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September 2014 Aurora Hunt – 2

So, after all the build up, hype and excitement, did the northern lights dance over Cumbria and the UK last Friday night?

Well, kind of. They were visible, but it wasn’t much of a dance, more of an embarrassed shuffle around a handbag in the dark with very few people watching.

Going back in time to the end of last week, you’ll remember that I write on here that it might be worth looking out for the northern lights across the north of the UK over the weekend. After a lot of activity on the Sun sent a large amount of solar material thundering towards Earth, I put out an AURORA ALERT!! email to all the members of my astronomical society, and wrote a couple of “Beginners Guides” to the aurora, what might appear in the sky and how to observe it, which I then linked to on Twitter and on Facebook, where I tried to help “get the word out” to breathless beginners and aurora novices who, in their giddy “Someone said we might see the northern lights!! WOW!! But HOW?! WHERE?!?!!” excitement were asking the same questions again and again and again, but it turns out that help wasn’t appreciated, or even wanted. Oh well, never mind, I hope I helped a few people see something on Friday night.:-)

Anyway, by Friday morning there was a lot of hype online about the possibility of seeing the northern lights over the next couple of nights, so I was very careful not to get everyone’s hopes up too much! And, true enough, when the much-anticipated “solar storm” arrived on Friday night it was rather underwhelming. In fact, everything which could go wrong fir UK observers did go wrong. A combination of an almost Full Moon (and come on, how can it STILL be almost Full??? When will it go away!!! It’s been there for weeks!!!! B****r off!!!) and widespread misty, murky, frankly crappy weather meant that the aurora wasn’t seen very well across any of the UK really, and thousands of people headed out to their favourite aurora observing sites, on hilltops, beaches and out in the countryside, to watch the show were left hurling abuse at the cloudy sky above them. But even if it had been clear that night, there wouldn’t have been a jaw-dropping show. The aurora itself never really got going because the conditions “Up there” just weren’t conducive to triggering a major storm, and the field stubbornly refused to tip south, which is what’s needed for the aurora to really kick off at UK latitudes.

So what did see in our Cumbrian Sky? After monitoring the weather forecasts all day it looked like Langwathby, near Penrith, offered the best prospects for viewing, with clear sky through from 23.00 to 03.00, so Stella and I headed there after Kendal’s annual Torchlight Procession – having to go south at first to actually escape from town, as all the roads were blocked off, it was a nightmare!!!), to join fellow Eddington AS member Martin Thomas in a field there. Sadly the mist and murk we found when we got there never really lifted, and with that mist and murk lit by that almost Full Moon everything was just a soft focus blur. To the naked eye there was a vague glow to the north, which I picked up on my photos, and I even got a hint of a few rays early on, but the main thing we saw was a pale, vague, greenish glow, as you can see from these images…IMG_0075s



So, yes… it was great to see Martin again, and fun to talk to several people who joined us in our misty, murky, moonlit, light-polluted field to look for the aurora, but all in all it was, I have to be honest, a big let down. But that’s the way it goes, and there is always the possibility of this happening with the aurora, so better luck next time…! (Which might be Tuesday night… fingers crossed…)

Meanwhile, up at Orton Scar, high above the mist and with no light pollution to wrestle with, our fellow EAS members Ian Bradley and Carol Grayson were having MUCH better luck, and got some really nice photos which put mine to shame! We joined them up there at just after 1am, when the aurora, such as it was, had died down. Orton Scar is a FANTASTIC site, and will definitely become an EAS observing site for future events; it looks perfect for meteor shower observing…

So, that was it… no sky-spanning storm, no squeals of delight across the north of the UK, no Spaceweather,com aurora galleries full of amazing images taken from Scotland, Newcastle or Cumbria. Frustrating, but hey, that’s astronomy folks! In fact the greatest excitement of the evening was on our way home from Orton, at 02.30, when we found the road blocked by a herd of cows which had escaped from a field!

The next chance to see the northern lights from Cumbria might come on Tuesday night. Cross your fingers, and watch this space for details!



We might, that’s all we can say at the moment. It’s certainly looking promising as I’m writing this – all the spacey graphs and charts are going in the right direction, suggesting that it’s starting to hot up “up there” as material blasted off the Sun finally reaches the Earth and begins to have a pub car park fight with our planet’s magnetic field – but we won’t know until it gets dark. Then we will either see something, or nothing, it’s as simple as that.

If you’re wanting some basic advice about what to do tonight, where to go, how to see whatever happens, these FAQ might help.

WILL THE NORTHERN LIGHTS BE VISIBLE FROM WHERE I LIVE?? I don’t know. Where do you live? :-) The further north in the UK you are, the better placed you will be to see anything tonight, IF anything happens; there’s no guarantee it will yet. But the main problem, wherever you live, will be the weather. It looks like much of the UK will be under mist or cloud tonight, and if your part of the world is going to be you have to consider, seriously, jumping in the car and heading somewhere with a more favourable weather forecast. That’s up to you. It’s a risk either way.

WHAT TIME SHOULD I LOOK? I can’t give you a Start time, this is Nature, and Nature doesn’t offer us a tidy, helpful schedule. Just start looking as soon as it gets dark. It’s as simple as that. If we’re lucky, there will already be some brightness showing in the north, a hint of green perhaps, but we might need to wait a while before seeing anything. Be patient.

WHERE SHOULD I GO? WHERE’S A GOOD PLACE??? This is one of the most frequently asked questions. The best place for you – yes, YOU, reading this! – is simply somewhere where you can see the northern sky clearly, with no hills or buildings or tall trees in the way. But not just the northern sky, you want to be under a BIG sky tonight, with as much of it visible as possible. You also want – no, you NEED – to be somewhere dark, with no light pollution from streetlights, buildings, security lights etc. So… you want to go somewhere with a big sky, a clear view to the north, and no lights. You might see something from your garden in the middle of town, but will improve your chances ENORMOUSLY if you make the effort to get out of town to somewhere dark, trust me.

WHAT WILL I SEE???? WE DON’T KNOW!!!! CALM DOWN!! We might see nothing yet! But let’s be optimistic. Let’s suppose the northern lights will be visible from the UK tonight. What could you see? Well, at first you won’t see much,. because you have to get used to the darkness. When you reach your carefully selected observing site you’ll need between twenty and thirty minutes to “dark adapt”, and then you’ll be well placed to see whatever happens. And again, we don’t know what will happen. We might just see a vague greenish glow to the north, or an obvious-to-the-naked-eye green “rainbow” arch with hints of red or green rays or beams coming out of the top. If the display gets no further than that you should still see it with the naked eye. If the display is better then look out for more pronounced rays and beams, which will slowly change in height and may move left and right too. The green “rainbow” may break into smaller areas, resembling curtains, and these may or may not start to sway and move, like lace curtains being blown by a soft breeze. If the display gathers strength these curtains will start to “ripple” more quickly, and may even travel along the length of the rainbow, and the rays and beams may grow in height and brightness too. If we’re really lucky we will see a lot of colour, but the almost Full Moon might drown out the most vivid colours, leaving us with more muted hues. But we just don’t know. All you can do is head out, look up, and see what happens.

HOW DO I TAKE PHOTOS???? You will need a camera that can take time exposures of several seconds, and as you can’t hold a camera for that long without it shaking you will need to support it on something, ideally a tripod, but if you haven’t got one of those you can rest it on a beanbag or something like that on the top of your car or a fence or something.

If you’ve got a digital SLR, I have some tips especially for you…

1. Make sure your camera lenses are clean. You don’t want to click away like a mad Geiger Counter tonight only to find that every one of your gorgeous pictures is ruined by one or more dirty black specks, which will, of course be in exactly the worst place. Get your lenses out now, and give them a good clean.

2. Make sure your batteries are fully charged. Trust me, you really don’t want to be stood under a flaming red sky and look down and see your “battery low” light blinking. And yes, batterieS. Take at least one spare.

3. Make sure you have a memory card in your camera. I know… D’uh!… but it’s so easy to forget to put it back in after you’ve been downloading some photos or clearing some memory from it. Go look. Now. And again, take a spare.

4. Check your tripod is working. Imagine your horror if you get to your observing site tonight, start to set up, and your tripod has something wrong with it.

5. If you’re new to aurora-watching, and want to take photos but you’re not sure what length of exposures to use, go through the aurora pages on Spaceweather.com and note which settings/lenses resulted in the best pictures. Note them down, and use those as a starting point tonight. Then just have fun using your own settings. Experiment.

6. Have a “dry run” before heading out – assemble your camera and tripod, set them up as you plan to out in the field, and just check everything is working together. Tripod legs, tripod head, cable release, lenses, everything.

…and finally…

7. Make a promise to yourself that if things DO kick off tonight, you won’t spend the whole time taking photos. Now and then, step away from the camera, well away, so you’re not tempted to fiddle or take “just one more photo” and just LOOK AT THE SKY. Drink in the view, savour it, take in the colours, the movement and features of the aurora. Otherwise you’ll get home and realise, as you go through your photos, that you didn’t actually *watch* the aurora at all, you just photographed it.

…and that’s it, really. Seriously, there are no guarantees we’ll see ANYTHING tonight – but I can absolutely guarantee that if you DON’T look you will see absolutely nothing! So, absolute bottom line is this: when it starts to get dark, keep an eye on the northern sky. You never know, you might see something special..,

Amazing images from ROSETTA…

Quick catch up with what ROSETTA has been doing the past couple of days…

First, the ROSETTA team has released what will become one of the most iconic images of the whole mission, I’m sure. Lots of people are calling it a “Rosetta selfie”, but that’s not accurate really, because selfies are single “snapshot” type images. ROSETTA’s image is actually a clever composite of two different images which, when combined, show the nucleus of 67P above and in front of the ROSEATTA probe itself!

Now if you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I like to mess about with carefully process and enhance ROSETTA images, but this one is just perfect as it is. Look…

Rosetta_mission_selfie_at_comet jpg

That image is going to be used in magazines and textbooks, and on blogs and websites, for a generation, you’ll see.

Then yesterday the ROSETTA navcam team released another of its sets of 4 images, which when stitched together make a single image of the nucleus. Here’s the version shown on the ROSETTA web page, with a bit of sharpening and enhancement, just to bring out details…

Comet_on_10_September_2014_NavCam b sh

I LOVE how the “dark” side of the smaller section of the comet is lit faintly on that image, don’t you?

And again, isolating some parts of that image provides us with a tantalising glimpse of what it might be like to explore a comet in person, on foot or in a spacecraft flying low over the surface…



Again, huge THANK YOU! to the ROSETTA team for releasing navcam images as they promised they would. It’s fantastic to be able to enjoy these wonderful views. And again, to anyone on the OSIRIS team who might be reading – will you please, PLEASE let us see some more images? **PLEASE**????? Go on, just one or two, out of the dozens you are all drooling over, it won’t kill you, and you’ll make a lot of people very happy. :-)

September 2014 Aurora Hunt – 1

So, last night, with the faint but real possibility of the northern lights being visible from our part of the world, Stella and I headed off for a night of camping in one of the most remote, bleakest, but most stunning places in our area. Our target destination was the Tan Hill Inn, which proudly holds the title of “The Highest Pub In Great Britain”. And it really is out there in the wilderness. You don’t need a SatNav to get there. Just head for “The Middle Of Nowhere” and follow the signs for “The Back of Beyond” and eventually you’ll see this building, standing all alone in the middle of the wide open North Yorkshire moorland…


The Inn has some lovely rooms for people to stay in, but we were there with our trusty red tent, and soon after arriving we had set up in one of the most striking places we’ve ever pitched our tent…


Look at that! It was like camping in Middle Earth! Another view…


…and a wider angle view, just to show you how “out in the open” the Inn itself is…


…and with the location of our tent circled…


With the tent all set up we headed inside for a bite to eat… Well, I say “bite”, we both ended up having a huge bar meal each…


After that, while Stella relaxed on the snug lounge, with it’s these-are-so-comfortable-I-really-don’t-want-to-move sofas, I headed out to check on the sky. By this time I already knew, from checking websites and aurora apps etc,  that the chances of seeing any aurora were slim, and it was a misty night anyway, not helped by the big, fat, almost Full Moon clawing its way up into the eastern sky, but it had always been a long shot anyway, so I just enjoyed the views…




Before heading to bed I was able to give a quick “sky tour” to one of our fellow guests (see? Outreach never sleeps!) and then, with the mist thickening, and fewer and fewer stars shining through it, and not even a hint of a wisp of any auroral activity going on, we called it a night.

Next morning dawned bright and sunny, if a little cloudy, so we packed up what we could before going back into the Inn for a full breakfast… and I mean full…


Then that was it, we packed up the tent and headed home, without having seen any aurora, sadly, but having found a fantastic place to go back to in the future. I know this is going to sound like an advert, but I believe in highlighting places we enjoy and think others might too. The Tan Hill Inn is a gorgeous in a bleakly stunning place. Lovely food, open log fire, comfy lounge, incredibly friendly owners – nothing was too much trouble for them – with a big fluffy dog that’s the size of a small mammoth, and the most dramatic camping area we’ve ever pitched up on… can’t fault it, I really can’t, and we’re already looking forward to going back there to stargaze in autumn, on a Moon-free night when the starry sky should be stunning…

Now we wait and see if the aurora puts on a show tonight! It’s looking hopeful, but we’ll have to wait and see…


Northern Lights visible from Cumbria – and across the UK – this weekend?

There is a chance – just a chance, no promises, ok? Read that back again, NO PROMISES!!!! – that northern parts of the UK might be able to see the aurora borealis this coming weekend. In fact, it will be worth keeping an eye on the northern sky after dark for the next three nights. Just in case.


Well, there have been two big events on the Sun, which have sent enormous amounts of solar material in Earth’s direction, and it is going to slam into our planet’s magnetic field. This won’t hurt us, don’t worry, but it means that it should trigger an increase in auroral activity, perhaps enough of an increase to make the northern lights visible from further south than usual – perhaps even as far south as areas of the UK such as Cumbria, Yorkshire, and who knows, maybe even farther south than that.

Now before you get too excited, it is important to not get too carried away! Firstly, there’s no guarantee we’ll see anything: the material might not hit us after all (the Sun can be very sneaky) in which case no-one will see anything, anywhere. Or the impacts could occur early, or late, during during daylight hours in the UK, in which case we’d see nothing but enhanced auroral activity would be visible where it WAS dark, which would be extremely frustrating to say the least. But this happens a lot! Or activity might not come far enough south for us to see anything… Or… or…

So, there is a lot of uncertainty about this, ok? Which is why I’m being VERY careful here not to say WE WILL SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS!!!! But I AM saying “Keep your eyes on the sky, because we MIGHT see something”. Because if you don’t look you are absolutely, 1000% guaranteed to see nothing! :-)

Ok. Disclaimer out of the way. Let’s be optimistic. Let’s assume we’re going to see something. What might we see?

Well, if the solar material hits with enough of a blow to increase auroral activity moderately, any aurora we see from this part of the world (and by that I mean across Cumbria’s latitude, the north of England) would look nothing like the northern lights which reduced Joanna Lumley to tears on her wonderful TV show! No, what we would see would be just a green glow in the northern sky, maybe like a low, fuzzy green rainbow. Which would be pretty cool! We don’t get to see that too often! Obviously we’re hoping for more than that, but that might be all we get.

Or… maybe there will be more activity than that, in which case you can add to that green glow some red-hued rays and beams, pointing up from the green glow, and a bit of movement too, maybe a gentle, soft swaying effect within the green glow, and/or those red rays and beams moving a little too, growing and shrinking in height over time and moving sideways too. That would be pretty special.

Or… maybe there will be a real kick of auroral activity, in which case we might see something rather more dramatic. Looking north you might see the sky above the northern horizon glowing a vivid, lime green, with numerous vivid red beams coming out of the top of the glow, coming and going, brightening and fading, and curtains of light too, with a lot more movement up and down and side to side, more of a rippling effect. Such a display would be very impressive, and would be a sight to behold! But it’s NOT guaranteed, so cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Or… maybe we will REALLY get a show, and the whole of the northern sky will just go nuts! But that’s very unlikely, so don’t get your hopes up, ok!!

So, that’s what we might see: nothing… something… something good, or something amazing. We’ll have to wait and see!

Whatever happens, you can increase your chances of seeing any auroral activity by following a few simple steps.

* GET OUT OF TOWN! Find somewhere dark, with a big, wide open sky, and a clear view to the north, without trees, buildings or hills in the way. That way if anything does kick off you’ll be well placed to see it. If a big sky isn’t possible, just get somewhere that’s as dark as possible, away from light pollution.

* BE PATIENT! There’s no schedule to this, we might see something tonight, or it might not be until tomorrow or even Friday night. Or maybe all three! So be prepared for frustration. Be patient.

* WRAP UP WARM! You could be out all night hoping to see or watching this, so dress sensibly. And take a flask of something hot!

What else?

Equipment? Well, you don’t need binoculars or a telescope to watch the northern lights. Your eyes are all you need. If a big display kicks off, it will be obvious to the naked eye if you are somewhere dark with a good sky,

Which direction? This might sound obvious… “northern lights”, so north! … but if a really, really big display kicks off, if you live in the far north of the UK the activity might actually pass over you, so you’d see it in the south! But really, yes, look north after dark, and look out for green and red glows.

When? Ah, the £64,000,000 question! We don’t know, we truly don’t. All we can say is that it’s worth looking north after dark tonight, tomorrow night and Saturday night too. We might see something on any or even all of those nights, or we might see nothing at all. Just GO AND LOOK!!!

If you’re on Twitter, or Facebook, there are very active communities of aurora watchers there, so do a quick search for them and then you’ll be able to follow what’s happening in real time, following conversations between aurora watchers, getting alerts, etc. If you’re on Twitter you can follow me (mars_stu) and I’ll keep you informed of what’s visible from where I am. Also, you can download aurora alert apps for your smartphone which will keep you updated. And the website spaceweather.com will be keeping people informed too.

But the bottom line, the absolute bottom line, is this: there’s a chance parts of the UK might see the northern lights over the next three nights, we just don’t know, so keep an eye on the northern sky after dark, just in case.

Good luck everyone! Oh, and if something does happen, and you see it, let me know, and take pics! Just set your camera to auto and snap away, you might get something. If you have a digital SLR, put it on a tripod, set it to 400ISO, and take exposures of several seconds with the widest lens you have. You should get something with that.

Ok, cross your fingers everyone! And let me know what you see… :-)


67P Revealed…

Yesterday was a VERY big day for the scientists studying Comet 67P, and for the thousands of space enthusiasts who are following the ROSETTA mission to the comet. ROSETTA arrived at Comet 67P just over a month ago, and since then, although high resolution OSIRIS images have been rarer than honest politicians or dragon’s eggs, the ROSETTA ESA team has been releasing low- and medium-resolution NAVCAM images of the comet which have shown it to be a spectacularly dramatic and weird world in its own right. More than 800 scientists – plus countless science and space journalists – have gathered in the Portuguese town of Cascais, for a huge international astronomy conference, the  2014 European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC), and yesterday, during a very special session, the ROSETTA team proudly revealed their first hard scientific results, along with some brand new, long-awaited images of the comet.

This all took place behind closed doors, of course -, that’s the way these things are run – but during the day it was possible to follow what was going on, and get a flavour of the proceedings, by reading Tweets and FB posts from people there. And throughout the day, not long after they had been shown in the crowded EPSC meeting, the new images were released for everyone to see and drool over. And I do mean drool. They’re stunning. ROSETTA sure is taking some fantastic images of 67P’s bizarre nucleus now, as it draws ever closer to it.

Yesterday we got to see the first detailed geological maps of the comet, images of some dust grains captured by ROSETTA, and other scientific results too. But as fascinating as these were, let’s be honest, most of us standing on tiptoes outside the EPSC meeting window, like Tiny Tim looking into a toyshop, were desperate to see new images of the comet, and when one was finally released it was… well, nothing short of magnigficent… Here, click on it to enlarge it, and prepare for your gob to be well and truly smacked…


Just LOOK at it..! Look at those boulders, some of them must be tens of metres across… look at the long, jagged shadows cast behind them, rippling across the dusty, rubble-strewn ground… look at the jagged features on the far horizon, standing out against the blackness of space like broken teeth…

THAT, dear readers, is what OSIRIS can do, is doing, and has been doing all this time – taking truly stunning, high resolution images of this fascinating object. And I know I sound a bit like a stuck CD here, and that some people think I’m being impatient, or worse, and it’s not going to change, and I am genuinely grateful for all the images released so far… but… but oh, how I wish we could see more of them… :-(


Anyway… back to that glorious image. As soon as I saw it I knew that some areas of it showed incredible detail and were screaming to be looked at more closely. Then, panning around the image, I saw that other parts of it, where the camera was seeing features “on the horizon” of the comet at an oblique angle, might possibly offer us  our first real view of a comet’s surface from the point of view of someone standing ON it, or at least someone flying low over its surface. So I set about cropping it to isolate those areas and then “work” on them, sharpening and enhancing them to bring out the more subtle features in the landscape. And here is what I came up with…


Oh boy, just look at that… but wait, zoom in a bit more, tidy it up a bit more, and you see *this*…

crop 2

I LOVE that view, there’s so much in it. At the top, that smooth area looks like drifted dust, or snow… and to its right, in the centre of the image, is that layering? It certainly looks like it to me… Either that, or 67P is home to a beautiful ice dragon which rakes deep lines in the dusty ice with its claws as it prowls around its ledges, outcrops and pits…

And then there’s this view…

crop 3b

So much going on there, isn’t there? But what catches my eye are the shadows cast behind the boulders and rocks, they give the scene such a three dimensional quality that it’s not hard to imagine being there, at that very place, in person, working your way around those boulders, boots crump-crumping through the coal-black dust…

But I’ve saved the best for last, because on the far horizon I spotted something quite special…

spires ring

I zoomed in on that, levelled the horizon, and tidied it up until I came up with something which shows one of the most stunning features glimpsed on 67P so far – and maybe, just maybe, shows what it would be like to walk across the comet’s surface, towards a huge crumbling tower of rock and ice… Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… the Spires of Churyumov-Gerasimenko


One can only imagine how jaw-droppingly stunning the highest resolution OSIRIS images of this feature – and others around it – are. Hopefully we’ll get to see them soon. In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief – and totally unofficial – glimpse of the true, bizarre beauty of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko.


Catching up with ROSETTA…

It’s been a couple of days since I was able to write anything about ROSETTA and 67P, but that’s not through any lack of interest; I’ve been kept “AFK” by promoting and organising astronomy events here in Kendal for my astro society’s mini astro festival (which has gone well, thank you for asking!). Back now though, and a chance to catch up.

Well! It’s all been kicking off! Since I last wrote the ROSETTA team has been releasing lots more navcam images, in batches of four and has not only allowed but **invited** imaging enthusiasts to stitch them together to make them into beautiful, complete portraits of the comet! This was something I was looking forward to doing, but being perfectly honest I don’t have the hardware, software or image processing skills necessary to tackle the job, but others do, and they leapt on the inages like starving dogs, and within minutes were posting their creations online, to the delight of ESA!

Here’s a very rough mosaic portrait of 67P put out by ESA, showing how the four navcam inages can be used to create a single image…


…and here’s what one of my favourite – and one of the most skilled – image processing enthusiasts, Damia deBouic, did with those four frames…

damian b

Isn’t that incredible! No lines, no joins or seams, no horrible vignetting in the middle! Waaaay beyond what I can do!

And as if that wasn’t enough, soon after that ESA released four more navcam images, one of which set the comet enthusiast community buzzing with excitement and delight…


Why? Well, look carefully and you’ll see that there’s a misty, blurry… something… going diagonally from the top left of the image to the bottom right. Image artefact? Flaw? No… something very exciting, that really pops out with a but of processing jiggerypokery…

ESA_ROSETTA__NAVCAM_20140902B crop enh

Look! JETS!!! Jets of gas and dust spewing out of the nucleus of 67P!! YES!!! Oh the fun is going to really begin now…!

And again, image processing enthusiasts leapt on the images as soon as they were released and turned them into whole image mosaics, like this one, by Stuart McAndrew, which he posted on the ROSETTA blog…


Others have posted their own versions too, and I hope to be able to show some of those in an update of this post.

So… ROSETTA is getting closer and closer to 67P, and now its cameras are showing jets coming off the nucleus, which is very exciting indeed. I’m sure that over the weekend some more NAVCAM images of the comet will be released by the ROSETTA team showing even more activity. And who knows, maybe we’ll be shown another OSIRIS image. We live in hope.


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