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Fabulous Frosty Night Ahead!

Finally, FINALLY it looks like we’re going to have a clear night across much of the UK tonight, and there are even predictions of a “hard frost” in places, so it looks like skywatchers and stargazers, starved for a long time now of anything to see, will be able to get out and enjoy a beautiful starry night tonight. Telescopes and cameras will be out, and amateur astronomers will be gleefully hunting down nebulae, galaxies, star clusters and comets until they get frostbite…

Of course, that’s fine if you know what you’re looking for, or at. What if you don’t? What if you’re not an amateur astronomer, but you want to go out tonight and enjoy looking at the beautiful clear, starry sky? What will you be able to see in it?

Read on… :-)

The first thing you’ll notice when you go outside after dark, around 8.30pm maybe, is that there is a very – very! – bright star blazing high in the south. It will look “big” to your eye, and a beautiful blue-white colour, like a diamond. What is this star? Well, it’s not actually a star – it’s a planet. It’s JUPITER, the largest of all the planets!

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Jupiter is so huge it’s twelve times wider than the Earth, so enormous it could contain a thousand Earths! And unlike Earth, which is a solid body, Jupiter is essentially a massive bloated ball of gases and liquids. Astronomers call it a “gas giant”, and if you flew there you couldn’t land on it because there’s nothing TO land on! A thick churning atmosphere painted with countless thousands of storms is what we see when we look at it through a telescope, or on images taken by space probes sent there. So, there, you see? You don’t need a telescope to see something amazing in the night sky. Tonight you’ll be able to see Jupiter, King of the Planets, with just your naked eye, as soon as it gets dark. In fact, look overhead at around seven o’clock, when it’s still too light to see any stars, and you’ll see Jupiter shining there already…

Having found Jupiter, what else can you see tonight? Well, look just below Jupiter and you’ll see a rather noticeable pattern of stars, looking like an hourglass…

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This is the famous constellation “Orion”, one of the most famous constellations in the whole sky (and there are 88 of those, by the way). All its stars are fainter than Jupiter, but on a clear night like tonight is expected to be you’ll be able to see them easily with the naked eye. Looking at Orion you’ll notice there is a line of three stars, all of roughly the same brightness, in its middle. You already know what this is, even if you haven’t seen it before, because it’s very famous – this is “Orion’s Belt”!

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Why does a pattern of stars even have a belt? Because Orion is named after a famous mythical hunter, and, like all good hunters, Orion had a belt to keep his clothes on while he was running around chasing his prey, that’s why!

Orion’s belt isn’t just a striking trio of stars, it’s also very useful for helping skywatchers find other things in the night sky. If you imagine it as an arrow pointing down to the left, it will guide you to a very bright blue white star…

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This star is called “Sirius” and it’s the brightest star in the whole sky. You’ll have seen it before, many times, I’m sure, especially on cold and frosty winter nights when it is higher than it is now. Sirius appears to sparkle and flash like a jewel. It doesn’t actually change brightness tho, that’s just its light being broken up and distorted as it passes through our atmosphere.

Having found Sirius, go back to Orion’s Belt and this time imagine it as an arrow pointing upwards to the right. Then it will guide you to a small knot or clump of small, faint blue stars, which – if you have good eyesight – might remind you of a miniature version of the famous Big Dipper. This group (or “cluster”) of stars is called “The Pleiades” to astronomers, but it also has a popular nickname – “The Seven Sisters”…

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Why is it called that? Because if you have good eyesight, and are looking at the sky from somewhere really dark,  you can see seven stars in the cluster. Those with poorer eyesight, or looking at it from somewhere with light pollution, won’t see as many. But if you have a pair of binoculars handy you will be able to see the cluster’s seven brightest stars easily, and many more fainter ones too.

Right, what’s next? Well, if you can stay out until around half past nine, and can bear to leave Orion behind – we’ll come back later, don’t worry  – you should look way, waay over to Orion’s left, to the east, and look for an orange-red star quite low down, with a fainter, bluer star close to its lower right…

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As the picture tells you, this red star isn’t a star, it’s another planet – the famous planet “Mars”. The blue star close by is called “Spica”.

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If you’re somewhere really dark you’ll notice Mars’s red colour is very obvious. That’s because the planet – which is half the size of Earth, and very cold, as it’s much further from the Sun than we are – has a very dusty, rusty surface. Through a telescope astronomers can see features and markings on its surface, but your binoculars won’t show them, sorry.

Now, if you can stay out – or if you go back inside to warm up and come back out again later – you’ll be able to see a THIRD planet in the sky, possibly the most famous planet of all – Saturn! Saturn currently lies to the lower left of Mars, but it doesn’t rise until around 11pm, so it’s a bit harder to see than Jupiter, which is already visible after sunset, or Mars, which rises at just after 8pm. Saturn definitely looks more yellow than red Mars or blue-white Jupiter, and there are no other bright stars close to it so you’ll be able to spot it pretty easily.

Saturn is, of course, famous for its beautiful rings, and at the moment astronomers are drooling over them as they gaze at them through their telescopes, because the rings look particularly stunning at the moment… but you do need a telescope to see them, a pair of binoculars just isn’t powerful enough, sorry. But hey, just finding Saturn in the sky tonight will be pretty amazing, don’t you think? :-)

Oh, I said I was going to go back to Orion, didn’t I? Well, if you’re out at around 8pm, as the sky is getting nice and dark, find Orion’s Belt, and then look just below it on the left hand side. Look closely and you’ll see a shorter, vertical line of three more stars, fainter than those in the Belt…

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What is it? Well, all hunters need weapons, and this is one of Orion’s…

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To the naked eye the Sword does look just like a small line of three stars. But if you look at it through binoculars you’ll see this…

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The middle star of the Sword isn’t a star at all. It’s a “nebula”, a huge cloud of gas and dust where stars are being born, in other words a “stellar nursery”. Through a good small telescope it looks like this…

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…and long exposure photographs taken through large telescopes look like this…

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But it’s important to note astronomers don’t see those colours through their telescopes, they only appear on long exposure photographs when the faint hues and shades have built up over several hours.

So, there you go… assuming the weather forecasters are correct, and it is clear and frosty, if you wrap up warm you will be able to see some pretty fantastic sights in the sky tonight. Tip: although you will be able to see all these things from your garden (unless you live in the middle of a big town or city, where there are so many lights they ruin our view of the night sky) if you possibly can, find and go somewhere properly dark, even if it’s just the park or school playing field up the road. The darker your observing site, the more stars you’ll see, and the brighter and clearer they’ll be, too. If you can jump in the car and get out of town altogether, out into the countryside, boy, you’ll be in for a treat. The sky will be ablaze with stars!

And if you’re a real night owl – or if you set your alarm for silly o’clock – the sky will be beautiful as dawn approaches too. If you go outside around 5am, just as the eastern sky is brightening, you’ll see something truly lovely…

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Look at that, a planetary parade! On either side of the Moon you’ll see a planet or planets. To the Moon’s right, Saturn and Mars will still be visible. To the Moon’s left. low down, Venus will be blazing brilliantly, looking like a lantern shining in the sky.

Obviously there’s a lot more to see if you know what you are looking for, have a telescope and know the sky, but this is a guide to the most obvious things people with no big fancy observing equipment  and no prior knowledge of the sky.  I hope you’ve found this guide useful, and will head out this evening and enjoy this long overdue fabulous frosty night!

Some thoughts on the new COSMOS

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So, I finally got around to watching ep1 of the reboot of COSMOS.

First impressions? Well, it looks absolutely *gorgeous*, some really beautiful images and SFX are in there which really take the viewer to the places featured. Personally I don’t mind the “Ship of the Imagination”, it does the job, getting NdGT from A to B in style, even if on the outside it is a bit like something left on the cutting room floor when they were shooting “The Phantom Menace”…

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…and the inside looks like the bridge of Picard’s first Enterprise…

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Enough about the pretty pictures! What about the important stuff, the science? Well, the science was pretty good too – suitably lightweight for a modern science TV series (let’s not kid ourselves that this new COSMOS is going to be an exhaustive, in depth science journey, ok? It’s a popular science program, for a mass audience, and that’s absolutely fine) and apart from a few “No! That’s wrong!” moments – i.e. the flight through the asteroid belt, which was totally unrealistic, with huge spinning rocks tumbling everywhere, just like the classic scene from “The Empire Strikes Back” – it was comprehensive and detailed enough to be educational and stimulating. This is a series which WILL inspire a new generation, and will send many people, young and old, out into their gardens to look at the sky with new eyes.

Having said that, I *hate* the style of the animation, which really looks cheap and cheapens the overall feel of the show. Lots of discussion on FB and elsewhere re the accuracy of Giordano Bruno’s story, but what struck me was that it looked so clompy and dull it really took something away from the show, but that could just be me, others probably loved it.

My main problem with it – not really a problem, I suppose, more of a personal meh – is the presenter, Neil deGrasee Tyson. I know, I know, he’s a great communicator, he’s beloved amongst US science types, he’s got a voice that a Jedi Knight would kill for but… but… well, there didn’t seem to be any joy about him as he travelled around the universe. He went through the first episode communicating well, saying all the right things, giving the facts and figures, but it felt a bit, well, cold, detached. Carl Sagan’s face shone with the golden light of joy and wonder in the original COSMOS, he came across as someone utterly infatuated with the universe, as bewitched by the beauty of nebulae and galaxies as Romeo was by Juliet. Watching him, originally all those years ago on TV and more recently on the DVDs, I found myself smiling at his child-like crush on the cosmos. That’s what made the original series so poetic for me – I was being led by the hand, across the universe, across time and space, by someone who felt the beauty of the universe as a physical thing, like warm summer rain on his face. Watching Tyson I just didn’t get that. Maybe that just wasn’t possible – how the hell do you follow Carl Sagan – and maybe he’ll warm up in future episodes. Tyson’s personal tributes to and reminiscences of Carl were moving and heartfelt, I thought.

So, criticisms aside, I think the new COSMOS is something worthy of support from everyone “into” astronomy and space exploration. It will, I have no doubt, take its viewers on a fascinating and greatly enjoyable trip, and inspire many of them to look at the sky and learn more about astronomy and the universe around them. And let’s be honest: at a time when the TV channels are shamelessly featuring and groaning under the weight of crap about “Ancient Aliens”, UFOs, and Bigfoot, and Kim Kardashian’s arse is worshipped like a 21st century god, any big budget, high profile astronomy series needs to be supported and promoted as much as possible. We owe that to the kids who want to know what “that star” is called. We owe that to the teachers struggling to teach their classes about evolution and science in the face of Creationist bullshit. We owe that to the amateur astronomer stood in their garden at midnight, peering into their telescope eyepiece at the tiny smudge of a comet that only a few dozen people will ever see. We owe it to Carl, who, had been alive today, would surely be appalled and enraged by the relentless pitchfork- and flaming torch carrying march of the anti-science army across the US and the globe.

Watch COSMOS. Enjoy it for what it is and don’t mourn its lost opportunities and mistakes too much. The alternative is another series about Nibiru, or lost alien civilisations, or angels…

A comet sails up the Milky Way…

Comets are found almost daily now, there are so many automated searches and amateur astronomers sweeping and scanning the sky for them. We all live in hope of a Great Comet being discovered – one which will be big and bright to the naked eye in the sky, you know, like ISON looked like it was going to be but in the end didn’t? – but the vast majority of comets discovered are destined to never get past the “small, dim smudge in a telescope eyepiece” stage. Which is fine; they’re all worth looking for and observing scientifically, as each one tells us something new and fascinating about comets.

Occasionally though, one of these comets offers us a little “something extra”, and that’s the case with newly-discovered “Comet Jacques”, or C/2014 E2 to give it its full title. Here’s one of the most recent images of it, showing it already has a coma…

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Comet C/2014 E2 Jacques photographed from Siding Spring Observatory on March 14, 2014. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

Comet Jacques was discovered on March 13th, and calculations of its orbit suggest it will be well placed for southern hemisphere observers, and might become a binocular object for northern hemisphere observers in late July too, when it will be here…

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By August 12th, as we’re all looking forward to the annual Perseid meteor shower, Jacques will be here – IN Perseus, where the meteors will come from…

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How bright will it get? Don’t know. It’s currently at around magnitude 11, which is faint, i.e. need-a-telescope-to-see-it faint, but it will get brighter as it closes in on the Sun and the Earth too, so by August it could well be a binocular comet. We’ll just have to wait and see.

But there are two very interesting things about Comet Jacques. Firstly, it’s path around the Sun will take it quite close to Venus. How close is “quite”? Well, just over 8 million miles away. That’s a long, long way to us here on Earth – we’re used to thinking places a hundred miles apart are a long way apart – but in astronomical terms that’s quite a close approach.

Of course, this means that the nutters and fruit loops who last year so confidently and fervently predicted Comet ISON would hit Mars or knock it out of orbit as it passed the Red Planet are going to crawl out from under their stones again and make the same pathetic Get A Life predictions for Jacques in relation to Venus, but they’ll be talking the same BS as always, so please try your best to ignore them. I know it’s hard, they’re everywhere, infesting Forums and Twitter and Facebook like rats in a sewer, and I can already imagine the dribbling lunatics, fake scientists and ranting Pastors declaring on their YouTube channels that the comet will interact magnetically/electrically with Venus, or envelop it in its poisonous coma, or send it spinning towards Earth… some will undoubtedly say that Jacques is “Nibiru”, sigh… but when Jacques sails harmlessly past Venus without anything happening they’ll all go quiet again and forget they ever said anything and move on to the next thing.

The other interesting thing is Comet Jacques’ path across the sky. Look…

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The comet is going to move right along the Milky Way, like a boat sailing up a river. How cute is that? Of course, this isn’t such good news for comet-watchers and imagers, who will be looking for a faint comet amongst the star clouds of the Milky Way, but I bet astro-imagers like Damian Peach will still get some gorgeous pictures..!

If you’d like to read more about this comet, there’s a brilliant article on it over on Universe Today:

Nibiru revealed!!

Wow! Look! One of my photos taken at Hadrian’s Wall last night has caught the planet Nibiru! Fantastic! And I’ve been a cynic all these years! How wrong was I? Although for some reason I couldn’t see it with my eye, it’s as clear as day on the photo, a whole planet – usually hidden from our view by chemtrails and force fields and all kinds of strange harmonious resonances – there right next to the Moon!

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Now, I know what you’re thinking – “It’s a lens flare, Stu..!” Don’t be silly. Come on, which makes more sense – that pointing my camera at a blindingly bright light in the sky introduced internal reflections in the lens, which showed up as a spherical flare on the pic, or there really is a ghost planet out there in our solar system, inhabited by godlike aliens, or even angels, ploughing towards us from the depths of space, undetected by every single one of the world’s telescopes, undetected by any of the armada of space probes currently exploring the solar system, undetected by any of the hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers who patrol the sky every hour of every day, with state of the art telescopes and cameras, but seen and photographed regularly by people who point their cameras at the Sun, and Moon, then skilfully stretch their images’ contrast and saturation until they scream for mercy but finally reveal Nibiru -  often the same people who believe astronauts never landed on the Moon, and insist that the air is being poisoned by chemical trails spewed out by secret Government aircraft, and that recent visitor to our skies Comet ISON was a fleet of alien spacecraft?

Ah, see? Not laughing now, are you..?

Stargazing at Housesteads Roman Fort

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Had a very enjoyable time up at Housesteads Roman Fort last night, assisted as ever by Stella, holding an astronomy outreach event for the National Trust…

The Fort is literally in the middle of nowhere – not far from Kielder, where we were recently – so is a great dark sky site for observing the night sky. And that was the plan: to do some Moon- and star-gazing after one of my illustrated talks, in a building up a path, away from the visitor centre, up close to the fort ruins, with a lovely big screen and a big, wide open area to set up the telescopes and stargaze from. Perfect!

…unfortunately someone had decided to take it upon themselves to change the plan at the last minute, and I ended up giving my talk at the visitor centre/shop itself, in a cramped upstairs mezzanine room that was long and narrow, like an airplane cabin, with more windows than a greenhouse and no blackout curtains either. It was possibly the worst room I’ve ever had to give a talk in in all my years of doing this, and I wasn’t able to start my talk until gone 6.30, when it was dark enough to actually see the screen. But we improvised – you learn to be versatile and adaptable when you do Outreach! – and I took everyone outside to look at the Moon through my telescopes before the talk. All the 45 or so people who came along to the event were clearly amazed by the view. Adults looked through my main reflector, the little ‘uns through my small refractor – set at perfect Munchkin height! – and there were lots of gasps of “Wow!” and “That’s amazing!” as many people looked into a telescope for the first time.

Back inside then for my talk, “A Tourist Guide To The Universe”, which everyone seemed to enjoy, despite the rather cramped conditions, before heading back outside to look at the sky again. Thankfully the sky was still clear enough for a really good view of the Moon and Jupiter, and with the wind too strong to risk going up to the Fort as we had originally planned, instead we all went out onto a small area behind the visitor centre to look through my telescopes again, and enjoyed stunning views of the 1st quarter Moon, and all 4 Galileans were on view too…

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I used a laser pointer to point out some of the sky sights I’d mentioned during my talk – Orion’s Belt, the Plough, Little Dipper and more – before taking everyone back inside, out of the wind, and showing some of my meteorites, which were very popular.

So, all in all a very successful night – despite the unnecessary interference at the last minute – mainly thanks to Jonny Tomlinson, the event organiser, and his great team, who battled on through the changes to keep the event on track and also made Stella and I so welcome, showing us around the incredible fort before we got started, which was hugely atmospheric, with the buffeting wind and low Sun!

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I took some photos from the car park before we headed home, and was very impressed with how many stars are visible on them, in spite of the hazy cloud and blindingly-bright Moon…

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…and it left me wondering how stunningly starry the sky there would be on a night with no Moon… Looking forward to going back soon and finding out!

If you’ve never been up to Housesteads I can heartily recommend it. The Fort ruins are very accessible, and the whole site is so atmospheric it’s like stepping back in time. Looking forward to going back there already.

Kielder Spring Starcamp 2014

Yes, we did it again. Undeterred by our previous visits, which involved snow, or rain, or mud, or all three, Stella and I went up to Kielder Forest last week to attend the 2014 Kielder Spring Starcamp, for a weekend of stargazing, talks and astronomical cameraderie. Joined by two of our fellow EAS members, Carol and Simon, we had our fingers crossed that this time the weather gods would look generously upon us and bless us with clear, starry skies. The drive up was promising, two hours or so of sunshine and showers, through breathtaking scenery, a new rainbow every five minutes, or so it seemed…

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…and when we got to the campsite the sky was beautiful, crystal blue, with just a few clouds piling up in the south west…

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When we arrived we were greeted by the usual friendly, familiar faces, but given the bad news that, after all the recent rain – the UK has almost sunk under the weight of all the water that’s fallen from the sky, and Northumberland has clearly had more than its fair share – a lot of the electric hook up pitches were unavailable, the ground just too waterlogged to be usable. We briefly considered pitching here, but thought better of it…

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…and eventually settled on a site at the very top of the field, snuggled up amongst several caravans, motor homes and other tents, which looked very much like the last available patch of ground that looked like it had a sporting chance of supporting our tent. Eventually we were set up and ready to dive back into the starcamp experience…

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Darkness fell, and, peeking through gaps in the cloud, the stars came out…

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… but with the forecast looking rather dodgy, to say the least, Stella and I decided to head right down the campsite for a bite to eat while we had a chance, before getting soaked. That’s when things started to get interesting…

While we were sat in the pub, Twitter began to twitch with reports of aurora from the far north of Scotland. Then from central Scotland. Then from our part of the world, Northumberland… then Yorkshire… then, incredibly, Devon. DEVON! Something big was going on, but when we went outside we found our sky – typically and frustratingly – cloudy, but for a couple of tiny starry gaps in the west. Of aurora, there was no sign. But as we made our way back up the campsite, heading back to our tent, the northern sky’s blanket of cloud began to thin, the odd star appearing, so I set up my camera and took a couple of test shots, not really expecting to see anything but figuring it was worth a try…

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There was something there. The sky behind the cloud was red…!

But there was a lot of cloud, a LOT of cloud, and although it was clear from the breathless reports on Twitter and Facebook that a major auroral storm was going on, and being observed across the UK, we were being cheated of it. Typical! We travel north, to one of the darkest places in the country, at the time an aurora kicks off, only to be thwarted by cloud, while people back home, in Cumbria, were seeing it!

There was nothing to do but wait it out, so for the next five hours or so, until gone 03.30 the next morning, several of us played “Hunt The Aurora”, hiding in the campsite warm room, dashing out whenever a gap in the clouds appeared. And eventually our patience and perseverence paid off, because around 2am there was a big enough gap in the clouds to allow us to see what was going on. Activity had died down a little by then, but I was still able to get photos like these…

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Eventually the colours faded and the aurora lost its power, and as the clouds rolled over the northern sky, hiding any further activity from us, I decided to call it a night and headed back into the tent and went to bed…

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The next morning dawned misty and cool, but apart from when its night sky is clear and starry this is my favourite time to be at Kielder because it just looks so beautiful…

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Friday was a beautifully sunny day, and we took advantage of the good weather to head up to the famous Kielder Observatory, which is about a ten min drive from the campsite, way up on a hilltop, overlooking the Kielder countryside like a castle, or a survivalist fortress…

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Inside the observatory has some stunning-looking telescopes, through which visitors are able to enjoy beautiful views of the universe…

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And of course the view from the observatory is just beautiful…

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Later, back down at the campsite, the weather took a bit of a turn for the worse, and we caught up with Carol planning her evening’s viewing…

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…and later the stars did come out, but it was a misty, hazy, murky kind of night, and the photos I took, although pretty, and far better than I’d take on a clear night from the middle of Kendal, weren’t a patch on those I’ve taken during our previous visits…

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Eventually cloud rolled back in and bed beckoned…

Next day, Saturday, was very busy. Saturday up at Kielder is “Talks and Shop Day”, when activity moves from the campsite up to Kielder Castle, where several tradespeople set up stands of eyepieces, telescopes and other tempting astronomical goodies, and several guest speakers give illustrated talks. I gave a talk back in October – when we were all hoping Comet ISON would put on a good show – and I offered to give another one this time, but was told they try to not have the same speakers at consecutive events, so I was a little surprised to find that people who had spoken in October’s were going to be speaking again this time, but not to worry, the talks were all very good, on a wide variety of subjects…

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I didn’t buy anything from the trade stands, nothing caught my eye this time, so I headed back to the tent where poor Stella was struggling with a really nasty cough. Didn’t manage any stargazing that night because the weather just didn’t co-operate, and the next day dawned drizzly and a bit bleak, and soon after a gorgeous Stargazers Special full breakfast up at the castle the rain set in, so we retreated back to the tent again. It rained on and off for the rest of the day, and then – after a last get together meal up at the castle – all night too, so much so that soon the floor of our tent was rippling like a water bed as water built up underneath it. Not a very comfortable feeling – unless, of course you’re a mischevious cat (seen below, plotting), who thinks it’s great fun to jump off the bed and land on the ripply floor and fee it undulate and roll beneath you, before jumping back onto the bed and doing it all again…

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The next morning our little pitch looked like this…

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…but at least it was sunny as we packed up our tent and prepared to head home. By now there were very few people left on the campsite, only a few die hards left on the field, everyone else having gone home, but eventually our things were packed away, cat and rabbit were tucked safely into the car, and we were off too.

Again, we had a very enjoyable time – the Starcamp organisers are brilliant, the campsite staff couldn’t be more helpful or friendly, and the skywatchers who go to the Kielder starcamps are all friendly too, and more than and happy to share equipment, views and experiences (although some are friendlier than others, it has to be said; some there this time didn’t seem quite so keen on mingling, but some people go there to do serious observations and photography so they won’t want distracting or interrupting, I realise) – and it was great to catch up with some of the new friends we’ve made there. Kielder is a beautiful place, and the campsite is very pretty. But it was a bit like an astronomical Glastonbury this time. Although it’s true that the weather has been absolutely appalling recently, and everywhere has suffered as a result, they do need to tackle the drainage issues there; it was more than a little miserable being in a tent this time, with all that mud and water everywhere, and it has left us wondering if next Spring – if we haven’t moved up from a tent to something a little more advanced (and more waterproof) we should maybe take a stargazing holiday further north, way up in the north of Scotland. But we’ll see. It’s such a great starcamp to go to I’d hate to miss it. I’m sure they’ll get a grip of the drainage thing.

The one low point of the weekend was when we drove to nearby Bellingham, seeking some medical advice re Stella’s awful cough. Foolishly we assumed that calling into the pharmacy there would gain us some expert advice and care from the pharmacist and their staff – after all, we’re always being told to seek their advice instead of bothering doctors, aren’t we? – but they really couldn’t have been less helpful. The pharmacist couldn’t even be bothered to come out front and talk to us in person, preferring instead to stay out of reach in the back, and mumble something about a “chest infection” to one of her staff, who then suggested we could try ringing NHS Direct before selling us a bottle of expensive cough syrup and a box of paracetamols. Very poor service indeed.

If you’re wondering if you should go to a starcamp, my advice would be a resounding YES! JUST GO! You’ll love it! You’ll meet only friendly, enthusiastic and generous people, and even if you don’t get to see the stars themselves you’ll learn a lit while you’re there and make some great new friends too. Starcamps aren’t elitist, or snobby, they’re great opportunities to get out under the stars, with people who share your interest. If you’re pondering going to one, stop faffing about and book your place. You’ll be glad you did!

A Vision of Earth

A few days ago, many millions of miles away, as the Sun dropped towards the rugged rim of an ancient, huge crater on an alien planet with volcanoes and canyons which dwarf the largest on Earth, a nuclear powered robot rolled to a halt after a day of driving. As its dented and torn wheels locked in place for the night, a fine rain of cinnamon-hued dust hissing from them, it lifted its unblinking electronic eyes to the darkening sky and stared into the sunset. As the Sun vanished behind the distant mountains, snuffed out like a candle flame, all traces of the daytime sky’s subtle pink and lemon shades fled, replaced by an icy, almost metallic blue, and as the temperature plunged, and the shadow of the enormous layered mountain off to the rover’s side began to crawl across the rock- and boulder-strewn crater floor, Curiosity scanned the dusk…

A few hand widths above the far horizon, glinting like sequins against the darkening sky, a pair of stars – one blue and bright, one silver and fainter – huddled close together against the brutal cold, and stared back at the rover in silence…

With a barely audible click and whirr, Curiosity’s camera recorded the scene, again, and again, and again. Moments later it fell silent, just as night fell like a black cloak thrown over the floor of Gale Crater, and the two stars sank slowly towards, and then dropped out of sight behind, the crater’s rim.

Soon after, those photos were heading back to Earth, where Mars scientists and enthusiasts alike were waiting impatiently for their arrival, having hoped, and dreamed, about them for months, in some cases years. When they finally appeared on their screens, displayed freely on web pages for all to see, the images were full of stars, as if spattered by paint from an artist’s brush, or snow from a dog’s wagging tail, but the scientists and enthusiasts knew all but two of those “stars” were imposters, just electronic noise recorded by the camera as it photographed its intended subjects…

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Around the world the image enthusiasts attacked the speckly twilight images with relish, getting to work on them with their image processing software, stitching the different images together, removing the static, and teasing detail, structure and form out of the murk. One of them, Damia Bouic, created something… wonderful, something beautiful, which she then posted online for everyone to see. This is her image…

Sol529_Mastcam34 Damia

If you peer closely and carefully at that image you might just be able to see a lone speck of light in the sky above that rugged horizon… click on the image and you’ll bring up a much larger version, and the speck will stand out much more clearly. But what is it?

That speck of light, that little blue dot, that unremarkable-looking star”  is us. That’s Earth, shining in the sunset sky on Mars as the Red Planet’s Evening Star…

Sol529_Mastcam34 crop

And that’s what Curiosity was photographing from the floor of Gale Crater – she was taking a portrait of Earth. From Mars.

Even more careful and clever processing of the image sent back by Curiosity reveals not just one but two stars, almost impossibly close together: Earth and the Moon, shining in Barsoom’s dusk sky. Quite incredible.

Since then, of course, Damia’s image – and other versions of the same scene, rendered by other image enthusiasts – has spread around the world, and has been seen by millions. NASA put out their own version, too. And Curiosity’s portrait of Earth is already being hailed, just days after being taken, as an iconic image.

Although they were a novelty just a decade or so ago, images of the Earth from space are taken quite regularly now. Essentially, every probe sent Out There which can take a picture of Earth from wherever it is, does. It’s great PR for NASA, or ESA, or whichever agency is responsible for the hardware, because even after all these years there’s something very special about images showing the Earth from space. They speak to us, call out to us, reach into us and pluck at our jaded, cynical heartstrings and make us shiver with excitement and, yes, pride. This one by Curiosity is no different, apart from the way that it’s clearer than others, perhaps. It shows Earth as a bright star in the sky of Mars, and, like all the other Earth portraits it’s an incredible technical achievement, absolutely incredible, the result of years of careful planning, designing, and building by skilled engineers and technicians, and in the years to come everyone who sees it – in a magazine, on the pages of a newspaper, on a website or in a beautiful coffee table book – will be moved by its beauty, I’m sure.

And yet…

It might sound ungrateful, churlish even, but I have to be honest. Looking at that picture, as beautiful as it is, I can’t help feeling some frustration and disappointment too. Why?

Because I can’t help thinking Damnit… that should have been taken by a person, not a robot…

Now, I’m a HUGE rover fan, as many of you will know, and I will defend them, and their incredible teams, against any and all criticism. But it’s 2014, for pity’s sake. We should have people on Mars TOO by now. And that portrait of Earth should have been taken by a wide-eyed, moved almost to tears astronaut, with a camera held in their shaking gloved hands, not by another machine.

Now before anyone says anything I know full well, thank you very much, the reasons why we’re not on Mars – people, I mean. We haven’t got the technology yet. We don’t know enough abut surviving long space trips yet. We can’t land something on Mars big enough to carry people yet. All true, but that doesn’t make it right. Because, let’s face it, basically the lack of bootprints on Mars comes down to two things – money and lack of political will. Not a lack of money, though, oh no. The money is there, it’s just being spent on the wrong things – stupid, worthless things, like weapons, and wars, and killing people, you know, the usual. As for the political will thing, well, it’s the same old problem. No-one is willing to commit to an epic, long term project like manned exploration of Mars when they won’t be the one getting the credit when it reaches conclusion. And today’s reactionary, vision-free politicians, who live in a world where Creationism is taught in schools, people who believe the Apollo landings were faked and scientists are not to be trusted – don’t see votes in big science, so they don’t support it. Even Obama, who I believe to be a man of great intelligence, strong principles and towering intellect, cannot hear the siren call of Mars. And if someone like him can’t, well, no-one else is going to, not for a long, long time.

Of course, despite the pressures of global recession and the determined efforts of politicians to throw it into a sack and hurl it into a fast flowing river like a once-cute dog or cat that has grown too expensive to keep, unmanned space exploration is still going strong, and the solar system is now littered with incredibly sophisticated camera- and instrument-covered spacecraft, exploring its many planets, moons, asteroids and comets. But as amazing as these missions are – and they are – true exploration comes when People Go Somewhere New and See New Things. Having found something unusual, reached somewhere new, discovered something incredible, humans can share their experiences and feelings in a way no machine can, connect with other people in a way no robot, however cute, can ever possibly hope to. The reaction to Cmdr Chris Hadfield’s ISS videos and reworking of “Space Oddity” prove that.

A place doesn’t truly exist in the minds of people unless one of their own has been there, seen it, and talked about it, or at least shared photographs of it. That’s why people still risk life and limb to climb Everest instead of just looking at photos of it, and why people dive down to explore the ocean floor. We seek to *personally* know the unknown, and are driven to see new places.

And human eyes haven’t been anywhere or seen anything new since the last Apollo mission to the Moon.

A naive over-simplification of the true picture? Perhaps. But damnit it’s 2014. There should be footprints on Mars by now. Not just wheel-tracks.

If we do live in a Multiverse, as many scientists believe, the story behind Damia’s image is a rather different one. Somewhere, out there, is an Earth which didn’t reach the Moon and then stop – but an Earth, and a human race, which kept going. Out there, in that universe, this latest portrait of Earth was taken by an astronaut, standing on Mars, someone who had grown up with that dream and had achieved it. It was taken by a living, breathing human being, someone who had walked to that place on purpose, pacing backwards and forwards a few times until they’d found the perfect spot for their photo. Then, as the Sun set, they looked around them, seeing the shadows being cast by the thousands of rocks and boulders all around them and seeing the last slanting rays of sunlight illuminating the summit of Mt Sharp with Alpenglow for a few brief seconds before the Sun vanished behind the hills, plunging the whole world into darkness. Then that man or woman gazed into the twilight, through their dusty, grit-scratched visor, searching for the glint of Earth, smiling as they found it, then raised their camera to take their pictures.

Click. Click. Click. And click again.

How would they have felt as they did that, I wonder?

Having taken their pictures, what did they do next? Did they turn away from the sunset sky straight away and head back to their fledgeling research outpost or base, or their own spacecraft, or did they linger on, watching Earth and the Moon dropping slowly, so slowly towards the horizon, eventually kissing the tops of the crater’s mountainous rim and then disappearing altogether? Did they drink every last possible moment out of the experience before turning away from the dark and heading back to the light?

I know which I would have done…

And then later, back in the light, warmth and – relative – comfort – of their module, or spacecraft cabin, what? I like to imagine they shucked off their dusty, sweat-stained spacesuit and dived in the shower, washing the grit of Mars off their skin and out of their hair before grabbing a well-deserved bite to eat. Then, when they finally felt human again, they settled down at their computer and started to work on their images, pulling up their favourite image processing software to turn their sequence of noisy frames into a single sweeping panoramic image with just one bright “star” shining above the dark horizon. By then it would have been late, very late, and yawning wearily and all too aware if the demands of the next sol they quickly uploaded their image onto their website and then collapsed into bed, pleased with their efforts and hoping a few other people would appreciate them too…

Next morning, after showering and dressing, before heading out to work, they quickly checked their website stats and were delighted, if amazed, to see their image had been viewed several thousand times while they slept. For the rest of the day they had no chance to check the stats again because they were busy out in the martian outback, gathering rock specimens or repairing some failed piece of equipment, but when they got home their image’s view count was in the high hundreds of thousands, and the next morning had broken a million…

…because people back home, on their Earth, on that blue star he or she had photographed, had fallen in love with it, because seeing it allowed them to imagine they were on Mars too…

Curiosity’s portrait of Earth is beautiful, magical, moving, all those things and more, and I am not criticising it, or downplaying its significance or technical achievement, for a moment. But imagine how much more beautiful, magical and moving that image of Earth would be if it had been taken by a person.

It’s time one was.

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