tisdag 30 augusti 2011

Supernova Explosion in The Pinwheel Galaxy

Right now, big news sweep over the astronomy-world - a supernova explosion happened on the 24th of August in the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101) and it`s getting brighter!

In simple terms, a supernova is a very violent and powerful explosion of a star which release enormous amounts of energy. If such an explosion would occur within 100-200 lightyears from the Earth, it would mean the end of our planet, but luckily this supernova went off at a distance of approximately 23 million lightyear away. Even if this is far away, it is close on an astronomical scale and a rare opportunity to study a supernova in our galactic neighbourhood.

The supernova was discovered on August 24 by the Palomar Transient Factory, probably just hours after the onset, and is brightening rapidly. When it was discovered the magnitude was 17.2 and might reach 11th magnitude. The supernova is designated SN2011fe and is a Type-Ia supernova.

Unfortunately, the skies here in the North are still too bright for any visual observations, but hopefully it will be possible to glimpse this rare sight later during the autumn. Observers further south should make the most of the following nights however, while the Moon is new and out of the way.

Finding the location of the supernova is relatively easy, but seeing the supernova itself requires a telescope. It is located in the constellation "The Big Dipper" or Ursa major in the beautiful edge-on spiral galaxy M101 that can be found just north of the last two stars in the Big Dippers handle. The Galaxy itself can be seen in modest equipment, so unless you have a telescope at hand, long exposure photography will be needed to pick up the light.
Detailed finder chart: http://www.astro.caltech.edu/ptf/11kyl_finder.png

Below is a picture of the Galaxy (M101) taken with a normal DSLR and a 300mm lens.

The pinwheel Galaxy (M101) in Ursa major

onsdag 24 augusti 2011

Return of the Arctic Aurora

The midnight-sun period is a sore trial for amateur astronomers and northern lights photographers in teh high North, but after a long summer without stars (save one), the nights are finally starting to get darker. Last night I was watching the beautiful conjunction of Jupiter and the Moon when suddenly the first auroras of the season could be seen against the blue sky.

The skies are getting rapidly darker in the north now and with lots of activity on the Sun I believe this autumn and winter will indeed be a good season for northern lights. While waiting for the skies to get darker, why not read about the source of the northern lights - our explosive sun - in a new book release (see below)?

The first auroras in Tromsø for the season

Our Explosive Sun

While waiting for the skies to get darker and the northern lights to be seen again, why not read about the source of the auroras in the new popular science book: "Our Explosive Sun - A Visual Feast of Our Source of Light and Life" by renowed astronomy researcher and writer Dr. Pål Brekke at the Norwegian Space Centre.
The book is scheduled for release in September/October and covers most aspects of our stormy star - The Sun - and there is, of course, a section about the Sun-Earth connection and how the Sun creates the amazing northern lights.


Teaser from the book: Stormy Weather on the Sun - Beautiful Auroras on Earth

söndag 21 augusti 2011

Arctic Waders vs. Lemmings / Arktiske vadere vs. Lemen

The Little Stint / Dvergsnipe (Calidris minuta) and The Curlew Sandpiper / Tundrasnipe (Calidris ferruginea) are small waders with their breeding grounds in the High Arctic and their overwintering grounds in Africa and Asia. August and September are usually very good months for observing long-distance migrants on their migration south, and this autumn unusually many Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers can be seen on the mudflats in Troms - with the Litttle Stints even outnumbering the Dunlins/Myrsnipe sometimes!

Why are there so many of these tiny waders this year? Some studies suggest that the breeding success of little stints and curlew sandpipers may be related to the abundance of lemmings (Lemmus lemmus). When there are few lemmings, predatory birds like e.g. skuas and snowy owls take many little stints and curlew sandpipers, but when lemmings are abundant, they prefer the lemmings. It is well known from all over Scandinavia that 2011 has been an extraordinary good lemming year http://nordlysfoto.blogspot.com/2011/05/norwegian-lemmings-lemenar.html with unusually many breeding pairs of Snowy Owls and other species that depend on the lemmings and maybe this is, at least part, of the reason why these two species are so abuntant this year?

A quick look on the Norwegian report system for birds: http://artsobservasjoner.no/fugler/ shows that the number of "expected reports" for these two species (compared to the number of reports from the same period from earlier years (2007 - ), have increased by 88% and 59% for curlew sandpipers and little stints respectively.

Other species such as dunlins, ringed plovers, ruffs, spotted redshanks, redshanks and sanderlings (and an occasional crazy bird-watcher) may also be seen on the mudflats around Tromsø..

Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea)

Little Stint (Calidris minuta)

Curlew Sandpiper


Little Stint


Flock of Little Stints on Kvaløya, Norway

Is there a connection between some Arctic Waders and Norwegian Lemmings (Lemmus lemmus)?

onsdag 17 augusti 2011

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011

This year, more than 700 spectacular entries were submitted to the prestigeful international photo-competition "Astronomy Photographer of the Year - 2011"

The competition, which is organised by the Royal Observatory Greenwich and Sky at Night magazine, has attracted both proffessional astro-photographers and enthusiastic amateur astronomers all over the world. Shortlisted entries include some truely stunning shots of our Universe and the judging panel of well known photographers and astronomers, including veteran astronomer Sir Patrick Moore of the BBCs Sky at Night, will not have an easy task.

I am, of course, hoping that my own entry "Living in the Universe" - a panorama from the coast of Kvaløya in Northen Norway (and also the front page of this blog) will make it to the top of APOTY 2011, but, as judging from earlier years competitions have shown, whatever image that will win will be a worthy winner.

Living in the Universe

The winners will be announced on 9 September 2011 - I wish all my fellow night-sky photographer colleagues good luck and I`m looking forward to see some spectacular shots on the exhibition at the Royal Observatory Greenwich this autumn.

As a teaser, some of the entries can already be seen in various newspapers and other media:

The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/picture-galleries/8688878/The-2011-Astronomy-Photographer-of-the-Year-competition.html

Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/gallery/2011/aug/12/astronomy-photographer-year-2011-shortlist#/?picture=377796355&index=4

CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/europe/08/11/astronomy.space.pictures.greenwich/index.html?&hpt=hp_c2

lördag 13 augusti 2011

Killer Whale family

Killer whales, also known as Orcas (Orcinus orca) are some of the most charming animals of the sea, and now in August I was happy to encounter a very curious family group off the coast of Vesterålen.

Female orcas with a young animal (to the right)

The eye of a very curious old female

Killer whales are powerful swimmers

Three females surfacing together

onsdag 3 augusti 2011

Shearwaters - Oceanic Sea Birds

Shearwaters are long-winged, elegant, and often very long-lived seabirds. In Norwegian waters, normally two different species of shearwaters may be encountered, the Manx Shearwater/Havlire (Puffinus puffinus) and the Sooty Shearwater/Grålire (Puffinus griseus).

The Manx Shearwater is currently, to my knowledge, holding the record for being the oldest known wild bird. Being ringed as an adult back in 1953, one bird that had/has its breeding area in Northern Ireland was caught again in 2003 at an age of 55 years. They nest in burrows in colonies especially around Great Britain and Ireland, but may be seen as far north as Norway. Outside the breeding season they live pelagic far out at sea.

The Sooty Shearwater is larger and darker than the Manx Shearwater. Most shearwaters are long-distance migrants in the extreme, but none more so than the Sooty Shearwater. Having their breeding areas in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic areas, the Sooty Shearwaters migrate northwards during the Antarctic winter. Tracking data suggest that they migrate north along the North American side of the Atlantic and then back south again on the eastern side of the Atlantic. The birds that we may see in Norwegian waters (typically in September) are thus probably on their southward migration and approximately 14000 km from their breeding colonies on the Falkland Islands.

The shearwaters in the Pacific are even more extreme and recent tagging data shows that they may cover a distance of 65000 km during their annual migration - to be compared with the diameter of the Earth which is 40000 km. It has also been seen from tagging data that they may cover a distance of 1000 km/day when they travel in the nutrient-poor areas around the equator and that they are capable of diving down to a depth of 68 meters.

Both the Manx and the Sooty Shearwaters feed on fish, squid, cephalopods and crustaceans and often follow whales to catch fish disturbed by the feeding of the whales.

Typical view of a Sooty Shearwater


Sooty Shearwater together with a Killer Whale/Orca


Sooty Shearwater


Manx Shearwater on a stormy day


Manx Shearwater next to the blow of a Sperm Whale

Another oceanic seabird, that is closely related to the shearwaters, can be seen in great numbers off the Norwegian coast - the Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). Just like the shearwaters, fulmars spend most of their lives far out at sea and may become very old. They feed mostly on fish, but do not say no to a free lunch, like fish offal from a fishing-boat, or as here - a dead Sperm Whale.


Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmars feeding on the carcass of a dead Sperm Whale