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The despair, and delight, of amateur astronomy…

What a week I’ve had… (shakes head in weary disbelief).

First, there was last weekend’s auroral madness. Well, I say ‘madness’, I mean “AAAGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!” frustration. Last Sunday we were all sitting at our computers, or looking at our smartphones or tablets, following the progress of a geomagnetic storm rippling and rampaging around the Earth in the aftermath of a big coronal mass ejection. The Twitterverse was alight with chatter about what might be seen after darkness fell, and as the KP index climbed through the afternoon and into the early evening skywatchers around the world growled impatiently at their watches and clocks, wishing Time would Hurry Up and Pass so they could get out there, under the sky, and, hopefully, see an aurora. There was so much activity brewing that UK observers, usually deprived displays of the northern lights because of our low latitude, were quietly confident we would see something, even just a glow in the sky.

I was at work, of course, with my usual fantastic timing, so as darkness fell, and I saw stars appearing in gaps in the clouds, I checked in on Twitter during my evening break and saw that people in Norway and even the north of Scotland were seeing the aurora. Yes! The end of my shift couldn’t come soon enough, and by the time I escaped there was a significant auroral display being seen from places farther north of me, with reports of activitity gradually edging south…

…but the weather had deteriorated, and I walked home in the rain, the gaps in the clouds almost gone. Awful, just awful. It looked like the Cumbrian weather was going to thwart my efforts yet again. But by the time I got home there was a real chill in the air, and although I couldn’t see a star in the sky it just felt… promising, you know? The air had that icy freshness about it that whispers in your ear “Be patient, I’ll clear, you’ll see something…have faith…” so, ever the optimists, and desperate to see an aurora, Stella and I invested in two lots of chips and gravy, jumped in the car and headed away from the bright lights of Kendal, hoping my gut feeling was right…

We didn’t go too far, just ‘up the road’ to a layby that offers a good view north and is shielded from the lights of Kendal and its surrounding colonies just enough to make the sky ‘starry’ instead of murky. And as we pulled up the sky seemed very starry indeed, the cloud having been virtually swept away by the icy wind that had been whispering in my ear on the way home. To the south, the stars of Taurus and Orion were blazing, jewel-bright. To the north, a low bank of cloud was hugging the horizon, maybe twenty degrees high, but above it… was that a hint of green? I saw it, and Stella saw it too – just a blur, a jade wash over the low northern sky, no hint of beams or rays, no swishing swaying curtains to reduce Joanna Lumley to tears. Something.

As we’re supposed to do in situations like this, I got out my camera, pointed it north, and took a time exposure…

Nothing. But it was there, I was sure it was there! Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to try another photo because soon after I took that one The Cloud returned, boiling in from the west like a special effect from Independance Day, and the northern sky – and that vague green glow – vanished. But when I got home, I played about with the pic, and saw this…

See? That’s a green glow, isn’t it?!? We DID see something!

..but we sat there for another hour, waiting, waiting, and saw nothing else. Cloud came and went, revealing the stars above the southern horizon again and again, but the northern sky stayed hidden from view, completely blotted out, as if the weather itself was laughing at us. To make matters worse I was reading, as the rain hissed against the window, how people from the Shetlands to North Yorkshire were seeing the aurora, and taking pictures. Yes, people FURTHER SOUTH than us were seeing the northern lights, but we could see nothing. Gutting, just gutting. We gave up at midnight, went home, and called it a night, as Twitter continued to spread the word about the beautiful northern lights being seen from Edinburgh, Newcsatle, WhitleyBay…

The next night I was off work, having worked earlier in the day, and the forecast was for a clear, frosty night, so I was hopeful that activity from Sunday would continue into Monday, allowing us to see something -

Of course, nothing happened. The sky above Kendal was cloud-free, spattered with stars, perfect for watching the aurora, but by the time darkness fell the activity had died right back, so the starry sky was undisturbed by even a hint of a beam, ray or arc. Frustrating? Oh yes, but we gained some comfort from reports that the next night was going to be much more promising, as yet more solar material was due to slam into Earth’s already-quivering magnetic field. Unfortunately – see? Good timing again! – I was going to be at work that next night until ten, but seasoned aurora watchers know that local activity is always highest around midnight, so I knew that if something did brew up “up there” I’d be home in plenty of time to grab my camera , head off somewhere and watch the show… And as Tuesday was my birthday, too, I figured that seeing a decent – or even a small! – auroral display above Kendal would be a fitting present…

The next day, auroral activity climbed steadily, until it ws very respectable by the time I was approaching the end of my shift. But again, AGAIN, the pigging ****ing weather was laughing at us, and Kendal was being smothered under a quilt of thick fog . As I walked home, it was like walking through a cloud, and there was not a hint of a trace of a star to be seen…

…and that’s how it stayed all night. Again, aurora reports came in from Scotland, Northumberland, etc, but Kendal was clouded out totally, and although I stayed up until gone 2am, just hoping against hope that the clouds would break, I saw nothing.

Sometimes the universe really does take the P, you know? :-(

Fast forward to the end of the week, and Friday night, when Stella and I had to travel up to Cockermouth, to help out with an astronomy event being held the next day by the Cockermouth Astronomical Society to support the BBC’s Stargazing Live events. By teatime the clouds that had covered the sky most of the day had parted, revealing a breathtaking scene in the western twilight – bright Jupiter, a crescent Moon and dazzling Venus strung out in a line above the sunset. Glorious! I managed to take a few photos from Stella’s road as she attended to her pets, and it really was a beautiful sight…

I was hoping that as we drove out of Kendal, to darker skies, I’d be able to take some better photos, but yet ***AGAIN*** the clouds rolled in, covering ****EVERYTHING****. Unbelievable, just freaking unbelievable.

However…

As we drove towards Windermere the cloud demons decided to give us a break, and take pity on us, and parted long enough to allow us to see the Moon and her two attendant planets shining brightly and beautifully above the deep, dark waters of the lake, and knowing that I only had a very short time to take advantage of the situation I jumped out of the car as we pulled up to the lake shore, grabbed my camera and tripod and ran down to the water’s edge, to photograph the scene…

And with the boats sitting still on the silent water, and rain tickling the back of my neck, as clouds filled in the sky from the east, I managed to get some pictures of the Moon and Venus shining above the lake…

We were able to enjoy that view for maybe twenty minutes before the cloud and rain returned, but those twenty minutes brought back a little of my faith in my hobby. It had been so disappointing, so sickening, missing two displays of the northern lights in 3 days, I was really cursing the sky every time I looked at it, and, yes, angry at the universe for letting me down so badly. I mean, come on… I’ve paid my dues, waited up endless night after endless night, waiting for clouds to clear to let me see a comet, a meteor shower or an eclipse… I’ve shown countless thousands of people some of the wonders of the universe through my telescope… I’ve Done My Bit… surely making me miss two aurorae like that was a personal insult?

But there, in front of me, a beautiful crescent Moon wasshining just above lantern-bright Venus, with Jupiter higher than them both (too far away to fit in my camera’s field of view, at the moment, soon they’ll start closing in on each other and THEN I’ll get some cracking images, you’ll see! Mwahahahaha!!), shining together above one of the prettiest of the Lake District’s lakes…

On to Cockermouth then, north, past fells and fields, through tourist towns and winding valleys. Wolfed down a rather yummy chinese takeaway, then back outside to take advantage of the clear sky again and try for a pic of Mars, shining among the stars of Leo… I’ve highlighted it here (you’ll have to click on the image to set the animation running)…

Bit noisy, that image, and more than a little light pollution from nearby streetlights, but not bad under the circumstances, and you can never have *too* many images of Mars, can you? ;-)

Then Saturday, and the “Astronomy Day” held by Cockermouth Astronomical Society as part of their involvement in the BBC’s “Stargazing Live” programmes and events. Held at the town’s United Reformed Church, the day comprised an exhibition of telescopes, pictures and computers running astro-software, several short talks in the afternoon, and two longer talks in the evening. The Society hoped that the sky would be clear after 8.30pm, allowing them to hold a skywatch in the town’s Memorial Gardens, across the river from the church, but sadly that wasn’t to be – the sky stayed stubbornly cloudy. But the exhibition went very well, and attracted a lot of very interested visitors, who also enjoyed the short talks upstairs…

I went along with my meteorites, and some rather dazzling 3D images of Mars, to help out, and had a great time in my little corner! The people who stopped by seemed impressed by the 3D images – those that could see them; not everyone can – but the meteorites were a bigger hit…

One young girl came back again and again, probably about ten times, she was absolutely fascinated by them, so much so that I ended up giving her one of the very small meteorites (a Tektite, actually) that I don’t use in my displays anymore because I have better pieces to show. Her face lit up, and she – and her parents, judging by their expressions and silently-mouthed “Thank you”  as they dragged her out the door – went away very happy.

In the evening CAS’s Chris Darwin and Jeremy Hunt (below) gave talks on “A Tour of the Solar System” and “Astrophotography”, both of which were enjoyed by the people who braved the Plutonian temperatures of the Church…!

Despite the lack of a clear sky, the day was a great success, and I’m sure that Cockermouth As will gain some new members from it. Everyone who took part worked really hard, and there were some very impressive telescopes and equipment on view. If you’re a reader of this blog who lives in the Cockermouth area, and aren’t a member of CAS yet, why not? Get down to a meeting! There’s a link to the Society’s website over there, on the right…

So. Back home now, and I had been hoping to be back up at Kendal Castle to get some images of Jupiter, the Moon and Venus, but – surprise surprise – it’s cloudy. I’m kind of not too bothered about that, because I’d much rather it was clearer tomorrow night when we’ll be able to see something very special… three of Jupiter’s Galilean moons will be arranged in a very small, very tight triangle next to Jupiter after sunset. It will be a stunning sight through a small telescope, or a good pair of binoculars. Through a small ‘scope at 5.44pm you’ll be able to see this…

So, quite a week, full of the highs, and lows, of amateur astronomy.

As President Bartlett used to say…

“What’s next..?”

:-)

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