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Planets on parade..!

I’ve been telling the members of my astronomy society for a long time now that the Universe doesn’t owe them *anything*, that if they want to see its wonders they’re not offered for free; there’s usually a charge, a cost, a price. Not a financial one but a personal one. The Universe is happy to share its beauty, but only with those who give something back, in time, effort and dedication.

In other words, if you can’t be bothered to go and look at something amazing that’s offered up by the Universe at an inconvenient time, or place, then that’s your fault, and you know, maybe you don’t deserve to see it in the first place.

Which is probably why the current “planetary parade” happening in the east before dawn isn’t being photographed or observed very widely. You not only need to get up way before dawn to see it, at OMG o’clock, when the thermometer reads minus “You must be having a laugh” degrees C, you need to get out of town, away from all the streetlights and buildings, to somewhere with a Big Sky, and then, then the Universe will smile down at you approvingly, turn you towards the east, and show you… something beautiful.

Mercury, Venus, Saturn and the Moon, all in a diagonal line, strung across the brightening eastern sky like beads glittering on a necklace.

Yesterday morning – and by “morning” I mean 05.45 – hoping for a good view of this ‘planetary parade’, which we’ve been looking forward to for some time, two members of the Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal, myself and fellow sky nut Carol, headed out of Kendal, leaving behind the bright marmalade-hued sodium streetlights of the Auld Grey Town to an ice- and frost-covered layby a mile beyond the town’s edge. When we got there and started to unpack and set up our telescopes, cameras and tripids, it was bitterly, bitterly cold, and still quite dark, the sky a huge blue-black dome above us. But the sky was so clear, the seeing so good, that it felt magical.  The waning Moon was razor-sharp, high in the south, and Saturn was clearly visible to its lower left – beyond Spica – as a yellow-tinged, unblinking star. Venus had just risen, and was visible as an orange spark through the skeletal branches of the trees…

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In the west, low and barely clearing the trees, shining amongst the stars of Taurus, Jupiter was dropping out of sight, having dominated the sky all night…

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So we got set up, slowly, it was so teeth-chatteringly cold, and as we stalked around the layby by torchlight the ice and frost cracked and snapped loudly beneath our feet, shattering the silence. After a short time Venus was high enough to clear the trees…

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We had a look at the Moon through Carol’s monster 8″ Celestron (I REALLY wanted a high magnification view of Mare Orientale – whaddya mean I’m obsessed?!?!), but it was so blindingly bright we decided to leave that for later. And soon after that, with all our gear set up ready, we spotted a teeny tiny spark of light through the trees, just clearing the eastern horizon…

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Mercury! The line up was complete! :-)

For the next hour and a half we just drank in the scene, loving every minute of it. Yes, it was *stupidly* cold, forcing us to wear big fat hats and gloves, and stamp our feet and clap our hands for warmth like demented Morris Dancers, but you see, that’s the fee the Universe charges for seeing something like this. Below and beyond our layby, countless thousands of Kendalians were tucked up in their beds, warm and cosy, but we wouldn’t have swapped places with them, because we were seeing something quite beautiful, quite spectacular… three of Earth’s sister worlds, huddling close together in the icy yellow-blue sky of a winter’s dawn, with a lovely Moon close by, watching over them, watching over us… That’s a price neither of us minded paying.

Another EAS member, Andy, joined us briefly, and was delighted with his first ever view of Mercury, too.

I lost count of how many pictures I took, but here are some of the best ones…

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Left – right: Mercury, Venus, a star and Saturn.

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Mercury (visible through gap in trees)… Venus… Saturn… the Moon… that’s a big chunk of the solar system in one image, right there…

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Carol, mega-chuffed that she’s seen Mercury (behind her, with Venus) for the first time…! :-)

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Two insomniac nutters, standing in a patch of icy gravel beside a road at dawn, shivering in the bitter cold, looking at points of light in the sky… :-)

Dawn approached, and the view to the east was, well, magnificent…

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… and then the closest star to the Earth burst over our local horizon, like a nuclear weapon detonating…

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Time to go home.

So, yes, we had a fantastic time, despite the ungodly hour and the crazy cold. And we got some beautiful pictures between us. But it also brought something home to me. Looking at that array of worlds, strung out across the sky, I realised that we’ve visited – and are actually currently exploring – each and every one of them. Those lights in the sky used to be just sparks to people in ages past, stars that wandered through the heavens. Now we know what they really are. Mercury is a blistered, cratered ball of rock and metal that is ridiculously close to the Sun but *still* has ice on its surface, deep inside craters near its poles. Venus is a planet the size of Earth, but very different, with its choking, poisonous atmosphere and runaway global warming. Saturn is surrounded by that glorious system of rings, familiar to and beloved by every amateur astronomer who’s ever peered through a telescope, but more importantly it has a pair of moons, Titan and Enceladus, which might have life on them. And the Moon, so often overlooked or taken for granted, is now known to be a fascinating world in its own right, and will soon, perhaps, be visited by more astronauts – but this time rich businessmen and adventurers rather than square-jawed test pilots…

And right now, right now, there are space probes orbiting and exploring each and every one of them… how amazing is that?

Next time someone tells you we’ve “stopped exploring”, show them this picture, with my permission, and show them they’re wrong…

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I got back home just before nine o’clock, after thre hours in the marrow-numbing cold, but my camera was full of beautiful (I hoped!) images, and my heart was full of the beauty I had seen with my friend Carol, standing there, in that layby, two skywatchers dressed like eskimoes, happy to pay the price the Universe asks to share its wonders…

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2 Responses

  1. An excellent article. You’re dead right. Only wish I’d been there too.

  2. I found your site by googling cumbria sky because I have been astonished by the incredibly bright view of Venus we are getting over morecambe bay from 7 – 8 0clock each morning. Someone told me it was the space station and wanting to find out more I have learned the truth plus now I will be looking out for the other planets. Thanks for literally putting me in the picture and I am certainly now a converted star gazer !

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