You might remember, if you’ve read back as far as last March or April, that I’d been trying some astrophotography but hadn’t got very far. I still haven’t got very far, largely because it’s summer, and we are only just out of the part of the year where it never gets properly dark at all here.
The other day, though, regular reader MdeC was grumbling on their social media that their attempt to take a gorgeous photo of the Milky Way—far better than anything I’ve produced—had been ruined by a meteor. And it reminded me: we’re just coming into one of the key meteor-spotting seasons of the year. August is the month of the Perseid meteor shower, one of the busiest and brightest showers in the calendar. The fact there are lots of meteors in the sky in August has been known since ancient times; in the 19th century the astronomer Schiaparelli calculated they were created by the trail of dust left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle in its orbit. Their peak will be next week, on Thursday night and Friday morning, but they are spread quite broadly, and any clear night over the next couple of weeks gives you a good chance of seeing some.
So, if there’s a clear night, I’ll be taking a deckchair outside, lying back and looking up at the sky. There’s no point really setting up the telescope or getting binoculars out: they move too fast and can be anywhere in the sky. Just relax, find a dark place if you can, let your eyes adapt, and watch them flash across the sky.
Those of you who read yesterday’s post about the Lyrid meteor shower may well be waiting on the edges of your seats for further information as to how the night went.
The short version is that I don’t think I saw any meteors. I went out after it was dark, sat in a chair, relaxed, and watched the sky. The sky was nice and clear; initially, at least. The Moon was rather bright, though, and before long high clouds started to roll in from the north-east. The moon lit the clouds up beautifully, but for anything else it was hopeless. I went in after half an hour, without a single meteor being spotted.
Still, I had also taken my camera out with me, as a bit of an experiment. I set it up on the tripod, plugged in the remote release, chose what seemed to be a good exposure and sat there clicking away. I don’t expect the results will be outstanding, not for a first quick attempt, but we’ll see what comes out of it. It might take a bit of experimentation in post-processing; I’ll keep you updated.
There haven’t been many astronomical posts on here recently. Partly, that is, because as the seasons turn it’s no longer feasible for The Children to stay up and get the telescope out, at least not on a school night; and I have to stay up later and later for the sky to be dark enough. Indeed, a little over a month from now, it won’t be technically night at all for a while here. At this latitude there’s a whole two-month period, centred on the summer solstice, when it doesn’t officially get any darker than “astronomical twilight”. As of today, you have to wait after 10.30pm or so (local time, that is) for it to be night night.
Nevertheless, I do have plans in the pipeline, both for astronomy-themed things to write about here and astronomy things to actually do. So, watch this space. I’ve been taking hints and inspiration from a friend who takes some lovely astrophotography shots; we’ll see if it goes anywhere.
The reason I’m posting this today, though, is that it’s another one of those interesting times in the astronomical calendar. Tonight, some time in the middle of the night, it will be the peak of the April Lyrids meteor shower. The Lyrids are the debris from Comet Thatcher, which was discovered in 1861 and hasn’t been seen since, as its orbital period is around 415 or so years. The meteors themselves often tend to be of the “fireball” type, fat streaks of light that leave a noticeable smoke trail behind them, a bit like one of the Geminids I spotted last December.
As it happens, the weather forecast for tonight here is actually quite a good one, with (at the time of writing) clear skies in the forecast right through the whole night. Maybe I’ll try dragging a chair outside at bedtime and sitting back to watch the sky for a while, to see if anything happens.
Another small astronomy note: the first of the year’s big meteor showers occurs over the next couple of days. I know it’s less than a month since the last big meteor shower of 2020, the Geminids, but tomorrow we have the peak of the Quadrantid shower. They’re a bit harder to see than the Geminids, partly because they’re usually fainter and partly because they’re concentrated into a narrower stream, so they’re seen over a much shorter time-range. Moreover, looking at the weather forecast, I doubt we’re going to have clear enough skies to have any chance of seeing them.
Interestingly, the Quadrantids are named after a constellation that doesn’t officially exist any more. Their name comes from Quadrans Muralis, “the wall-mounted quadrant”, a constellation named in the late 18th century by Jerome Lalande—he named it after an astronomical instrument he’d used to help him map the sky. Naming constellations after scientific machinery was quite fashionable in the 18th century; we still have Antlia, Horologium, Microscopium, Octans and Reticulum in the sky, to name just a few. Nevertheless, when the boundaries of the constellations were officially defined by the IAU back in the 1920s, Quadrans Muralis was left out of the list. Its part of the sky is now mostly split between Draco and Boötes, with a small piece in Hercules. You could argue the Quadrantids should really have been renamed the Boötids, but the old name has stuck.
A few weeks ago, I read on Twitter—sadly I seem to have lost the reference—that the Welsh Hydref, used for either the month of October or autumn as a whole, originally had the literal meaning of “stag-cry”. From that, it turned into “stag-rutting season” and hence autumn. Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru lists “stag-rutting”, but not “stag-cry”.
Moreover, November, mis Tachwedd, literally means “the month of slaughter”. Together, I think they make a beautifully evocative phrase. The stag-cry and the slaughter. Winter is setting in.
I spent a while sitting outside on clear nights over the past week, hoping to see the Geminid meteor shower. Nothing much, sadly, came of it. On Saturday, though, I did see a handful of meteors in the night sky. I’ve always looked for summer meteors before, flashing across the sky in a razor-thin line; but these were relatively slow-moving, fat things. I say “slow-moving”: they still crossed my field of view in little more than an instant. Their light was a much broader line, though, tapering at start and finish. If nothing else, it gave me good inspiration for the story I posted yesterday. Hopefully I’ll have better luck when the Geminids come around again next year. This year, though, is now nearly at an end. The stag-cry and the slaughter, and winter is upon us again.
This is not going to turn into an astronomy blog, I promise, and I know I already mentioned some exciting upcoming astronomy news just over a week ago. There is something else interesting and astronomical happening in December, though.
In the meantime, the clouds did briefly break on Saturday evening to give us our first chance of using The Child Who Likes Space’s telescope without the moon shining bright in the south. We had a look at Mars, and then I successfully found Uranus, navigating downwards from Sheratan, the nearest naked-eye star I could easily pick out; it’s currently near to the boundary between Aries and Cetus. Looking just like another blue star, I would have had no idea, without guiding myself with a map on the computer, that we were looking at a planet instead.
And then, naturally, I started sending messages to people saying “Guess what? I’ve been spying on Uranus”, because I still have the sophisticated sense of humour of a ten-year-old.
The exciting event that’s coming up in a week or so’s time is: the Geminid meteor shower. I say “coming up”: it’s expected to be at its strongest at around 2 in the morning next Monday (the 14th), but if it is a strong shower this year, there should be activity visible for a few hours either side of that time, and even for a few days. Incidentally, because of the geometry of how meteor showers work—they happen when the Earth passes through the trail of dust left behind a comet or asteroid—the peak time is the same wherever you are, with the location of the peak moving around the planet as it spins. The Geminids were first noticed in the 1860s, but their “parent”, the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, was not discovered until 120 years or so later.
I’m not sure I’m going to risk keeping The Child Who Likes Space up until midnight to watch for meteors, much as I’m sure he would like to. If the skies are clear late one night this week, though, I might try wrapping up warmly and setting up my deckchair in the garden. There’s no point trying to use a telescope or binoculars to spot meteors; all you need is a comfy chair you can lie back in and look up at the sky. Give your eyes half an hour to adapt to the dark, then look up, look around, and wait for them to streak across the sky.
This is a slightly faded memory, from a few years ago now, from the last time I was in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a late night, two in the morning or so, in August. You can hardly make out a thing in the darkness. There’s a crowd of us sat around in deckchairs, in the front yard of the University farmhouse, heads leaning back. We’ve all just returned from the “local” pub, about six miles away, and we’re sitting outside to watch for the Perseids. Out there on the Atlantic coast, the sky seems, strangely, lighter than elsewhere, because of the number of stars scattered across it. The sky is filled with patterns of light, coming from millions of years ago; and leaning back in a deckchair, the age, complexity and size of it all fills me with a slightly dizzy awe.* Every thirty seconds or so, a meteor flashes across the dark sky, and everybody watching smiles.
* Not to mention that the rocks beneath us, the Lewisian Gneiss Complex, were themselves nearly three billion years old, older than the light from some of the stars.