A Trip to the Space Station

The Cosmos Planetarium Dome
The Cosmos Planetarium Dome

On Saturday January 13th visitors to the Richmond Hall in Tomintoul were treated to a virtual trip up to the international Space Station and then on to the edge of the solar system.

Later on others were taken on a hunt for Dark Matter and given an in depth view of the skies and constellations above Tomintoul.

Cosmos Planetarium provided this unique immersive 3D experience for over 150 enthusiasts in their state of the art planetarium.

The Charioteer

Finding Auriga – The Charioteer

To find the Charioteer first of all find the Plough. Then draw a line through the upper two stars of the Plough away from the handle to find the bright star Capella and the constellation of Auriga. The five main stars of Auriga are sometimes called The Pentagon because of the shape they make in the night sky.


In Greek mythology, Auriga is identified with the hero Erichthonius. Erichthonius was the inventor of the quadriga, the four-horse chariot, created in the image of the Sun’s chariot. It was this chariot that helped him win the battle for Athens. Subsequently Zeus put him in the night sky in recognition of his ingenuity and heroic deeds.

Traditional illustrations of Auriga represent it as a charioteer. He holds a goat over his left shoulder and has two kids under his left arm. The Greeks associated Capella with the mythological she-goat Amalthea, who breast-fed the infant Zeus. Just under Capella there is a small triangle of stars known as the Kids.

Open Star Clusters in Auriga

An open star cluster is a group of up to a few thousand stars of roughly similar age. There are over 1,000 open star clusters in the Milky Way

Open star clusters are formed from the same molecular cloud and bound together by gravity. They usually only survive for a few hundred million years. After that they break up following close encounters with other clusters and clouds of gas as they orbit the Milky Way.

Almost any pair of binoculars will allow you to spot the Auriga clusters as faint patches of light against the background stars of the Milky Way.

The Pinwheel cluster (Messier 36) is the youngest of the three clusters at 25 million years. It can be found just to the east of M38 within the same binocular field. There are over 60 stars in this cluster which lies about 4,300 light years away from Earth.

Messier 37 is the brightest of the three clusters and is one binocular field to the east of M36. It contains over 500 stars and is between 350 and 550 million years old.

Messier 38 is called the Starfish Cluster because of it’s conspicuous “X” shape as seen through a telescope. It can be found just to the west of M36. It is about 4,200 light years away and around 220 million years old.

Darker Skies over Tomintoul

Tomintoul Street Lighting Comparision 2015-2017

There is an amazing difference in the sky quality over Tomintoul now that almost all of the street lighting has been replaced.

Last night an hour with binoculars revealed a huge array of deep sky delights from the Field of Hope at the junction of the A939 / B9008. To the naked eye the sky was absolutely studded with stars and the Milky Way showed great detail. There was even a hint of the Aurora in the north to complete the experience.

A big thank you to the Moray Council for making such a huge difference.

The Eagle, the Arrow and the Fox

The Summer Triangle

During the early evenings of September the Summer Triangle lies high in the south. In October it is to the south-west and by November it is in the west. To find it first look for the brightest star in the sky. That is Vega in the constellation of Lyra. Next look to it’s left to find Deneb in Cygnus. Finally look below Deneb to find Altair in the constellation of Aquila. These three stars form the summer triangle.

The Summer Triangle
The Summer Triangle
Aquila – The Eagle

Altair is the brightest star in the constellation of Aquila. In Greek mythology, Aquila was the eagle that carried Zeus’ thunderbolts.

Barnard’s “E”

On a clear moonless night look just above and to the right of Altair in Aquila using binoculars. You should be able to spot a mysterious dark “E” silhouetted against the faint background glow of the Milky Way.

This strange shape is a dark nebula; a cold cloud of interstellar gas and dust, so dense that it obscures the light from the stars behind it. These dark nebulae are where new stars will eventually be born.

Barnard’s “E” is named after Edward Barnard (1857 – 1923), a Victorian astronomer who compiled a list of dark markings in the sky.

Barnard’s “E” – credit Jon Marcus
The Arrow and the Fox

The constellation of Sagitta (the Arrow) can be found just above Aquila. Although small, it was recognised as an arrow by several ancient civilisations including the Persians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans.

Vulpecula (The Fox) lies just above Sagitta. Unlike many other constellations it has no mythology associated with it. Vulpecula was introduced by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius during the late 17th century.

The Coathanger (Brocchi’s Cluster)

The eye and brain are excellent at seeing meaningful patterns in random collections of stars. Asterisms are obvious groupings of stars that are not one of the traditional constellations

The Coathanger is an unmistakable asterism despite being upside down! Find it about one binocular field to the north west of the western end of Sagitta. Although it’s stars appear to be close together, they are a chance alignment at very different distances from us.

The Coathanger – Credit Petr Novak
The Dumbbell Nebula

A short distance to the east lies the Dumbbell Nebula. It is the biggest and brightest planetary nebula in the northern sky. Find it about half a binocular field north of the eastern end of Sagitta. It looks like a small faint planet just below the central star of a distinctive “M” shaped asterism.

A planetary nebula consists of an expanding shell of gas ejected from an old red giant star late in it’s life. They are relatively short- lived, lasting only a few tens of thousands of years, compared to a typical stellar lifetime of several billion years. They are called planetary nebulae because William Herschel thought that they resembled planets when viewed through his telescope in the 1780’s. The name has stuck although it is misleading.

The Dumbbell Nebula


Images by Jon Marcus and Petr Novak are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tomintoul Distillery Meeting

We had a great meeting today at the Tomintoul Single Malt Whisky HQ about our Dark Skies of Tomintoul & Glenlivet project. It all helps to bring us one step closer to our (fingers crossed!) International Dark-Sky Association application to become the world’s most northerly Dark Sky Park.

Tomintoul Distillery from the air

Chivas Join Dark Skies Project

We had a great meeting last Thursday with representatives from The Glenlivet and Braeval distilleries. We are delighted that they have agreed to support us with our Heritage Lottery Fund Scotland Dark Skies project.

We will be working together to promote environmentally responsible lighting in the Tomintoul & Glenlivet Landscape Partnership area.

Reduced light pollution is beneficial for all sorts of reasons. Find out more on our Dark Skies Project page.

Gas and Ice Giants

A gas giant is a large planet made mainly out of hydrogen and helium. Jupiter and Saturn are the gas giants of the solar system. The outermost parts of their atmospheres have many layers of visible clouds that are mostly made out of water and ammonia.

Jupiter has been covered in some detail elsewhere, so here we will concentrate on the other three giant planets.

Saturn and it's rings
Hubble view of Saturn and it’s rings

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in the solar system after Jupiter. It’s diameter is about nine times that of earth and it takes twenty nine and a half years to orbit the Sun. Binoculars will show an odd shaped disc. However even a modest telescope, such as a spotter scope, will reveal it’s rings.

Saturn was the ancient Roman god of agriculture. He was remembered in December during the most famous Roman festival of all – the Saturnalia. The Saturnalia was a time of feasting, free speech, gift-giving, role reversal, and revelry. Saturn the planet and Saturday are both named after him.

Saturn’s atmosphere usually appears bland and lacking in contrast. Ammonia crystals in it’s upper atmosphere give it a pale yellow hue. Wind speeds on Saturn can reach 1,800 km/h.

Saturn’s best known feature are it’s rings. These consist mainly of ice particles with a small amount of rocky debris and dust. Saturn also has sixty-two moons not including the hundreds of moonlets within it’s ring system. The largest moon is Titan. Bigger than the planet Mercury, Titan is the only moon in the Solar System to have a substantial atmosphere. One of Saturn’s most interesting moons is Enceladus. This moon is regarded as a potential habitat for life. In 2015 the Cassini probe flew through a plume on Enceladus and detected most of the ingredients needed to sustain some forms of primitive microbes.

The Ice Giants

An ice giant is a large planet made mainly out water, ammonia and methane, along with traces of other hydrocarbons.There are two ice giants in the solar system – Uranus and Neptune.


Uranus is the coldest planet in the solar system, with a minimum temperature of −224°C. It is the seventh planet from the Sun and it’s diameter is about four times the size of earth’s. It is the most distant planet that can be seen with the naked eye.

Uranus is the only planet whose name is derived from a figure in Greek mythology. Uranus or “Father Sky” was the husband of Gaia, “Mother Earth”. Together they were the ancestors of most of the other Greek gods.


Uranus takes 84 years to complete one orbit. It is also unique because it’s axis of rotation is tilted over at almost 900 compared to the other planets. This means that it’s seasonal changes are completely different to any other planet. Each pole gets 42 years of continuous sunlight, followed by 42 years of darkness. Around the equinoxes the rest of the planet has a normal day – night cycle, but around the solstices only a narrow strip round the equator experiences that normal rhythm.


Neptune is the eighth and farthest known planet from the Sun. It’s diameter is about 3.9 times that of earth and it takes a hundred and sixty five years to orbit the Sun. Although Neptune is not visible to the unaided eye it may be seen with binoculars.

Neptune was the god of freshwater and sea in Roman mythology. He was also the creator of horses as well as the owner of a powerful weapon, his Trident.

Neptune is the only planet in the Solar System that was found by mathematical prediction. During the first half of the nineteenth century Alexis Bouvard discovered unexpected changes in the orbit of Uranus that led him to realise that it was being affected by an unknown planet. From 1843, John Adams, and later from 1845, Urbain Le Verrier began work to calculate the position of the new planet. Johann Galle was the first person to see it through a telescope on 23 September 1846, within a degree of the position predicted by Le Verrier.

Image credits: NASA

Jupiter – King of Planets

The planet Jupiter has been known since ancient times. It is visible to the naked eye in the night sky and can occasionally be seen in the daytime when the Sun is low. To the Babylonians, this planet represented their god Marduk. The Romans named the planet after Jupiter, the principal god of Roman mythology. The Greek equivalent of the Roman Jupiter was Zeus.

Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest in the Solar System. It is a giant planet with a mass two and a half times that of all the other planets in the Solar System combined. Jupiter can be bright enough for its light to cast shadows, making it the third-brightest object in the night sky after the Moon and Venus.

Through modern binoculars you should be able to see what Galileo spotted with his first telescope in the 17th century. The planet appears as a disc and if you hold your binoculars steady enough you should be able to see the four Galilean moons orbiting the planet.

This discovery was dynamite in the 17th century. In those days people believed that everything in God’s perfect universe rotated around the earth. But Galileo had spotted moons going round Jupiter. This was one of the observations that persuaded him to support the Copernican theory that the planets orbited the sun rather than the earth. Eventually Galileo was convicted of heresy for these views. Forced to recant by the Inquisition he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

More can be seen through a modest telescope. At even a low magnification of x50, two dark bands of clouds can be seen circling the middle of the planet. If you are lucky you may even catch a glimpse of the great red spot, a giant storm that is known to have existed since at least the 17th century.

Jupiter with Europa’s shadow and the great red spot
The Galilean Moons

Jupiter has 67 known moons. The four largest were discovered by Galileo. These moons were named after lovers of the god Zeus: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Io was one of Hera’s priestesses

Io is the closest moon to Jupiter and orbits the planet in less than two earth days. This proximity sets up huge tidal stresses in Io’s surface which heat the rocks and melts them. As a result Io is the most geologically active object in the solar system, with over 400 live volcanoes.

Europa was a mythical Phoenician noblewoman, who became queen of Crete

The second Galilean moon, Europa, is one of the smoothest objects in the solar system. The surface is made of ice and it is thought that an ocean of liquid water exists underneath the ice. Like Io, it is heated by tidal flexing in Jupiter’s immense gravitational field. Some scientists think that extra-terrestrial life could exist in Europa’s ocean.

Ganymede was the cup bearer of the Greek gods

Ganymede is the third Galilean moon. It is bigger than the planet Mercury and is the largest natural satellite in the solar system. This moon is primarily composed of rock and water ice. There may be an ocean at a depth of 200km, sandwiched between layers of ice.

Callisto was a hunting companion of the goddess Artemis

Callisto, the fourth Galilean moon, is one of the most heavily cratered satellites in the solar system. It has long been considered the most suitable base for future exploration of the Jovian system because it is the furthest large moon from Jupiter’s intense radiation.

Of course not even the Hubble space telescope can take pictures like the ones above. You need to get close up for images like that! The picture of Jupiter is from NASA’s Cassini mission and the moon’s are from their Galileo mission.