SkyMatters: This October sees Ireland’s first National Space Week

The month of October is somewhat special this year as Ireland welcomes its first National Space Week, running from October 3rd – 8th and coordinated by Blackrock Castle Observatory in Cork. 

You can see what events are running, or register your own events, on www.spaceweek.ie. Already, there is a really exciting and diverse mix of events from around the country, emphasising the interest that Irish people have in space.

That interest should not surprise us too much. Ireland has a long and rich heritage in space. For example, the oldest known and unequivocally astronomically-aligned structure is Newgrange in Co. Meath, built over 5000 years ago and still operational to this day. The stunning architecture and sophisticated design of this prehistoric tomb leaves no doubt as to the intent of the builders and their expertise in executing their cutting-edge design. If there were prizes for “smart tombs”, Newgrange would surely dominate the awards.

Another example of our heritage is the Leviathan of Parsonstown, a giant telescope with a 6-ft diameter mirror built during the famine times in Birr in Co Offaly by the 3rd Earl of Rosse and people from the locality who would have been considered largely uneducated.

It was the largest telescope in the world when constructed and remained so for 70 years – an incredible feat of engineering and imagination. This story continues today, with an element of Europe’s largest radio telescope being built within a few hundred meters of the Leviathan (see www.ilofar.ie).

The autumn sky is a visual feast for the skywatcher and October has two meteor showers. Peaking on October 7th is the Draconids – a minor meteor shower producing about 10 meteors per hour.

The Draconids are best viewed in the early evening instead of the early morning like most other showers.

The second shower visible in October, the Orionids, produces up to 20 meteors per hour at maximum, peaking on the evening of October 21st and the morning of 22nd.

The Orionids are produced when the Earth ploughs into dust grains left behind by the most famous comet of them all, Halley. The comet is named after the astronomer Edmund Halley, but he did not discover it. In fact records of comet Halley go back to at least 240 BCE and it was observed by the Chinese, Babylonians and many others since.

The reason why the comet is named in honour of Halley is that he was the first to realise that the observations of a bright comet in 1531, 1607 and 1682 were of one and the same comet and he confirmed this using the relatively recent laws of motion discovered by Isaac newton. Halley goes around the sun once every 75 years and is due to return in 2061.

Unfortunately, from a meteor-watching point of view, the Orionids will be somewhat drowned out from the light of a full moon on October 22nd and to make matters a little worse this full moon is a so-called “supermoon”. A supermoon is one where the moon is full (or new) when it’s also close to perigee (the point where the moon is closest to the earth in its monthly orbit). That makes a full supermoon a little brighter and larger than it otherwise appears.

DID YOU KNOW?

Ireland invests about €15m in the European Space Agency every year, but the estimated return is a factor of 8 to 1. The annual global space industry market is estimated to be valued at €300 billion presently.

Dr. Niall Smith is Head of Research at CIT and Head of Blackrock Castle Observatory. If you have any questions, skymatters@irishexaminer.com


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