June 2014 Highlights

There are some interesting things going on in the skies this month (aren’t there always?) and here’s a quick run down of what’s happening for your delectation!..

If you have yet to spot Saturn through a telescope, it’s still well placed in the sky especially around midnight. If you can draw your attention away from the beautiful rings, see if you can spot Saturn’s largest and brightest moon, Titan at its greatest elongation, that is its greatest distance from the planet, on the 7th of the month.

Mercury Occultation June 2014A rare occultation of the planet Mercury by the Moon occurs on the 26th. This happens in full daylight and so is going to be difficult to see, but not impossible. It happens around 1pm BST and with the Sun only 10 degrees to the east, you’ll need to take special care when it comes to pointing any optical aid in that direction!

Don’t forget that the summer means sunshine (even in the UK sometimes!) and this means the opportunity to do some solar observing. Obviously you will need either special filters for you telescope/binoculars, or know how to project the Sun safely through a telescope. If you are in any doubt how to do this, then please ask someone who you trust to explain. You can of course, ask me! There will be some more information in this Newsletter about Solar observing; how to do it and why it’s fun!

Did you know that there are in fact 13 constellations of the Zodiac? The Sun spends a couple of weeks of the year in the constellation of Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer during November. The reason why I’m telling you this is because the constellation is well on show this month. More about this in the ‘Deep Sky Highlights’ section…

There are many other delights in the deep sky to be enjoyed this month too, if you own or have access to a telescope. Again, more on this later.

Ceres and Vesta June 2014If you are interested in asteroids, then the two largest, Ceres and Vesta, are moving closer together in the night sky from our point of view, called a conjunction, this month. You can find them in the constellation of Virgo in the south-west after dark. The orangey-pink and bright planet Mars should help draw your attention to the right part of the sky. Use a star chart to be sure you are in fact looking at the asteroids. You can check by marking their position on your chart on a nightly basis. The asteroids will appear to move, whereas the background stars will not. They will be moving even closer next month, but more about that in next month’s Newsletter. If you don’t have a star chart, then you can get one here on my Amazon page.

Noctilucent Clouds 01June also sees the start of the Noctilucent Cloud season. These gorgeous iridescent electric blue coloured clouds are seen an hour or two after sunset and an hour or so before dawn, low down in the northern sky and are sunlight being reflected off extremely high clouds right up in the stratosphere, much higher than the normal clouds with which we are all too familiar. It is thought that these cloud are formed around meteoritic dust lingering in the highest regions of our atmosphere. The picture shown here, by Pete Lawrence, shows you exactly what to look for.

As you can see, there’s lots of reasons to get out under the skies this month, so lets all hope for clear ones.

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Astronomical Equipment

The question I get asked most is ‘what telescope should I buy?’

It’s a very reasonable question as there is so much choice in equipment these days. I sometimes answer rather glibly, ‘the one you are going to use the most!’ In fact this isn’t a glib as it might at first sound. Many people buy a scope having fallen prey to the glossy advertising and then don’t have a clue how to use it, so here’s my take on it…

Evostar 90 EQ-3Firstly, buy something you can handle as far as size and weight goes. If it’s too big, heavy or awkward you won’t feel like using it especially if you’ve had a hard day at work! Secondly, consider what you are hoping to see with it. If it’s just the Moon and planets and a few of the brighter ‘deep sky’ objects then a small refractor telescope (the ones with lenses; what most people think of as a telescope) should be fine. These are usually quick to set up and need little maintenance. Some telescopes come with computer drive systems to help locate and track objects for you. Remember that this wizardry takes up a significant chunk of the cost of the scope, so ask yourself, do you need it, do you want it and will you be able to use it? If you want to see more deep sky objects then you’ll need a larger aperture (potentially heavy) and a reflecting telescope. Do bear in mind that the objects which you might see won’t look like the pictures you find in magazines or on the Internet, but you will be, or should be, impressed that you can see things which are so far away at all, and you may well be able to take pictures of them yourself.  I can teach you how to do this too, usually via one of my online courses or even on a one to one basis.

I have spent many years, buying, selling and using telescopes and these points are an extreme distillation of what I’ve learned after all this time.

There’s lots more I could say on the subject, but that will do for now. There is considerably more information about small telescopes and how to use them in my course ‘Basic Astronomy with a Telescope’ available here.

Sir Patrick Moore – A Very Personal Tribute

This is a piece that I always hoped I would never have to write, but always knew that one day I would. No doubt you will read and hear reports from other people, who knew Patrick Moore better than I, and with possibly more compelling stories, but I feel moved to write this nonetheless and so with sadness, I present it now.

I remember as a small boy occasionally seeing a man on the television, a black and white set in those days, talking about the stars and planets. He spoke very quickly but even to my young and inexperienced eyes and ears, he was obviously very passionate about his subject. His enthusiasm was infectious and got me interested enough to ask for a book about the stars from my parents. Thus began a lifelong interest which took many twists and turns through my life. My overriding memory though, is of watching him guide me, and no doubt countless other glued to television sets up and down the country, through the Apollo Moon Landings. As a 10 year old boy I lapped this all up. Patrick Moore was a hero. More importantly, he was my hero. Little did I or could I know back then, that I would get to know this great man personally and consider him a friend. Not just a friend, but a mentor, someone who taught me, encouraged me and helped me on my journey in astronomy and with my then business, selling telescopes.

Sir Patrick was a legend in his own life time. There are very few people of whom this can be said. The wonderful thing about this man though, was that he never allowed this, quite literally, global appreciation to go to his head. Yes, he had his faults as does everyone, but the good things about him far, far outweighed any shortcomings. Some celebrities use their status for their own selfish ends, or to boost their own egos; not Patrick. He used his fame for good, to spread his enthusiasm for his pet subject and to encourage others at whatever level they felt comfortable. His generosity, both physical and spiritual, was humbling, although he never made a show of either.

I would drop into ‘Farthings’, Patrick’s Selsey home for a chat or to occasionally help Patrick out with a request he would have for a telescope which he wanted to make as a gift to a promising youngster. It could be said he was generous to a fault; in fact I got the impression that, when he made such an endowment, my discretion was also called for, if not expected.

On my ‘ad hoc’ visits, he never made me feel I was ever unwelcome or intruding on his day and his incredibly busy work schedule. Frequently his first words to me on arrival at his house were ‘have a drink?, a phrase I understood he used to nearly all his guests, or at least the ones who he got to know, and he didn’t just mean tea of coffee. If I indicated that I would be delighted to share a ‘snifter’ with him, I would be instructed to go into the dining room and help myself and pour him one too!
‘Farthings’ was a different world, a world of magical proportions. I would find myself chatting to famous astronomers, or sharing a cup of tea with a camera crew or television producer. Best of all were the famed ‘parties’. Patrick loved to throw parties and it was done regularly and with almost any excuse, but the excuses were sound enough, such as the 50th anniversary of the Sky at Night programme or the 666 edition of that same show, or sometimes just a simple birthday or book-launch party. I was always thrilled to receive an invitation, often delivered by Patrick himself in the form of a telephone call, which normally started with ‘Hello Ninian, Patrick here, Patrick Moore’, as if I needed the further explanation of who was calling; his voice was of course very distinctive.

The house and gardens would be thrumming with the great and good of the world of astronomy, but always like the focus of a fine lens, sitting serenely in his chair in his study would be Sir Patrick. A wonderful thing to watch was the way all of the famous and highly respected astronomers, astro-physicists and cosmologists would pay their heartfelt respects to Patrick. Some would share a joke with him or an amusing anecdote, or introduce someone who had not met him before, but always there was an air of respect if not reverence of this, in many ways unassuming man, who had personally affected the lives of everyone present. Frequently a topic of conversation, out of Patrick’s earshot, would be how that person had come into the subject because of the great man.

Sir Patrick was not a man to suffer fools gladly and he had a healthy loathing for pomposity or bureaucracy and could be quite outspoken at times. Occasionally he would upset people, but whatever he said, it was nearly always done with a modicum of humour and never malice.

On a one to one basis, Patrick could be very entertaining, with extremely funny stories and anecdotes of his own all delivered in that succinct, matter of fact way that only Patrick could produce and all with a decided twinkle in his eye. I remember a trip I took with him to Tromso in Norway back in 2000. We were sitting in a restaurant having a pleasant meal discussing the likelihood of catching sight of the Aurora Borealis, which was the reason for the trip, when I happened to ask him if he had ever been to the town before. Without hesitation he said ‘Yes, a long time ago. We were bombing the Tirpitz; it was moored just out there in the fjord.’ A wink of amusement shot across his face as my jaw fell open…
Above all though, I will remember a kind, thoughtful man with a rapier like intellect and wit, who would offer words of encouragement to a young(ish) hopeful man who was always in awe of him and could never really believe that his boyhood hero was sitting in front of him, chatting to him like an equal. It was ‘a dream come true’, although there is a part of me that still thinks it may have been just all a dream. I do have several books he gave to me to prove otherwise though, all personally signed by him, even when it was obviously painful for him to do this as he had severe arthritis in his right hand in the last few years of his life. It was truly a delight for me to be able to return that compliment when I had completed my novel and gave him a signed copy which he accepted with great humility.

Like so many others Patrick, I will never forget you and I feel unbelievably privileged to have known you personally and to have counted you as a friend and even more privileged to think that you counted me likewise. Rest well old friend, you have earned your place among the stars.

RIP Sir Patrick Moore KB 1923 -2012

At the BBC Sky at Night 50th Anniversary Celebrations

The Perseid Meteor Shower 2012

The Perseid Meteor Shower is probably the most well known of all the regular meteor showers. It is also popular because it takes place in August when the weather is likely to be mild and the skies clear.

This year the prospects for a good display are favourable as the weather is looking promising for the UK (but you never know?) and the Moon will be a slender crescent just before dawn, so less problem from a bright glaring Moon washing out the fainter meteor events.

I have noticed a few suggestions doing the ’rounds’ on the Internet and particularly Facebook that we will possibly see 100 meteors per hour. This has almost certainly come about from a mis-understanding of the way astronomers assess the ‘strength’ of meteor showers. There is a term known as ZHR or Zenithal Hourly Rate which gives astronomers an indication of how active any given shower is likely to be. It is one of those terms which refers to ‘ideal’ conditions, which of course we never have. So the ZHR means that this is the number of meteors we might see if the radiant (I’ll explain this in a moment) of the shower were directly overhead, which of course it seldom ever is, and the skies were perfectly dark and clear, which of course they never are. So you may think this term is misleading, but it is a useful way to suggest the number of events which might occur if everything was favourable and is used to quantify every meteor shower we see. In reality, we seldom see anything like the number of meteors which the ZHR suggests, but it is still a useful indication as to how active the shower is going to be. ZHR 100 is pretty active!

If you are new to meteor observing, here are a few tips to help you get a good chance of seeing some…
Firstly, I should point out that the sky is not going to be full of shooting stars, not at first glance anyway, so wrap up warm (yes, even in August) and use a deck chair or sunlounger and get comfortable. Find a dark spot. It will take a good 15 minutes for your eyes to get accustomed to the dark. When they do, you will see more stars and meteors. The Perseid meteors will seem to be emanating from the north-east but will streak across the sky and can appear almost anywhere. If you see one that seems to come from a completely different direction, it is not a Perseid, but possibly from another less active shower or just a ‘sporadic’ meteor. Your best chance is to direct your gaze at least 60-degrees above the horizon, so over half way between the horizon and the zenith (the point directly overhead). Give yourself at least half an hour to just relax and count as many meteors as you can. A note book can be helpful if you would like to record the number you see.

The Perseids are fast moving and if you trace the streaks of light back across the sky, they should all seem to come from a region of sky in the constellation of Perseus (see picture). This is known as the radiant point and is why the Perseids get their name. You will also increase your chances of seeing some if you observe after midnight. In fact that’s after 1:00BST because the Earth is then turning into the thickest part of the cloud of debris which gives us the meteors. The nights of the 11th and 12th of August are likely to be the best, but you may see some for a few days both before and after these dates. Don’t be too disappointed if you don’t see as many as you’d hoped, there are lots of reasons why this might happen. The true peak of the shower this year occurs in the daytime, so we will be seeing the meteors a little before (11th) and a bit after this (12th). Good luck!

Once in a Blue Moon…

It’s a turn of phrase that has come to mean something happening very rarely. But where does it come from and what did it originally mean? Surely the Moon is never actually blue!?

Well no, the Moon is never blue, not unless you are looking at it through a blue coloured filter. What is has come to mean, is the occurance of 2 full Moons in one month, which is a fairly infrequent event. Astronomically speaking though (does anyone speak astronomy?), this is not a correct description of a ‘blue’ Moon. The term seems to have come about due to a miusunderstanding or misinterpretation.

There are usually three full Moons in one season or three months. The word ‘month’ is in fact derived from ‘Moon’. A journal called the Maine Farmer’s Almanac described these full Moons as ‘early’, ‘mid’ and ‘late’ in each season. On the odd occasion a fourth full Moon was seen in any given season, the sequence was then described as, ‘early’, ‘mid’, ‘blue’ and ‘late’. The misinterpretation came about when a popular astronomical journal in the 1940’s described the second full Moon in a month as the ‘blue’ Moon. This would not necessarily match the original almanacs definition. The incorrect definition was taken up into general use and repeated in a radio broadcast in 1980 which helped to confirm the albeit incorrect definition in many people’s minds.

There are on average, 12.37 full Moons in a year and therefore there is again on average, a ‘blue’ Moon every 2.7 years. If you’de like to know even more about the Moon, then take a look at the page all about it on my website here. Thanks to Pete Lawrence for the source information for this. The (highly processed!) picture of the Moon I took in 2006.

As you may have seen from my post yesterday, I have been reading lots of different and sometimes conflicting information regarding the Higgs Boson discovery. In my attempt to ascertain what has actually been discovered versus the media frenzy, I contacted a very special friend of mine, a brilliant particle physicist who happens to work at CERN. Please read his comment below and I give him a big thank you for writing this for Ninian’s blog:

“The Higgs discovery is very much a joint effort but I have indeed
been working on one of the two experiments that announced it and
for about 20 years now (!).

The idea, in a nutshell, is connected to symmetry and the origin of
mass. The world we live in is symmetric with respect to rotations,
which is to say that the laws of physics are the same for you if
you turn around through any angle and about any axis. It turns out
that the forces that are responsible for electricity and magnetism
and for turning one type of atom into another have a similar kind
of symmetry but it’s a bit less obvious and in fact if realized in the
simplest way mathematically, would mean that nothing would have
any mass. That’s clearly not the case, so the idea came about that
one could have the same symmetry but it could be realized in a special
way which would necessitate the existence of a new particle — the Higgs
boson. The question then was, does that thing exist, or was all this
just a theoretical idea that went too far? It looks like the idea was
indeed correct, so now instead of thinking that we probably understand
how these forces work and how mass arises, now it looks like we do,
so we’re on much more solid footing to look out farther. It’s all still
baby steps, since the particle itself has to be studied in detail and there
are countless other things that have yet to be uncovered in the data…
but it does mean that we have a lot of certainty now where before there
was just the hope that we were on the right track. Now we’ve really got
our bearings and can go on to more adventures! ” – John Swain

BBC News – Higgs boson like particle discovered…I am not going to lie about it.. I am not going to be able to offer any clarification on the physics of the exciting Higgs Boson discovery. I would love some feedback on what you all think out there though: a genuine scientific breakthrough OR (please excuse the scepticism) a media feed to justify/encourage funding at Cern. I have heard and read both sides of the argument, but want to hear from YOU…

Transit of Venus

So what’s all the fuss about?

The planet Venus will pass over the face of our Sun on the 5th/6th of June 2012. These are rare events and tend to cause a lot of excitement in the astronomical community. Transits come in pairs. You’ll get a Transit on year and then again 8 years later, BUT then you won’t see another one for at least 105 years! So it is a once in a lifetime event. We had a Transit in 2004 so this one in 2012 is the last one for several generations.

Historically, Transits of Venus were used to determine (among other things) the size of the Solar System. This is interesting in and of itself, but there is also something a little magical about watching the little black disc of Venus traverse the the much larger Solar disc. There are also a few interesting phenomena which occur during Venus Transits such as the ‘black drop effect’ and the much harder to see Venus atmosphere. So how can you see the Transit yourself and where is the best place from which to observe it?

Firstly, a note of caution. You are going to need proper Solar filters in order to observer this event safely. Do not attempt to see it without, as you will be risking your eyesight. If you live in the UK you will be able to catch the last part of the event at dawn on 6th June around 4:45BST. You will need a very clear NE horizon, so the coast may be a good place to be. Australia or Newzealand are the places to head for if you hope to view the whole event. We all need clear skies and good weather so I hope that you are sucessful. Do let me know how you got on!

The picture is one I took of the last Transit of Venus in 2004.

Transit of Venus in H-Alpha