About Starlady

Sheila came to La Palma with a six month contract as a software engineer for the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes. That was in 1990, and she's still here.

Our Solar System, to scale

Josh Worth has created what he calls a “tediously accurate scale model of the Solar System: If the moon were only 1 pixel

There’s lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of empty space out there.

A Supernova near Ursa Major

Galaxy M82 before (above) and after (below)  SN2014J.

Galaxy M82 before (above) and after (below) SN2014J. The bottom image was taken at 19:20 UT, 21st January 2014 using the automatic 35 cm telescope of the University of London Observatory.
Credit: UCL/University of London Observatory/Steve Fossey/Ben Cooke/Guy Pollack/Matthew Wilde/Thomas Wright

A new supernova has been spotted just 12 light years away in M 82, the Cigar galaxy, which is between Ursa Major (the Great Bear or Big Dipper) and Ursa Minor. It’s a type 1a supernova, which is what happens when a white dwarf sucks gas from a companion red giant, until the white dwarf reaches 1.4 solar masses (the Chandrasekhar mass) when the core becomes hot enough to fuse carbon, which starts a runaway reaction, and the whole star goes FOOM!

Since this is the 10th supernova spotted this year, its official name is SN 2014J (SN for supernova, 2014 for the year, and then the first supernova of the year is SN2014A, etc.). On Monday night it was magnitude 11 (easily visible through a small telescope), and it should reach maximum brightness on about January 31st. It might be visible through binoculars by then.

An astrophotography exhibition

The winners of the La Palma astrophotography competition getting their prizes in the island's museum

The winners getting their prizes

Every year La Palma holds an astrophotography contest, and the winning entries from the 2013 contest are now on display in the island’s museum. The inauguration was held on Friday night, and the winners received their prizes.

It’s well worth a visit, because the photos are wonderful, and the rest of the museum is interesting too.

The museum (and the exhibition) is open from 10 am – 8 pm Monday – Saturday, and 10 am – 2 pm on Sundays. The exhibition will be there until March 17th.

Invitation to the inauguration of the astrophotography exhibition

Invitation to the inauguration

Snow at the Observatory today

The MAGIC telescope this evening, with snow on the ground

The MAGIC telescope this evening

A new moon for the New Year

The thin crescent of the  new moon setting on January 2nd

The new moon setting on January 2nd

Happy new year.

We started 2014 with a new moon. Here it is setting on January 2nd from La Palma.

Schrödinger’s comet

As far as I can tell, Comet ISON is neither alive not dead, but in some stage in-between. Something came out from behind the sun. Watch this space.

R.I.P. Comet ISON (probably)

Comet ISON as seen by the Stereo space telescope. Credit NASA

Comet ISON as seen by the Stereo space telescope. Credit NASA

It looks like comet ISON has broken up.

I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised. The comet’s closest approach was just 1,165,000 km (724,000 mi) from the surface of the sun. This is not a safe place for a snowball.

The image above shows just how close it got. The black disc in the centre of the picture is called a cronograph. It covers up the sun so that you can see less-bright things nearby.

ISON formed some 4,500,000,000 million years ago with the rest of the Solar System. As far as we can tell, it’s spent all that time a very long way from the sun in the Oort cloud where it’s cold. Then gravitational nudges sent it falling into the inner Solar System. As it got closer to the sun, it warmed up of course, and the various ices started to boil off. That’s what forms the part you see – the original snowball of ISON was only ever 2 km across.

If NASA are wrong about this, and the comet has survived, it will put on a marvellous show in December, because it’ll be close to the Earth. I hope so – I got up early three times to try to see the comet, and every time there was one small cloud in front of it. I did at least get a nice view of Mercury and Saturn.

Path of comet ISON in December (if it survives) in the Northern hemisphere

Path of comet ISON in December (if it survives) in the Northern hemisphere

Comet ISON is visible to the naked eye

Comet ISON & Mt. Fuji photographed by Cochrane (@Sol1001) on Nov 16

Comet ISON & Mt. Fuji photographed by Cochrane (@Sol1001) on Nov 16

As comets approach the sun, they warm up and the head and tail grow bigger and brighter. ISON is now visible, in the constellation Virgo, near the bright star Spica. That’s in the east before dawn.

There’s a finder chart at http://www.aerith.net/comet/catalog/2012S1/2012S1.html
and more informationa at Phil Plait’s blog.

Please excuse the rush. I’m trying to finish a book of children’s stories about La Palma’s amazing night sky.

A lovely calendar

January from the Spanish version of StoryStellArt calendar 2014

January from the Spanish version of StoryStellArt calendar 2014

Vanessa Sancho is originally from Barcelona, but she’s been living in La Palma for the last 18 months. The island’s amazing skies inspired her to produce very good pastel paintings of nebulae. She’s crowdfunding a calendar of her paintings, and I’ve already signed up for one.

The calendar is A4 (opens to A3) and each month includes a colour painting, an explanation of what it is an where you can find it in the sky, a bit of a celestial myth or legend, plus things like the phases of the moon and the dates of the main meteor showers, eclipses and planetary conjunctions. It also looks like there’s space to write, “Dentist, 3 pm” or “Aunt Susan arrives” which is something I really need and many calendars don’t have. See why I got one?

If you haven’t come across crowdfunding before, this is how it works. You go to the website and look at details of the project. If you want to support it, you sign up. Typically, there are rewards for a certain contribution. For example, if you contribute 10€ to the calendar project, you get a calendar (you’ll also have to pay postage later) or if you contribute 45€ you get the calendar, plus a story-telling session, a visit to a farm which makes goats’ cheese. Here’s the good part – you don’t pay a penny yet. You don’t pay until (if!) the project gets enough funding to go ahead.

You can get more details of the StorySTellArt Calendar 2014 at
It’s available in English, Spanish or Catalan.