Sunday, 15 April 2012

Exploring the Dark Side of Bute

April 14th 2012 and it was time to head for the islands again!   I'd been asked by Sylvia Jardine, president of the Bute Astronomical Club, to visit the Isle of Bute, in the Firth of Clyde, to help them with an exciting new project they are planning.  Note quite as exciting as my friend and fellow astronomer Steve Owen's expedition (and 6-day ferry journey!) to St Helena, but a nice postscript to my recent Hebridean odyssey.

The Bute Astronomical Club's proposal, being spearheaded together with the Bute Conservation Trust, is to build a Science and Heritage Centre and Observatory, together with an outdoor activity centre, at Meikle Kilmory Farm on the west side of the island.  The land is owned by the Mount Stuart estate, which has a long history of connections with astronomy.

Celestial ceiling in Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute

Before any of that, however, first of all it was off to Glasgow Airport to collect Prof Joan Centrella, Deputy Head of the Astrophysics Division of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and world-leading expert on black holes.  Joan is visiting Glasgow and other SUPA institutions for 4 weeks, to give some lectures on numerical relativity - explaining for non-specialists the recent breakthroughs that have allowed us for the first time to model fully the mergers of black holes, which she has pioneered with her collaborator John Baker, and for which they have recently won various awards.

Joan's flight arrived just about on time, so before she could check into her hotel we paid a visit to Offshore on Gibson St, which is currently previewing an exhibition on multimessenger astronomy which I have put together for Glasgow Science Festival 2012.  I'll write much more about the exhibition in a later blog post, and it will soon also have its own dedicated web content, but one of the exhibition images is based on Joan's work simulating black hole mergers, so it was great to let Joan herself preview it in Offshore's basement gallery.

By lunchtime it was off to Wemyss Bay, in time to catch the 1405 ferry to Rothesay.  After all the long ferry journeys of my Island Universe tour for National Science and Engineering Week, the 35 minute crossing to Bute was going to seem exceedingly short, but the weather was good and there was still enough time to capture yet more stunning scenery, looking northwards along Loch Striven.

Sylvia met me at the ferry terminal and we drove over to the far side of the island, and the proposed site which overlooks St Ninian's Bay.   The middle of an April Saturday afternoon isn't perhaps the best time to site test a potential astronomical observatory, but thanks to the wonder of stellarium and my newly installed compass app, I was able to get a good sense of what would be visible and when from the proposed site:

The answer appears to be "a lot"!   The Meikle Kilmory site has a wide open sky, with a very low horizon towards the west and north (looking out towards Arran, the Mull of Kintyre and the hills of Argyll).  The horizon is fairly low in the east and south too - although the hills on that side should do a good job of blocking the streetlights of Rothesay, helping making this a pretty dark site (ok, not as good as Tiree, but then where is?!).  

So all in all it looks like this could be a very good dark sky site.  I look forward to helping bring the plans to fruition - and who knows, hopefully visiting a new observatory on Bute in a couple of years.

Together with the exciting developments at the Galloway Forest Park Dark Sky Observatory, in which I'm also trying to play my part, and of course the existing great observatories, like the Highlands Astronomical Society's JSL Observatory in Culloden, things are really looking up for public astronomy in Scotland!

After a nice meal at the Esplanade Hotel, it was back onto the ferry for the short crossing back to the mainland - with just enough time to catch a shot of the Arran hills and the Ailsa Craig in the distance...

...and to pass the MV Isle of Bute making the return journey in the other direction.

May the force be with you

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