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WHILE many of our traditional autumnal activities have been curtailed this year, there is a spectacular celestial show unfolding: all you need do is look up. The night skies above Scotland have plenty of treats in store. Here are some ideas to get you started.
This autumn sees Mars make its closest approach to the Earth until 2035. November will continue to have excellent viewing opportunities with the Red Planet visible from the early evening. National Astronomy Week takes place from November 14 to 22, with organisers planning online talks, Q&A forums and to live-stream Mars through telescopes. November 19 will offer an added spectacle as Mars is joined by the triangle of Jupiter, Saturn and the crescent Moon. And if you’re reading this on Hallowe’en, look out for the Hunter’s Blue Moon lighting up the sky tonight.
The Leonids meteor shower is expected to peak between midnight and dawn on November 17 and 18. As the Earth passes through the debris trails of the comet Tempel-Tuttle, you should see 10 to 20 fast, bright meteors an hour. The Leonids get their name from the radiant – a point in the sky where the meteors appear to emerge – in the sickle-shaped asterism of stars that form the head and mane of the constellation Leo. Remember to wish for something nice if you glimpse any shooting stars.
As it traverses our skies, the International Space Station (ISS) resembles a super-bright star or fast-moving plane. Travelling in low-Earth orbit at 17,500 miles per hour, the ISS circles every 90 minutes, treating its crew to 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets each day. The space station usually appears over the western horizon and disappears in the east within a few minutes. The best time to observe it is near dawn or dusk, when the passing ISS reflects light from the rising or setting sun.
We’re big fans of settling down for some stargazing, usually while enjoying a flask of hot chocolate and reclining on a sun lounger (it saves on neck-craning). Scotland has some incredible dark skies free from light pollution, such as in Galloway Forest Park and around Tomintoul and Glenlivet in the Cairngorms. Nor do you need to venture too far – even travelling a few miles outside built-up areas can open up a whole new perspective of the heavens at night.
The ethereal, other-worldly glow and magical dance of the Northern Lights – aka Aurora Borealis – has stoked fascination, superstition and awe for millennia. Their presence is reliant on the solar wind that causes electrically charged particles from the sun to interact with the Earth’s magnetic fields. The cold, clear skies of autumn and winter tend to offer the best viewing, while the further north you go, the better your chances. Try your luck late at night or in the wee hours of the morning.
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World news – GB – Five incredible things to see in the night skies above Scotland