Spectacular night skies over Waternish

If the hype delivers, this coming November could produce one of the most spectacular natural sights ever witnessed in the night sky. Discovered in September last year by two Russian astronomers, Comet Ison is currently between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, some 400 million miles from the sun. Come next autumn, this city-sized ball of ice and dust, flying through space at over 100 miles per second, is expected to graze the sun’s outer atmosphere, outshining the full moon as it glows in the intense heat. If it survives this fiery encounter, the comet may even be visible during the day as it swings around the sun and heads back out into deep space whence it came. One man who is very excited about this prospect is Professor John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland. With a house near Broadford, he will be well placed to take in the celestial show if Comet Ison does burn as brightly as predicted. Now at the end of a six-week stay on the island, Prof Brown and his wife were about to leave to see their new grandchild in London. But he is due back in the area next week to give a talk to the South West Ross Field Club in Kirkton Church Hall. The subject will be “Some Astonishing Vital Statistics of Our Cosmos”, such as how dense is a neutron star (the answer, according to National Geographic is a staggering 100 million tonnes per square inch) and how empty is space (less than one atom per cubic centimetre, according to the Macmillan Encyclopdeia of Physics). “I’ll be trying to make these numbers, both very large and very small, more intelligible,” Prof Brown told me. “I’ll also be talking about how I became involved in astronomy and answering questions such as is the universe still expanding.” And Comet Ison? “This sounds absolutely phenomenal, but there is a lot of luck involved in how spectacular these things are,” he said. “It all depends on stuff like the comet’s mass, composition and how it behaves — whether it’s nucleus breaks up or not. But if it lives up to expectation I will be back on Skye like a shot!” Widely acknowledged as one of the best places in the UK for star-gazing, Skye has nine of the national total of 50 Dark Sky sites. The most recent addition, announced last week by the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, is in Assynt; its confirmation was timed to coincide with the BBC’s Stargazing Live programmes. Three of the Dark Sky sites — light-free locations that are easily accessible to the public — are in Waternish. It is a sign of just how fortuitous are the locations of the Dark Skies sites that another astronomer, Dr Simon Hodgkin of Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy has reason to visit Skye — his mother, who stays near Stein in Waternish. “I was up last year and I managed to get a good look at the Andromeda galaxy, which is the furthest away object visible to the naked eye,” he said. “The weather of course is the problem on Skye and in the summer the evenings are often too bright. But in the winter when the skies are clear there are few places as good for star-gazing as north Skye.” Dr Hodgkin is currently working on processing photos taken from the four-metre wide VISTA telescope in Chile, which specialises in infra red imagery. In this part of the electromagnetic spectrum, the oldest and most distant objects in the universe, quasars, can be studied, as well as some of the youngest stars, still cocooned within their dusty stellar “maternity wards”, the nebulae, such as the one in the constellation Orion. With planets orbiting other stars being discovered on a regular basis thanks to advances in telescope technology, Dr Hodgkin can lay claim to spotting three, although none are earth-like. As far as Comet Ison is concerned, he said: “I must come up to Skye for that — it’ll also make my mother very happy.” He’s looking forward to spending a whole day travelling up by train “In Cambridge, everywhere is dominated by street-lights,” he added. “That’s what’s so great about Skye. If you’re standing near the Stein Inn, for instance, the nearest street light is six miles away in Dunvegan.” Clive Hartwell, chairman of Visit Waternish and a keen amateur astronomer, said local tourism operators are “wary of placing too heavy an emphasis” on the Dark Sky sites. There’s a simple explanation for that: the weather. However, he added: “We benefit in Waternish from having quite a number of amateur enthusiasts and have run evening filmed lecture events on astronomy which attracted a large number of supporters over the several weeks of the course. “Visit Waternish business and marketing group have now erected posts at their three dark sky discovery sites and have highlighted the exceptionally dark skies of their peninsula on their website. They are currently building a “Waternish in winter” page into their new leaflet which is aimed at extending the season across the full year. While praising the Dark Sky initiative, Prof Brown suggested that addtional support is required to make them work. “In Galloway, where there were jeep trips into the forest organised, there was a bit of a disaster. It’s not astronomy geeks that go to these sites but tourists, which is fair enough, but they often don’t know that much about the subject and unless there are people on hand or some equipment it doesn’t amount to much. In Galloway, you had these local amateur astronomers who were swamped with inquiries and they had to turn their websites off because they couldn’t cope.” If the idea is to extend the tourist season by attracting people to Skye in the winter, then there must be some investment in these facilities, he said, which might include paying professional astronomers or post-graduate students to give short introductions to the subject. Prof Brown was also heavily involved in the highly successful “Mars Day” held in Glenelg last October. Hundreds flocked to the village to celebrate the arrival of NASA’s Curiosity Rover at a point on the Martian surface also called Glenelg. It was a very timely end-of-season boost for the place (Earth, not Mars). “There are plans for another event this year,” he added. “Perhaps some kind of star party, but it has not been organised yet.” As well as the professionals, there are plenty of amateurs enjoying Skye’s lack of artifical light and its clear air. Robert Arnold’s stunning solar photography regularly appears on the spaceweather.com website — and most recently on the BBC’s Stargazing Live programmes — while Andrew Stables aurorae photos decorate the Glendale tourist guide website with splashes of trademark green and purple. These lightshows are another reason why the north west of Scotland is such a Mecca for astronomers. No wonder Skye has nine out of 50 Dark Sky sites. On a cloud-free winter’s night, there is nowhere better to look up in wonder. Mike Russell WHFP