’s always on the move – spinning once on its axis every 9.8 hours.
Jupiter’s the undisputed king of the planets. It’s a whopper, weighing in at 318 times the mass of the Earth. It also has some 60 moons, compared to our 1. Its sheer mass and gravitational pull are also thought to have helped bring the planets into the positions we see today. Mentally it can be quite hard to visualise the sheer scale of our solar system. So I’ll very scientifically use St Martin’s single road to help us out.
Imagine this: If the Sun was the size of a beach ball, balanced on the end of Higher Town Quay, the Earth would be the size of a pea, roughly at the top of the quay. Walking on, we’ll pass Mars (outside Higher Town waiting room, and the size of a peppercorn). We’ll then keep walking up until we reach the top of Par Hill as the road turns a corner – and there we’ll find Jupiter, the size of an orange. (If you’re interested in going further, Saturn’s outside St Martin’s stores, the size of a lime…. But I’ll stop there)
However you do it, or choose to understand it, enjoy gazing at Jupiter – it’s currently at its best viewing all year. Now… to fix those clouds…
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in June 2019.
Hello again from the Observatory on St Martin’s. June’s not the best month for stargazing as you have to stay up so late! But that’s not to say it’s not rewarding when you do. We’ve had a mixed bag of night skies in the last couple of weeks, and a good few of those have been relatively clear.
As we inch towards the summer solstice (the longest day and shortest night), on 21 June, it doesn’t currently get truly dark until about 11pm. Even at half past 10, on a clearer night you won’t need a torch if you venture out. Here in Scilly, that’s due to our flat horizons with so much sea around, so the last light of the sun lingers on...and on.
Come darkness and some summertime beauties are yours to behold. Look to the East and you’ll spot a distinctive triangle of three stars of near equal brightness. This is known as the summer triangle. Its stars are Vega, Deneb and Altair.
I’ve mentioned Vega before, as it’s one of the brightest stars we can currently see and one of the first to pop out as the sky darkens. Vega forms the vertex (the top point) of the summer triangle. It’s part of the constellation Lyra, the harp, or more technically, the lyre. But Vega’s so much, much brighter than Lyra’s other stars, so you’ll need a good clear night to pick them out. Lyra’s shaped – helpfully – a bit like a lyre, with 4 fainter stars forming the body of the instrument and Vega at its neck.
Altair is the star of the summer triangle closest to the horizon and its part of constellation Aquila, the eagle. At a mere 16.7 light years away from us, Altair’s one of the closest stars to us visible with the naked eye. But it’s only the 12th brightest in the night sky, so it’s not as dazzling as Vega.
Deneb – our last point on the summer triangle - is fantastic star to spot as it’s a great waymarker to finding Milky Way. Deneb is part of constellation Cygnus, the swan. It’s a lovely one, this. Looking like a flying swan with its wings spread. The brightest stars in Cygnus form what looks like a Christian cross, hence it also being known as the Northern Cross. The Northern Cross lies smack bang along the visible streak the Milky Way. If you’re lucky to have a clear and dark night, you can’t miss the Milky Way – it’s not ‘light cloud’ you’re seeing in that haze – it’s millions and billions of stars!
Hopefully that’s given you a few things to find for the next couple of weeks. As I say, these are visible from 11pm onwards, so you needn’t burn the midnight oil dry.
We’ve been enjoying the The Planets, on telly on BBC2 every Tuesday evening, presented by Brian Cox. The last instalment took a fascinating look at Mars – our nearest planet. Once a watery world, now a barren, rocky land devoid of life.
If you’re interested, you can currently catch a glimpse of Mars, here on Scilly, from about 10 o’clock onwards. Look West towards the last light of the Sun, below and to the right of the rising Moon, close to the Western horizon. You’ll see a light red dot. Mars is nowhere near its brightest, and the light background of the sky doesn’t help. But if you want to glimpse captivating red planet for yourself, there it will be.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in May 2019.
Hello again from the Observatory on St Martin’s! I’m sat here in our warm room, which is the astronomer’s way of saying 'posh shed'. In short, it’s the space here at the observatory where we keep all the computer equipment and our telescopes when we’re not using them in the domes. It’s also where we come together to plan what we’re going to look at in the night sky at our stargazing sessions. We’ve got wall charts with the moon phases, maps of the sky and a big calendar for major events coming up. If you’ve visited us already, you’ve certainly been in here; if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? We’re open Tuesday evenings and Friday afternoons.
Many people have asked why we’re open during the day. Well, it’s a myth that astronomy only happens at night. Fridays are dedicated to solar-gazing. The Sun – our nearest and most important star – is all too easily forgotten as an object of astronomical interest! It can offer some of the most visually rewarding observations in astronomy. It’s also never been more popular.
On St Martin’s, we have a powerful solar telescope, with which we can observe the sun in detail with our very own eyes.
Now, before you fear for your eyesight I should say that solar telescopes like ours are sophisticated bits of kit, with the crucial bit being a very strong hydrogen-alpha filter which blocks out harmful wavelengths of light. This means you can look at the Sun directly. (Something you should absolutely never, ever do with the naked eye!)
So what can you see? Looking through the solar scope on a clear sunny day, the Sun appears as a red disc in the eyepiece. You can make out a dynamic, shifting surface, almost whirling before your eyes. If you’re lucky and there’s a period of high solar activity, you could easily find a sun spot or a solar prominence – shards of gas, shooting from the edge of the sun’s disc. All this activity has the potential to impact life on earth, which is why it’s a growing area of interest. Whether you spot any or not, it’s pretty exciting to look at our Sun, up close and personal. Where would we be without it?
To the night sky. We’re approaching the longest day of the year, and it doesn’t get truly dark here on Scilly until gone 11pm. A little too late for many of us – myself included – on a school night. That said, anytime after 10pm, on a clear night, I do enjoy looking up at the twilight sky as the first stars pop out, like distant lights, twinkling on.
The first you’ll probably see will be Arcturus, biggest star in constellation Bootes ('Booties' is the wrong pronunciation by the way – it should be Boe-OH-teez, from the ancient Greek for ox herder, but I always feel a little silly saying it that way, so I’m happy to be wrong). Arcturus is an orange giant, appearing dazzlingly pinky-orange in the southern sky. It’s about 170 times brighter than our little Sun and more than 36 light years away.
Look further East and you’ll spot Vega, in constellation Lyra, the harp. This one’s a mere 25 light years away. In 10,000 years, Vega will replace Polaris as the pole star! In the meantime, enjoy it where it is as part of our lovely – if not completely dark – Summer sky.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in May 2019.
A post on our COSMOS Facebook group from a London-based friend of mine prompted me this week to turn my attention, once again, to the Moon. Our last astronomy talk on St Martin’s looked at the Earth’s cultural relationship with the Moon, from dragons to werewolves, many of which mythical. And yet there are many cultures around the world for which the Moon has a very real influence.
My friend was requesting help to spot the new crescent Moon, on the evening of 5 May. As a Muslim and a keen amateur astronomer, he – and his group of friends based at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich – always look for the new crescent, to begin Islamic months.
The Moon plays a significant role in Islam, because Muslims follow a lunar calendar. Specifically they use the first appearance of the new crescent moon (after the non-visible New Moon) to determine the start of each month. The moon is thought to be a sign of God, and indeed is mentioned directly no less than 28 times in the Koran. In fact, the importance of getting the start of months correct and spotting that new Crescent, was one of the drivers for the study of astronomy across the Islamic world. And we have a LOT to thank for it! Numerous stars carry names given to them during the golden age of Islamic astronomy. Most of those in the plough, for a start (Alkaid, Megrez, Merak, Dubhe), plus Aldebaran, Deneb, Rigel, Saiph…. I could go on.
This month’s moon gazing was particularly significant, because the sighting of the new crescent determines the start of Ramadan, the most holy of Muslim months, during which followers fast from dawn to dusk.
While we don’t have a sizeable Muslim population on the islands, we are well placed to contribute scientifically to this important cultural area of astronomy; with both our dark skies and low, even horizons, chances are we’d be some of the first to spot a new crescent (far better than my friend in London, as I know from experience!). Sadly, however, the clouds didn’t play ball for us, so we had to leave crescent spotting to moon lovers in other climes. Indeed, the new crescent was not spotted anywhere in the UK, or Western Europe.
Believe it or not, particularly where Ramadan is concerned, the spotting of the new crescent can be a rather political issue in the Muslim world. Not all Islamic countries use the first sighting of the crescent Moon to signal the start of the month. Saudi Arabia (which has few official astronomers) has been accused of fixing the start of each month and has been criticised for its perceived ‘control’ of the Muslim calendar.
Many Muslim countries now follow the lead of the Saudis to set their dates, having veered away from raw astronomy into political allegiance. Those following the local moon in the UK started Ramadan on Tuesday 7 May, whereas those Muslims who follow the Saudi-led calendar started a day earlier, as the Saudi determined Ramadan to begin on 6 May. Bring back the astronomers, some say.
The Moon will be growing in size as the crescent waxes towards Full Moon on 18 May. Now is a good chance to grab those binoculars and cast your eyes up onto that celestial body that continues to have a hold over us earthlings.
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in April 2019.
During April, Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is increasing in brightness and visibility. It’s been absent from our skies for months, along with lovely ringed planet Saturn. At the moment, Jupiter’s a dominant object in the wee hours of the morning, albeit one that doesn’t get very high in the sky. However on Scilly, our long and low horizons give us a good chance of seeing.
By the end of the month Jupiter will be rising in the sky from midnight. However for now, you’ll have to be up just before dawn to catch a good glimpse of this bright gas giant. Currently, the planet reaches its peak height (also known as its culmination) somewhere around 4am.
Is it worth getting out of bed for? If – like me – you’ve missed this gem of a planet then of course the answer is yes. And the bonus is that at the moment it’s best viewed with binoculars or a small telescope.
However the truth is that Jupiter will be visible far better as summer gets into swing and it rises in the sky. Rather earlier at that. By July, it’ll be visible at dusk!
Jupiter is the 4th brightest object in the night sky, after the Moon, Venus and then Mars. Jupiter is known as the largest planet in the solar system, and by quite some stretch. Jupiter’s mass is 318 times that of the Earth, and in fact Jupiter is 2.5 times more massive than all of the other planets in the solar system combined! It’s a gas giant, mostly composed of Hydrogen with some Helium, though it likely has a rocky core. To look at, it’s stripey – as it has a distinctive system of bands of clouds, made from ammonia crystals, looping round its middle.
With binoculars, you’ll be able to see Jupiter as a flat disc, this shape caused by its incredibly fast spin rate for such a whopping object – a day on Jupiter is just 10 hours short. With a small telescope, you’ll be able to pick our Jupiter’s distinctive clouds and possibly – depending on timing and visibility which always requires a bit of luck – the great red spot. This is a giant tornado-like storm that’s been raging on Jupiter for at least 350 years. With winds at an estimated 270mph, it really is blowing a hoolie.
Jupiter can be found, low in the sky, early in the morning, by looking to the South!
This article originally appeared in Scilly Now & Then magazine's April/May edition.
Now the clocks have gone back as we are in the midst of a lovely Scilly spring, the downside does mean later nights for us stargazers, and, potentially, the start of bleary-eyed mornings.
That aside, there’s still much to enjoy up there. The Spring constellations are slowly working their way into peak position in the night sky. We’re fast losing Orion; Taurus is hot on its heels, if at all visible, and the twin stick-figures of Gemini are low in the sky. Between the much fainter constellations of Cancer and Virgo you will now spot Leo, the lion.
If these names sound familiar it’s probably because you’ve read about them in the back of a magazine in your horoscope, and yes, they are constellations of the Zodiac. But I’m not talking about your ‘star signs’. Astrology – unlike astronomy – is not a science, although to be fair, they both involve the stars. That’s where it ends. Astronomy can explain the position of the stars in the sky, but frankly, it’s up to you to interpret their meaning.
In astronomy, the Zodiac refers to the twelve constellations that our Sun passes through, identified back in the day by the ancient Babylonians. This area of sky also includes the apparent paths of the moon and the planets. We also call this imaginary line frequented by Moon, Sun and planets ‘the ecliptic’. Arcing at 25.5 degrees, East to West, locate this area of the sky and you will also find some of the most wonderful night sights.
Leo is one of the oldest recognised constellations in the night sky, documented even by the Mesopotamians, and known as the lion in many ancient cultures. Handily, it’s one of the few constellations that looks like its namesake. You can find the Lion’s head south of the ‘dipper’ in the Plough, where it appears as a backwards question mark. The bottom of this sickle is Regulus, Leo’s brightest star, noted for its fast bullet-like shape and peculiar motion.
Back on Earth, our observatory is now open for the season on St Martins. For 2019 our regular openings – come rain or shine – will be Tuesday evenings and Friday afternoons, for a look around and fingers crossed some star (or sun) gazing. We’ll open other nights, which will vary week to week depending on cloud and astronomical events.
We look forward to welcoming you – finally – to Scilly’s own observatory!
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in March 2019.
It’s been a glorious week for Scilly stargazers, with still, clear days turning into still, clear nights! What luxury, and after the disappointing Winter season, it’s been great to have several reliable nights in a row to gaze up and reacquaint ourselves with the starry blanket above!
When I do have a clear night, I like to test out my knowledge of where the constellations are, piecing together the sky in a map. After lots of clouds, where you might be snatching moments to find a particular object, an open sky offers the chance to get back to basics.
Here’s a constellation that will open up many others for you: Ursa Major, better known by its asterism name, the Plough.
It’s got to be the most well known groups of stars in the sky. Most people can point it out. Lesser know, is its job as a navigation tool!
The plough appears as 7 bright stars. You’ve got 3 forming the curved handle and then 4 forming a sort of bowl or shallow bucket shape. In France the plough’s known as the saucepan, for obvious reasons.
There are actually 8 stars in the plough as the handle includes double stars Mizar & Alcor. If you look for the second star in from the end of the handle you’ll easily make it out as a pair with binoculars or small telescope.
The brightest stars of the ‘pan’ part are those on the far right, Dubhe, top of pan & Merak bottom right of pan.
To find Polaris, trace a line from Merak up through Dubhe, then extend that line 5 times, until you reach the Pole star, less than 1 degree from true North.
Arc to Arcturus, by following the curve of the plough’s handle down, to reach distinctive bright, red star Arcturus in Bootes.
Cross the top of the bowl, continuing past Dubhe, leads in the direction of Capella – cap to capella!
And one more. Follow down the 2 stars of the pan nearest the handle (Megrez & Phecda), and you’ll reach Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. A hole in the bowl will leak on Leo, as the saying goes.
There are even more, but give those a go for now. And here’s to many more clear nights!
This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in March 2019.
I do love this time of year when the nights start drawing back and you’re no longer walking to and from work in the dark. However the downside does mean later nights for us stargazers, and, potentially, the start of bleary-eyed mornings.
That aside, the Spring constellations are slowly working their way into peak position in the night sky. Gemini and Leo are taking prominence high in the sky at the moment, with the very faint Cancer in between – if these names sound familiar it’s probably because you’ve read about them in the back of a magazine in your horoscope…and yes, they are constellations of the Zodiac. But I’m not talking about astrology or your ‘star signs’ here. Astrology – unlike astronomy – is not a science, although to be fair, they both involve the stars. That’s where it ends. Astronomy can explain the position of the stars in the sky, but frankly, it’s up to you and Mystic Meg to interpret their meaning.
In astronomy, the Zodiac refers to the twelve constellations that our Sun passes through, identified back in the day by the ancient Babylonians. This area of sky also includes the apparent paths of the moon and the planets. We also call this imaginary line frequented by Moon, Sun and planets ‘the ecliptic’.
Back to what you can actually see. Gemini is easy to spot, even for the most amateur of stargazers. It’s at its best right about now. You’ll spot Gemini northeast of Orion and it looks (if you join the imaginary dots) like two stick men holding hands. Apt, because Gemini represents the twins. Making it one of the few constellations that actually looks vaguely like what it’s called! The twins in question are Castor and Pollux from Greek mythology, inseparable brothers who became known as the Sons of Zeus. They were placed in the sky by dear old Zeus to honour their brotherly love. And there you are: Castor and Pollux are the names of the two brightest stars, which form the heads of our starry stick-twins.
Back on Earth, we’re gearing up for the start of the season on St Martins, and our observatory will be open to the public from the beginning of April. For 2019 our regular openings –come rain or shine- will be Tuesday evenings and Friday afternoons, for a look around and fingers crossed some star (or sun) gazing. We will be open other nights, but those will vary week to week depending on the weather and interesting night sky events. If you’d like to visit or find out more, drop me an email, have a look at our website, or find our group on Facebook.
Facebook: COSMOS Community Observatory St Martins on Scilly
Here's a copy of the constellation anagram round, from one of the St Martin's quiz evenings. See how many you can get!