Your guide to the August night sky, Stonehenge Landscape, Wiltshire

1 08 2012

Stonehenge Landscape, Wiltshire.  Big, open skies are a defining feature of the countryside and on a clear night you can see some 4,000 stars sparkling in our universe.

Situated on the edge of Salisbury Plain, the prehistoric ceremonial landscape of Stonehenge occupies a large, sparsely populated area of ancient downland ideal for star gazing. The monuments here are directly connected to the skies above, with stones aligned to moonrises and moonsets, in addition to the Midsummer and Midwinter solstices. Keep an ear out for the Stone Curlew’s haunting ‘coo-ree’ bird call, particularly in autumn.  Terrain and safety: The route to the star-gazing spot follows regular tracks through the fields. Grassy areas are fairly smooth; off the worn route grass can be tall and tussocky. Be aware that the Cursus Barrows field is grazed by cattle. Byway 12 has some large potholes, becoming deep puddles after rain.
 Location: 2 miles west of Amesbury, near the junction of the A303 and A344. Stonehenge car park closes in the evening, but it is possible to park nearby. Grid ref: SU120420

Your guide to the summer night sky, Stonehenge Landscape, Wiltshire
In prehistoric times the night sky would have looked very different. The stars were much clearer and stories about them were likely to have been included in a rich oral history, now lost. Today, light pollution makes it difficult to see all but the brightest stars (© Tony Evershed).  Enter a prehistoric ceremonial landscape: hundreds of monuments with physical and visual connections to each other, to the land and to the skies above. All this lies on the edge of Salisbury Plain, a large, sparsely populated area of downland good for star gazing.

The August skies are filled with all manner of interesting objects that can be viewed in dark sky conditions. Arrive before sunset to see the ancient earthworks at their best in slanting evening light. The banks of the 4,000-year-old Stonehenge Avenue can be seen leading north-east, away from the stone circle.
The Perseid meteor shower is set to peak around 12/13 August, but it’s well worth keeping an eye out for meteors any time from July 23 to August 22. The thin, crescent moon will be out of the way early, setting the stage for a potentially spectacular show.
For best viewing, pick a cloudless night and look to the northeast after midnight.
Overhead there is the summer triangle starting with Vega (a bright white star which is almost overhead, part of the constellation Lyra), Deneb to the left in Cygnus (the swan constellation) and Altair, south east in Sagitta/Aquila. These stars can be used as pointers to other stars. Go to Vega and look westward to find the bright reddish star Arcturus, part of Bootes the Kite. The pretty group of curved stars to the east of Arcturus is Corona Borealis, a cornet of stars. The Plough/Big Dipper is in the north west sky and becomes the tail and rear end of the Great Bear/ Ursa Major.
If the sky is dark and clear of any clouds you should be able to make out the Milky Way, a ribbon of millions of stars threading its way across the heavens. If you are using binoculars this really is a stunning sight.

Download the National Trust Stonehenge Guide (PDF) here:
More Night walks:

Sponsored by ‘The Stonehenge Tour Company’

Merlin says “Neolithic Britons might have held objects of the sky as gods, and predicting the will of the gods was something essential to their existence, thus mixing the concepts we distinguish from each other today – religion and astronomy.”

Merlin @ Stonehenge

Perseid Meteor Shower at Stonehenge

12 08 2011

Star gazers prepare for Perseid meteor shower

Stonehenge in Wiltshire is one of the best places in Britain to witness this spectacular event.  As always I will be up all night overlooking Stonehenge as our ancestors have for 1000’s of years.

Perseid Meteor shower over Stonehenge.  Streaking down towards Stonehenge across the path of all the other stars in the sky, this shooting star is hurtling to Earth at 135,000 miles per hour – 100 times the speed of Concorde.

Perseid Meteor shower over Stonehenge. Streaking down towards Stonehenge across the path of all the other stars in the sky, this shooting star is hurtling to Earth at 135,000 miles per hour – 100 times the speed of Concorde.

Skywatchers were today given advice on how to enjoy this year’s display of Perseid meteors despite a full moon.

 The Perseids, which come every August, are normally one of the highlights of the celestial year for amateur astronomers.

Under ideal conditions up to 100 of the shooting stars an hour should be visible when the shower peaks tomorrow.
But the glare of the full moon will make it difficult to see the fainter meteors.

The moon generates natural light pollution that can be equal to that from an illuminated city centre.To help anyone hoping to spot the Perseids the National Trust has produced an online stargazing guide and listed some of its best “dark skies” locations.

Dr Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in London, said: “The Perseids are always an exciting meteor shower to watch out for. Even in large cities it’s often possible to catch site of some of the brighter Perseid meteors streaking across the sky, but from a really dark site you can sometimes see dozens per hour.

 “Despite this year’s Perseid shower coinciding with the full moon it’s still well worth going out for a look. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky so try looking away from the bright moon to maximise your chances of seeing one.”

 The Perseids are grains of dust shed from the tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle burning up in the atmosphere.

Every year in August the Earth ploughs through a cloud of the dust as it orbits the sun.

Among the locations highlighted by the National Trust are the area around Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Mam Tor in the Peak District, high above Sheffield.

Philip Broadbent, National Trust outdoors programme manager, said: “It’s worth spending the time to find the perfect spot to gaze up at the stars as once you’re there looking into the night sky it will take your breath away. And the best thing is that it won’t cost you a penny and this star time will always stay with you as one of those experiences that money can’t buy.”

 Alastair McBeath, director of the Society for Popular Astronomy’s meteor section, said: “As Perseid meteors near the peak are usually bright to occasionally very bright, this should mean observing will be quite rewarding despite the loss of fainter meteors to the moonlight.”

Sponsored by the ‘Stonehenge Tour Company’

Merlin at Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Wbsite

Total Lunar Eclipse visible at Stonehenge tonight

15 06 2011

Todays’s total eclipse of the Moon may be the most striking for years but observers at Stonehenge must be content with a view of only the closing act of the drama.
Lunar Eclipse Stonehenge
The Moon stands over the southern Indian Ocean as it passes through the central dark umbra of the Earth’s shadow, plunging deeper into the shadow than during any eclipse since 2000. This may well result in an unusually dark eclipse, with the Moon’s disc turning a deep reddish-brown as all direct sunlight is blocked.

In fact, the umbra is never black. A little light must reach the Moon from the parts of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, that are not hidden by the Earth. But more sunlight is refracted and scattered around the edge of the Earth by our planet’s atmosphere. Just as sunsets and sunrises appear orange or red, so this light is predominantly red.

The umbra is not illuminated evenly, though, since less of this indirect light penetrates to its core and the amount reaching different zones of the umbra is affected by varying atmospheric conditions. In particular, dust thrown up by major volcanic eruptions can render the atmosphere less transparent and the eclipsed Moon so dark that it practically disappears.

Our image shows the previous total lunar eclipse as viewed from Florida last December. On that occasion, the Moon traversed the northern part of the umbra and its southern regions, which just missed the shadow’s core, are relatively dark. This week, the Moon passes about a half Moon’s-breadth farther southwards with respect to the shadow, so it will be interesting to discover just how dark and colourful it appears.

Wednesday’s eclipse begins when the Moon’s eastern limb begins to enter the penumbra of the Earth’s shadow at 18:25 BST. While within the penumbra, some direct sunlight falls on the Moon but little darkening of the disc will be noticed until a few minutes before the Moon begins to enter the umbra at 19:23. Totality, with the Moon entirely within the umbra, lasts from 20:22 until 22:03 with mid eclipse at 21:13. The Moon’s W limb has withdrawn from the umbra by 23:02 and finally exits the penumbra at 00:01.

For Britain, other than the far NW, the Moon rises in the SE during the latter half of totality. Observers in SE England may just glimpse the end of totality, but most of us may see nothing until it begins to emerge from the umbra. From London and Manchester, for example, the Moon stands less than 5° and 3° high respectively at 22:03 BST, with the Sun only a little way below the NW horizon and the sky brightly twilit. The Moon should be more obvious another 5° higher in a darker sky by 23:02.

Sponsored by ‘The Stonehenge Tour Company’

Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Website

Super moon spectacle will light up skies tonight at Stonehenge (but there’s no need to worry about a rise in lunacy)

19 03 2011

Tonight’s event will be the closest full moon in almost 20 years

Keep your fingers crossed for clear skies tonight – a full moon of rare size and beauty will rise in the east at sunset.

The natural phenomenon happens when the full Moon coincides with when it travels closest to Earth on its orbit.

‘The last full Moon so big and close to Earth occurred in March of 1993,’ said Geoff Chester of the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC.

Full Moons vary in size because of the elliptical (or oval) shape of the Moon’s orbit. At its furthest point (the apogee) it is around 252,731miles away from us, but it is only around 226,426miles at its closest point (the perigee).

So nearby perigee moons, like the one we will see tonight, is around 14 per cent bigger and 30 per cent brighter than lesser moons that occur on the apogee side of the moon’s orbit.

However, it will be difficult to detect the change once the moon is high in the sky as the human eye is unble to put it in context without any nearby objects to compare it to.

Therefore the most impressive view of the moon will be seen when it is close to the horizon due to the ‘moon illusion’. It appears larger as you will automatically compare it to the hills and houses nearby.

‘I’d say it’s worth a look and so close to the Spring Equinox

Sponsors:  The Stonehenge Tour Company

Merlin @ Stonehenge (Happy Equinox)

The Stonehenge Stone Circle Website

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