This same year was seen a bloody welkin oft-times in the likeness of fire; and that was most apparent at midnight, and so in misty beams was shown; but when it began to dawn, then it glided away.
An unexpectedly dramatic display of Northern Lights was visible in many parts of the UK on February 27th.
For me it was the best auroral show of the current solar cycle - although I suspect we've missed one or two like this because of bad weather in the last couple of years.
The aurora was visible as a pale arc of light towards the north during the early evening. By the time me and my Dad had driven to the coast at Low Hauxley the light and colours were intensifying and climbing higher into the sky. The peak of the display was probably between 8 and 9pm and the red rays extended almost to the zenith. The intensity of the red reminded me of something I'd read while researching the aurora for a presentation a few years back:
That's an entry from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle from 979AD describing a dramatic aurora. Welkin is an archaic English word for the sky - or rather, the celestial sphere.
More pictures from that evening can be found on my Flickr photostream.
Just in from a short imaging session in the back garden. This a picture of the star cluster M41 in Canis Major --- just to the south of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
M41 is one of the brighter star clusters in the night sky, shining at magnitude +5.0 and its 100 or so stars are scattered over an area larger than the full moon.
Viewed from the UK the cluster is at best about 15 degrees above the southern horizon. From my home in Northumberland I'm always viewing this part of the sky through severe light pollution created by Newcastle, Cramlington, Blyth, Ashington and nearby village lights.
The pictures below show what I have to contend with and how I deal with it.
The picture on the left is one of the raw images and it's almost washed out with the pinkish contribution from streetlight pollution. The picture on the left is a "map" of the background created with free software called IRIS. Basically the second picture gets subtracted from the first to leave something looking a lot healthier that eventually ends up as the picture at the top of the page. I described the exact process in an earlier article and it's absolutely crucial to obtaining deep sky images from light polluted skies.
Behold the new telescope!
It's a 10 inch Sky-Watcher Dobsonian (the face in the mirror was bonus!) I managed to do a quick tour of the night sky with it a couple of days ago during a break in the bad weather. Great views of the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, star clusters in Auriga, Jupiter and the supernova (2014J) in M82.
Now the long wait for a clear sky begins!
Twelve million years ago, give or take, a star exploded in nearby galaxy M82. Light from this event is arriving at Earth right now. Astronomers given this supernova the official designation SN 2014J.
Here's a picture I took with the 8 inch telescope last night. The supernova is indicated by the red lines.
This supernova has been classified as type 1a - a white-dwarf detonation. The precise mechanism is not well understood. It might be that the white dwarf star - probably about the size of the Earth but and with a mass comparable to the Sun - was drawing material from a companion star onto it and a runaway nuclear chain reaction led to the complete destruction. Or maybe two white dwarfs collided. Whatever the case the tiny, tiny star was obliterated in one of the biggest bangs in the universe.
M82 is a reasonably bright galaxy and I took an image of it last Autumn. Now I have before and after images of a supernova:
M82 is fairly bright galaxy in the night sky and quite easy to find even without a GoTo telescope. M82 is not far from the familiar seven star pattern of The Plough - and always visible from the UK. The galaxy is best viewed later in the evening when it is almost overhead in the UK.
SN 2014J will continue to increase in brightness in the coming days. The luminosity increase is not instantaneous. Radioactive Nickel-56 is produced during the supernova and when it decays it excites the surrounding gas to incandescence. The half-life of 6 days means that peak brightness occurs well after the supernova first happens.
I think I got my best ever view of Jupiter through a telescope late last night. I usually keep a record of my observations in SkyTools but I thought I'd share it here too.
Jupiter was high in the southern sky at the time of observation. Observed with the zoom lens at 8mm (about 250x) the Great Red Spot (and surrounding Red Spot Hollow) was prominent and near the central meridian. The North and South Equatorial Belts were clearly defined and the Northern Temperate Belt was also visible. During moments of clarity a couple of festoons emerging from the NEB were also visible. The darker clouds of the North Polar Region (and SPR) were pretty obvious too.
I started observing the planet at about 11.15pm and then started taking images for about half an hour. I had to abandon taking pictures of the Moon when the ice forming on the telescope started to mess up the images! It was freezing last night!
Jupiter is about as far north of the celestial equator as it gets. Next year it will be a little lower in the sky. I hope I can watch some shadow transits by its moons in the coming weeks under conditions as good as last night.
I took some images of Venus just before midday today and made this picture from them:
It's the planet Venus and today it's almost directly between the Earth and Sun. The photo looks a little blurry but the view through the eyepiece of the telescope was much clearer. Venus was shimmering with the turbulent seeing but it looked razor thin! The phase is almost new and just 0.04% of the disk is illuminated by the Sun, directly beneath Venus in the sky. The horns of the crescent seemed to extend more than half way around the disk, but the camera didn't pick up that detail.
It's very difficult (and a bit unsafe) to point a telescope so close to the Sun! Even when angled slightly above the Sun, some sunlight is still going through the objective lens and into the tube. The build up heat is potentially very damaging for the telescope.
I used an old portable whiteboard to block out the Sun and positioned it so that Venus was visible above it. That led to problems in itself as the wind was gusting and it blew the whiteboard over and it crashed into the telescope mount at one point!
Venus will remain close to the Sun in the sky for the next week or so before emerging in the morning sky before sunrise towards the end of the month.
I'm giving a presentation and laser guided tour of the night sky at Doxford Hall on Wednesday. The long, cold nights of January have always been my favourite time of the year to do astronomy. There is so much to see! As well as the drama of the birth, life and death of stars there is also the planet Jupiter at its absolute best for the first time in 12 years and the best time of the month to view the craters and mountains of the Moon.
Here is a rundown of the what I want to show people through telescopes on Wednesday.
On Wednesday the moon will be a little beyond First Quarter (or half moon): 7 days after new moon and 59% illuminated. The stark division between night and day will be at its most dramatic!
I really wanted to wake up at 5am and get a solid 90 minutes of images of Comet Lovejoy. In the event I eventually fell out of bed at 6am and only managed about 22 minutes.
This is how C/2013 R1 Lovejoy looked this morning.
The comet is past perihelion and getting further from the Sun. This morning it was about 79 million miles from the Sun (between the orbits of Venus and Earth) and about 107 million miles away from Earth.
Comet Lovejoy is becoming harder to observe with every passing morning. The orbit is taking the comet further to the south in the sky which means it is heading towards my southeast horizon. Lovejoy is also fading as it heads away from the Sun. There can't be many more chances to get images like this. The forecast for tomorrow is good so I'll have another attempt at getting 90 minutes of pictures - perhaps enough to get a bit more of the comet's tail.
The first meteor shower of the new year is the Quadrantid shower. The shower is named after the discarded constellation Quadrans Muralis (the mural quadrant) whose stars were incorporated within the boundaries of neighbouring Hercules, Bootes and Draco when the the IAU reorganised the constellations in 1928.
The position of the radiant is shown on the star chart below; it is situated about one-third of way between the tail of the Plough and the star Vega.
The star chart shows the sky as seen from the latitude of Hauxley, Northumberland (a little over 55 degrees N) at 6.00am on January 4th. The radiant is almost overhead at this time and meteors will appear to radiate from this point, appearing anywhere in the sky.
The bright star pattern of Orion is a great place to begin navigating the sky at this time of the year. Orion is easy enough to find; face south and look for three bright stars a straight line. Those stars mark Orion's Belt and is the centre of the constellation.
If you can find the stars of Orion then you can use the shape to find other interesting stuff in the sky. For example, you can hop from the three Belt stars to a few other things.
Follow the line from the stars down towards the horizon and you spot the brilliantly twinkling star called Sirius. This is actually the brightest star in the sky (and one the nearest to us). Sirius is a bit more massive than the Sun and this translates to it putting out more that 25 times as much energy as the Sun does. It is only outshone in the night sky by the planets Venus, Jupiter and occasionally Mars. From the UK it never gets particularly high in the sky and so its light has to pass through the atmosphere at a shallow angle. This causes it to twinkle violently and flash different colours of the rainbow. This can make for some interesting pictures!