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  • Writer's pictureHarris Brooker

Astronomical Cairngorms

Winter might be one of the quieter times of year here on Speyside. But one very important attraction exists and one that has been becoming more popular - astronomy, the study of celestial objects including stars and planets.

In this image is a picture of thousands of stars, with the pale streak of the Milky Way cutting across the sky, with some dark tree tops at the bottom of the image.
Starry Night (Photo Credit: Cath Wright)

In Ancient Greece about two and a half thousand years ago, astronomers such as Ptolemy invented star patterns called constellations, based on figures in Greek mythology. Forty eight constellations were invented and over time others have been invented to fill in the gaps between the older ones and as the southern hemisphere was explored bringing the total to eighty eight - in Scotland we can see just under half of these.

The third largest and one of the most recognisable constellations is Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Its hindquarters are sometimes known as the Plough. The Plough is an asterism, an unofficially recognised pattern. On the handle of the Plough are Alkaid, Mizor, Alioth, Megrez, Phad and the two most important ones, Dubhe and Merak. These two point towards the north star; Polaris, in the neighbouring constellation of Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.

Ursa Major is said to come from Greek Mythology. Zeus, the God of Thunder had an attraction towards a human called Callisto. When his wife Hera found out, she turned Callisto into a bear and so the head of Ursa Major is a star called Muscida.

In this image is a starry sky with wisps of grey cloud across it. There are some silhouetted dark tree tops in the bottom right hand corner.
Starry Sky with wisps of Cloud (Photo Credit: Cath Wright)
In this image is the night sky with the moon blazing brightly. Below that is some silhouetted dark tree tops and part of a house with lights on on the left hand corner.
Night Sky with the Moon (Photo Credit: Cath Wright)

Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) has three prominent stars. Kochab and Pherkad, which are sometimes called the Little Dipper, which themselves also point to Polaris, or alpha Ursa Minoris. Stars are often given a Greek alphabet, depending on their prominence or when the Greek letters ran out, numbers. Ursa Minoris indicates what is known as the genitive case, it indicates a star’s membership.

Cutting between Ursa Major and Ursa Minor is the tail of Draco; the Dragon. This Dragon is based on Ladon and was slain by Hercules, which is another constellation just above the head of Draco, where it is imagined that his foot is sat there.

Below Ursa Major is the constellation Leo, the Lion. The star on its tail end is known as Denebola, above it to its right is a star called Zosma, indicating the hind quarters of the lion. On its head is a star called Adhafera, also known as the braid in Arabic to indicate the lion’s mane. The alpha star of Leo at its bottom right hand corner is called Regulus, which means ‘the King’. Very fitting for a Lion.

One of the most prominent and instantly recognisable constellations is Orion, the Hunter. In particular a triple set of stars known as Orion’s Belt. From the top right of the belt is a star called Mintaka, to its left is Alnilam and other next to that is Alnitak. There are also a pair of stars underneath often called the Sword of Orion, the two stars in questions are called Theta 1 and Theta 2 Orionis. This area also has a hazy patch called the Orion Nebula. Nebulae are gas clouds where the seeds of new stars are born.

At the top left hand corner of Orion is Betelgeuse, a red super giant 427 light years away. It is larger than our sun and some believe that it is a star that is about to explode.

In this image is the constellation of Orion in the night sky above a cottage.
Orion Constellation (Photo Credit: Kate Mennie)

Orion is also next to the constellation Taurus, the Bull, of which only the face and horns are depicted. One of the star attractions of Taurus is the Pleiades Cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters. They are a Star Cluster, which hundreds more stars visible through binoculars that will drift apart as time goes on.

Then there are also the Planets, eight of them to be exact since Pluto has been downgraded to a dwarf planet. Mercury is never seen in completely dark skies and can only be seen at dawn and dusk. Venus is one of the brightest planets, owing to the cloud cover that reflects sunlight away from it. Mars appears as a red looking star, and is a rocky planet covered in red sandy deserts. Jupiter is the largest of the gas giants and is famous for its Great Red Spot, which is a hurricane so large the Earth could fit inside it five times! Neighbouring Saturn has rings made from ice and rock, that are hundreds of kilometres across yet can appear wafer thin when seen head on. Uranus is a green gas giant that has been flipped on its side. Some believe it to have been struck by a rogue planet called Planet X in the past, but this has never been proven. Neptune is a blue gas giant and the last of the planets in our Solar System and one of the last to be visited by the space probe Voyager 2 in 1989.

Other space objects include meteors or shooting stars. They are so fast you have to be looking in the right area of the sky at the right time or you’ll miss them. The white streak you see is the meteor burning up as it enters the Earth’s atmospheres. A meteorite, however is a rocky object that succeeds in physically striking the Earth and sometimes leaves a crater - think of the death of the dinosaurs sixty five million years ago.

One other feature of the night sky that sometimes appears are the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. This appears most often in the winter when electrons from the solar winds in space enter the Earth’s magnetic field. When they do this the sky lights up green or red as the electrons react to the gases in the atmosphere.

In this image are the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis with rivulets of red and green stretching across a starry night sky. At the bottom of the image is a dark silhouette of a forestry plantation.
Northern Lights (Photo Credit: Cath Wright)

It’s an unpredictable spectacle, that varies depending on whether the solar winds enter the Earth’s atmosphere. They are most often seen in polar regions. The Southern Hemisphere has an equivalent known as the Aurora Australis, often seen by Emperor Penguins when they huddle together in the Antarctic winter.

We shall soon be launching star-gazing evenings, please keep an eye on our website or sign up for our monthly enews to keep informed.

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