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Kielder Spring Starcamp 2015


Enthusiastic astronomers or gluttons for punishment, take your pic, but Stella and I headed up to the wilds of Kielder again last week to attend the 2015 Spring Starcamp at Kielder Campsite. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that our previous trips to Kielder have involved a lot of squelching about in mud and surviving rain and snow – it’s famously the Glastonbury of starcamps – but this year, thankfully, the weather was very kind until the morning we packed up, and we came home without trench foot or frostbite! This year, in fact, we had one of our most enjoyable starcamps at Kielder yet.

It helped that this time we pitched our tent “down the bottom end”, down by the static caravans which serve as the command post and nerve centre of the Starcamp. Down there it was lovely and quiet, and a lot less muddy – though recent improvement work on the campsite’s drainage on other parts of the site has really helped – and we really enjoyed being there. Our pitch had the added bonus of being just a minute’s walk from the toilets/showers and warm room, and 5mins walk from the Anglers Arms Pub and Kielder Castle up on the hilltop, so it was a win win all round.

This time, after doing very convincing impressions of Linda Blair vomiting explosively in the Exorcist before we’d even got half way, Peggy – our cat – almost made it to the campsite entrance before throwing up, and somehow managed to splash her sick onto my leg *through* the side of her box, meaning that when I got out of the car I looked like I’d wet myself, a very dignified way of arriving. But soon we were saying hi to the wonderful Lynn and the other organisers and started to set-up our tent, without getting soaked to the skin for a change, as we managed to dodge the showers, and by teatime we had made ourselves at home, ready to face whatever the weekend threw at us.



(That’s our tent right in the middle, the blue one)

And Peggy soon made herself right at home…


The thing is with Kielder, for us, at least, it’s a camping holiday first, and a Starcamp second. It’s so wild up there, so exposed, and the weather is so changeable that if you go there expecting to see stars every night, or somehow feel you are entitled to see and photograph them every night, you are setting yourself up for a huge disappointment, so we always go up there “on holiday” and I always say that if I get just one clear night, just one, I’ll be happy. And this year the first night we were there was magnificently clear…

As darkness fell there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and soon I was outside setting up my new iOptron star tracker. In a previous post I described my first night with the tracker, and how successful it had been at letting me take photos of an average sky, so you can imagine how excited I was at the prospect of setting it loose on the truly dark skies of Kielder! And it didn’t let me down. Here are some of the pictures I took that first night…

orion wide 1

m45 1

lovejoy 1x67s exp ioptron labels

orion 1 crop

M42 STACK best

(I am **so** chuffed with that one!!!)

horsehead 1 200mm crop

Yes, that’s right, I managed to capture the famous Horsehead nebula using just a 135mm lens on my iOptron tracker. It was probably worth going to Kielder just for that photo…!


Eventually, in the wee small hours, cloud rolled in, but I didn’t mind, I’d managed to get some gorgeous photos, and I pulled the duvet over me a very happy man…

Next morning was beautiful and sunny, and Stella and I made the first of many pilgrimages up to the Castle for a lovely full breakfast – one of the highlights of the starcamp, to be honest…


…and then had a nice chill-out day just wandering around to the shop and back, saying hi to old friends, chatting to new faces, and “bedding in” to the starcamp.



The field began to fill up and by nightfall was probably half full. I think numbers were down this time because of the date change – the event had been moved forwards so it didn’t clash with the travel plans of people wanting to head north to see the solar eclipse – and maybe because people had had such disappointing experiences with the mud and weather recently, but the die-hards, like us, and the Kielder regulars, were all there, and had a great time.

Friday night wasn’t as clear as Thursday, clouds came and went, but inbetween those clouds the sky was sprayed with stars and I managed to get some more good pictures…

M42 stack


That’s a tracked shot of Jupiter, over-exposed, I know, I just liked the dramatic look of it :-)

It was great to be joined later in the evening by our fellow “Kielder veterans” Carol and Simon, who are also members of the Eddington AS, which brought the total number of EAS members at the event to 5, as Moira was there too, trying her hand at astrophotography for the first time that night.When I finally called it a night and headed back into the tent, Stella was fast asleep and being guarded…


Saturday dawned a bit drizzly, but we felt fine after another big breakfast, and in the afternoon headed up to the Castle to browse the wares being offered for sale by Grovers Optics and to listen to the talks which are always put on on the Saturday afternoons at Kielder Starcamps. After a fascinating talk on the history of the study if galaxies I gave a talk giving the audience a guide to our place in the universe, which seemed to go down very well, I had some very nice comments afterwards, though it was a shame there was such a big gap between the talks as many people who drifted away at the interval didn’t bother to come back again. The talks afternoon ended with a look at NASA’s Maven mission to Mars, then it was time for Stella and I to head down to the Anglers for dinner, booked – we thought – early enough to give us plenty of time to get back to the tent and set up the camera and telescope for photographs and views of Venus, the Moon and Mars all gathered together in the twilight. But it didn’t quite work out that way, and because, unusually for the Anglers, our food arrived rather later than planned I ended up having to wolf down my meal and race back to get ready, leaving Stella to finish off her food on her own, which wasn’t what we had in mind, but she hooked up with some mates, Neil and Karen, after  left anyway, so it worked out okay in the end.

And before clouds rolled in I managed to get all my gear set up in time to get some pretty decent (I think!) photos of the Moon and planets glowing serenely in the western twilight…




Unfortunately after that the weather decided to torment and frustrate us, and all night clouds rolled and swam over the campsite, clearing, in places, occasionally, to allow brief tantalising glimpses of the southern starry sky, and overhead. It was very frustrating that the whole northern sky was obscured by a wall of cloud that just refused to budge – someone said it was as “a ruddy big planet had just parked next to Earth, blocking everything in that direction” and I had to agree. I tried some pictures but to no avail, what clear sky there was was actually hazy and misty, and the stars of Orion all had haloes around them, so I put my camera back in the tent and just went for a wander, looking through various telescopes at various things, and even after retiring to the tent I kept checking the sky, ever the optimist, hoping it would clear, but I eventually gave up at around 4am and surrendered to sleep…

By Sunday morning it was clear that poor weather had set in, so after another big breakfast (hey, we were on holiday!) Stella and I settled down with Peggy to watch DVDs in the tent.


Last time we were at Kielder the Sunday was marked by gale force winds which threatened to carry our tent away, they were so strong, but this time wasn’t as bad, nowhere near, but with the weather forecasts all agreeing that we had seen our last starry sky the Great Exodus began, and by mid-evening the previously busy campsite was almost deserted, just a few tents and caravans scattered across it. With no prospects of any stargazing that evening Stella and I headed back down to the Anglers for a meal, and had every intention of just having a snack there until we bumped into Robin and Antoinette, who gushed about how lovely a HUGE Sunday roast they had just enjoyed in the pub, so we gave in and treated ourselves to one of those, and it was spectacularly tasty… and I treated Stella to this rather magnificent desert, too…


Of course, when we emerged from the tent we saw stars! None of the weather forecasts had suggested that would happen, so we raced back to the tent to get my camera gear set up… but it was a “sucker sky”, and the gaps closed over again soon, and although other gaps appeared and disappeared through the evening it never really got clear enough to do any serious photography so I just admitted defeat, took my gear back inside, and got under the quilt at about 1am.

Monday morning… time to go home… and we woke to the sound of lashing rain. Great. Another soaking seemed inevitable as we took down the tent. Taking advantage of occasional gaps in the rain, and then the snow, we managed to get most things packed away into the car without getting too wet, but by mid-morning it was clear that the weather just wasn’t going to let up so we had to take the tent down in the snow and wind, and were both freezing cold by the time we had dragged the sorry-looking, soaked canvas under a shelter to mop it off before cramming it into its bag and stuffing it into the car…


…and then, finally, we were on our way, soaked and cold, even after a lovely hot shower, waving and beeping our farewells to the last few people on the campsite. Another Kielder was over. Time to go home.

So, another great time at Kielder! Two good photographic nights, which was wonderful, and I am very happy with the photos I took. Many thanks to the organisers, Lynn and Richard and everyone else for staging another hugely enjoyable event and for all their hard work behind the scenes. It was great to catch up with old friends, and to make some new ones too, and we came away thinking, again, that going to Kielder Starcamp is one of the best decisions we ever made, ad one of the best parts of our year now. We’re already booked to go back in October, and I can’t wait to get my iOptron tracking the Milky Way and its glittering star-clouds then..!


67P blazes…

Another day, another gorgeous navcam view, and a slightly more artistic and poetic take on it than usual…


A whole new sky…

That’s what I saw last night – or at least it felt like it. How come? Well, last night, three looooong weeks after buying it (CURSE you Cumbrian weather, and my inadequate tripods!) I finally managed to use my new iOptron star tracker camera mount and its new sturdy ££ tripod for the first time. And was it worth it?

As Sam Beckett used to say after each Quantum Leap – Oh boy

Last night, lured outside by the first properly clear sky for a week or so, Stella, our observing buddy Carol and I headed out of Kendal and up to our closest “dark sky site” in a church car park in the nearby village of Old Hutton. It’s not perfect by any means – a couple of neighbouring houses have security lights, and there’s a big bright streetlight down the street, but if you position yourself in the long shadow of the church you can block those out and spend a good few hours under a very pretty, very starry sky, and that’s what we did last night, in the company of another pair of EAS members, as I took the iOptron out for its initial shakedown cruise.

It took me longer to set up for the first time than I thought it would – it’s a heavy piece of kit, and setting it up is actually quite fiddly, in the dark,what with all that screwing and unscrewing of ball heads etc – but eventually, with valuable assistance from Stella and Carol, everything was assembled. Then it was time to polar align it and take my first shot. I knew that the mount, and my photos, would benefit from aligning on the genuine polar point in the sky, which is some distance away from Polaris, but I wanted to see what an image would look like with the mount aligned on Polaris itself first. So, setting the DSLR for its maximum set length of exposure, 30 seconds, I set it running… and got this…

ioptron first image orion 50mm 30s

..which at first glance looks pretty good! Lots of stars, the nebula shining brightly. Promising! But the focus was out (a common problem with modern DSLR astrophotography cos they go *past* Infinity… so annoying!!) and when I enlarged the image I could see the stars had trailed slightly…

ioptron first image orion 50mm 30s trails

Ok… so that’s what alignining on Polaris did. So I used the app on my smartphone to align the mount with the *true* celestial pole, a little way away from Polaris, re-focussed, and tried again, another basic 30s exposure, and got this…

2nd image orion 50mm 30s

Oh… look at that…. that looked *great* on the back of the camera… but had aligning on the true pole made much difference..?

2nd image orion 50mm 30s trails

Oh yes…! I looked at that and started grinning like a Cheshire Cat. I’ve wanted to take a photo of that nebula looking like that for years, ever since, in fact, I was a young boy starting out in astronomy, and there it was, on my camera. At the second try with my new toy – sorry, highly sophisticated piece of equipment. I couldn’t wait to get home and process that image! But I did, wait, I mean, we were there a few hours, and I took many more photos, gradually lengthening the exposure times to see what the iOptron could do, and of course as soon as I got home I fired up the laptop and got to work… and you can imagine my amazement when this appeared after processing – this is a 127 sec exposure…

0rion 50mm single processed 127s

…and when I cropped the nebula, and did a little more work, I got this…


Seriously, seriously chuffed with that. That is a crop of a single tracked processed image taken at a reasonably dark site. What that tracker will give me when I use it at a truly dark site – which I will be doing this coming weekend, up at Kielder Starcamp in Northumberland – should be nothing short of amazing.

First images in the bag, and faith in the mount fully established, it was time to play! :-)

Here is a selection of the images I took over the next couple of hours, with technical details for those interested.


Pleiades, 135mm lens, single 82sec exposure.


M31, single exposure, 50mm lens, 51sec.

jupiter 135 60s

Jupiter, 135mm lens, 60sec exposure. Ok, that might be a *touch* over-exposed, but isn’t it pretty? ;-)


Crab nebula (centre) – crop of tracked image with 135mm lens

But what I really wanted to try and photograph last night was Comet Lovejoy – and the iOptron didn’t disappoint. Here’s a single 30s exposure with the 50mm lens…

comet 1st image 50mm 30s

And you can clearly see the tail of the comet there. Faint, certainly, but there. A 2 minute exposure rewarded me with this…

lj 2m single tracked

Bit bright, that, but I kept going, trying different exposures and lenses, and when I got home I worked on the images I’d taken… and these came out…

crop single 62s

135mm lens, 62sec exposure, cropped and processed. Love that!

lj i1

lj i11

I’ll be honest, I’m absolutely delighted with those, but at the same time I’m kicking myself that I didn’t buy the iOptron months ago when I was originally thinking about it, cos then I could have used it on Comet Lovejoy when it was at its brightest and best. Idiot! I hummed and haa’d about buying one for ages, lingered by them at three different astro events, and didn’t take the plunge. Now I know that if I’d used the iOptron on Comet Lovejoy a month ago, when its banner tail was unfurled and flapping in the solar wind, I would have got beautiful images… oh well, at least I have in now, ready for the *next* bright comet which comes along! And I’ll get to use it at Kielder Starcamp next weekend – weather permitting of course.

But just how much better is it using a mount like an iOptron than taking images with just a camera on a tripod, which I’ve always sworn by? Well, see for yourself by clicking on the following images to enlarge them…

comet 50mm

m42 50mm

comet stacked

One image from last night shows just what is possible with my new piece of kit. I thought I’d give M1, the Crab Nebula a try with my 135mm lens. I’ve imaged it before, kind of, but it’s never looked better than just a faint, smudgy dot… so imagine my delight when I managed to get this…

m1 crop

As I said at the top there, it feels like I have a whole new sky for my playground now… :-)


Many thanks to Carol Grayson for her help and for taking Stella and I up to the church last night; to fellow EAS members Ian Bradley and Simon White for their ongoing support and encouragement; and to Stella, as always, for accompanying me and supporting me on these (often futile) dark sky safaris :-) Also thank you to Jeremy Hunt, who very generously built me a manual barn door-type tracker – it was by using that I was able to see just how essential it was to take “the next giant step” from camera-and-tripod to something that moved on its own. And finally a big thank you to Marcus Grover at Grovers Optics for his excellent service, during and after the purchase of the iOptron and the tripod.

67P from 6K = O… M… G….

Now this, dear readers, is something very special.

Over the weekend the ROSETTA probe did a close fly-by of comet 67P, and today was the day scheduled to see the release of some of the amazing images taken by the NAVCAM camera during that fly-by. How close did ROSETTA get to the comet? Well, it raced past at a height/distance of just 6km. So, obviously the images were always going to be detailed and exciting and fascinating. But when they appeared online this afternoon I was totally unprepared for just how spectacular they were…

Before you take a look at my enhanced and processed crops of the images, take a moment to look at the *official* images, which are featured on today’s ROSETTA Blog post. Go on, I’ll wait…


See? Told you they were something special…

So can you imagine the look of joy on my face when I saw those images? When I sat back and imagined what I could pull out of them? There is so much detail in those images, so much, it’s bewildering, and scanning them I felt spoiled for choice – craters and cliffs and layers galore. But eventually I settled on a few specific areas, and here they are after being worked on.






…and finally my favourite from today, this sweeping panorama showing huge boulders, thousands of scattered rocks, and a cliff-side with countless gateau-like layers…


I absolutely *love* that view. You can easily imagine you’re looking down on that landscape from ROSETTA’s back as she flew over it, can’t you?

And don’t forget these are just the *navcams*. The OSIRIS cameras will have taken images too! But I have been told (thanks Dan) that those images haven’t come back yet, so we’ll have to wait a little longer to see what wonders they show. I hope we don’t have to wait months to see them, because they’re bound to be stunning. Until then, no doubt the navcam team’s releases will continue and through their camera’s eyes we will all be able to feel the joy of this mission – the joy of exploration and discovery. Thanks again, navcam team. :-)

More NAVCAM magnificence!

Repeating myself, I know, but thank you **again** to the navcam team on ESA’s ROSETTA  mission for continuing to bless us with the photographs they’re taking. Yesterday they released what we quaintly call here in the UK “an absolute cracker”…


.Oh, will you look at that? The play of the light on that image is just sublime… the shadows being cast on the jets and plumes, the glow on the comet’s surface, all just beautiful. And after a bit of tidying up…


…and with some shamelessly self-indulgent colour added…


If you’re reading this, navcam team (and actually, I know you are), thank you *again* from all of us out here following the ROSETTA mission. As I’ve said before, thanks to the continuing stinginess of the OSIRIS team, if it wasn’t for your efforts no-one would know there *was* a European comet mission; I frequently come across people who think the mission ended on Philae’s landing day. Can’t wait to see the glorious images you take during this weekend’s 6km fly-by…!

Comet 67P bursts into life…

..and again, a huuuuuuge THANK YOU to the ESA navcam team which keeps releasing breathtaking images of Comet 67P! Today’s is an absolute beauty…


Just look at all that activity! jets and plumes and spurts of gas and dust shooting out **everywhere**! And I love how you can see the “cliffs” (I know, I know, they’re not really cliffs, but I still think of them that way) lit softly by light reflecting off other parts of the comet too. With a little enhancement the comet’s activity really leaps out at you…


And look up the top there… is that the smaller lobe of the comet casting a shadow through all the dust and gas shooting off the neck? What a view…

A couple more artistic takes, just because I can and they look gorgeous…



Seriously, navcam guys, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU. The images you’re sharing with us are sensational, and if it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t even know ROSETTA was still studying 67P, because the OSIRIS team are still keeping their images locked away.

(cue groans from some readers)

I know, I’ve been over this before many times, here and elsewhere, and I’ve had people agreeing with me and giving me a hard time because of it. That’s ok; if you write a blog like this and give an opinion you’re open to criticism, and I’m all for freedom of speech. But my views haven’t changed, and won’t change, even though I fear I’m banging my head against a brick wall here, or coming across like a child whining “I want a pony NOW!” But while I understand people saying the OSIRIS team should be given time to work with their images, and Ihave nothing but the utmost respect for the scientists involved, I do think the attitude of the OSIRIS team is fundamentally flawed and wrong, and not only damages ESA but science itself. Why?

First of all, of course the OSIRIS scientists, who have waited many, many years to see their instruments fly and data flow back, have every right to be allowed to write their papers and further their careers without the risk of someone coming in from outside and stealing their glory, but I am puzzled why they are so worried about their data being stolen when the teams behind CASSINI, CURIOSITY, OPPORTUNITY and other missions, including ROSETTA’s own NAVCAM team, are happy to release images regularly – in the case of the Mars rovers, daily. Now, no-one in their right mind would suggest that *every* image taken by the ROSETTA mission should be released in real time, that would be ridiculous, but it is impossible for me to believe that every single image being taken by OSIRIS is so paradigm-shifting, so revolutionary that it has to be kept locked up. There must be some that just “look cool” but don’t show anything of any scientific use to anyone. They could be released without any risk to science or careers, and everyone would benefit.

Also, as I have said before, I simply find it impossible to believe that the OSIRIS team, if they are so worried about their science being stolen, couldn’t release versions of their images which have been lowered enough in resolution to make them unusable for science, but still look impressive.Why can’t they do that?

As I have said before, I’m coming at this subject/controversy from a different angle from the space enthusiasts who just feel impatient to see the pictures being taken by OSIRIS, because my main passion isn’t the actual science, it’s *communicating* the science to the public, young and old, as an Outreacher in the community and in schools. I also write science books for children, and run an active astronomical society here in Cumbria. So, basically, I meet and talk to a LOT of people about space exploration, “spreading the word” as it were. That means I meet a lot of very enthusiastic people who “get it”, people who love the excitement and discovery space exploration brings and rewards us with. But I also meet a lot of people who *don’t* get it, and question the vast amounts of money spent on space exploration, And I know, we defend it, we puff out our chests and preach about how it is all money spent here on Earth, and it”s spent in the pursuit of knowledge, it enriches us all, etc, etc, and that’s all true, but let’s be honest – every time a rocket goes up, every time a probe flies off to a distant world or comet, that’s the cost of a hospital or a school being fired into the sky. And at a time when “austerity” is genuinely hurting people, when young mothers can’t afford to feed their kids, when pensioners can’t afford to heat their homes, when schools can’t afford repairs to their leaking roofs, I’m finding it increasingly hard to stand in front of a classroom of kids, or a village hall full of WI members and justify the amounts of money spent taking pictures of rocks on Mars or jets on a comet.

But if those pictures *are* being taken, then they should be shared with the people who paid for them *to* be taken, not horded by very well paid scientists and enjoyed in private, in well heated offices and labs with very sturdy roofs.

Last week I gave a talk to a group of Brownies here in Kendal, to help them with their “Stargazers” badge, and had a fantastic time with a great bunch of kids. I laughed with them so much I could hardly breathe. At one point I showed a navcam image of 67P and they *gasped* in amazement, which was brilliant! And I wondered how many of them might go on, one day, to follow a career in science, or just have an interest in science. But after my talk, as I was showing the young girls some meteorites, one of the exhausted volunteer leaders said to me “That was very interesting, but it must cost a fortune to get those pictures…” and I looked around me, at the room with its damp ceiling and worn chairs, and had to struggle to fight back feelings of guilt. It’s hard to keep justifying expenditure on space with any conviction when the money being spent is spent on things people aren’t allowed to see.

And I know that there will be images released to the PDS eventually, which will be great for those of us in the know, space enthusiasts who live online and are comfortable navigating the treacherous waters of the internet to get to the right image in the right folder on the right webpage, but the people out there, in the real world, can’t do that, they rely on the media to show them the beautiful and fascinating images being taken in their name and with *their* money.

So I’m sorry if I seem like a broken record here, but I genuinely think the attitude shown by the OSIRIS team is wrong. It makes – unfairly and wrongly – scientists come across as selfish and elitist, and that’s bad for all of us who support science.

The bottom line is that there clearly are pictures the OSIRIS team could release to the media, without any risk to their careers, because they were happy to show them to the public at a conference in Germany last week, reported on by blogger Daniel Fischer. But they are choosing not to share them, and that is inconsistent and ridiculous.

Last week we had new, historic images of both Pluto and Ceres released by NASA without any fear or paranoia or worry. We saw startling new vistas from Mars, sent back by the rovers there. This is the way things are done now, by everyone, it seems, except the OSIRIS team, and I can’t get my head around it, I just can’t. We live at a time when a tsunami of terror and savagery is sweeping across the world, when savages and barbarians find joy in hacking off the heads of innocent people and, now, burning them alive. In America, ignorant and foolish politicians are at war with science, questioning climate change, and worse. And taking their lead in questioning and denying science, ignorant parents are refusing to vaccinate their children, naive men and women are looking at the sky in fear, convinced airplane vapour trails are “chemtrails” dripping poison on them, or they look at the Moon and refuse to believe people landed on it. All the time I meet and get abuse from people who believe in Nibiru, or the “Second Sun”, or other lunacy.

Closer to home, take a look at the ESA own Rosetta blog and you will find countless people trying to ram their nonsensical “Electric Universe” BS down people’s throats. Science is under attack everywhere we look. So the beauty of science, the wonder of science, the value of science all need to be communicated to the public, or the future will be a very dark place indeed. If we don’t do something to push back this tide of ignorance and fear, instead of flags fluttering in the gentle breezes on Mars, black, blood-soaked black banners will fly over the ruins of our civilisation here on Earth, I really fear that.

So the people who *do* science need to share it with people, or else those people will not believe it, or believe in it.

And that includes the OSIRIS team.

I hope they change their ways, and share their visions of wonder with the world beyond the doors of their offices before they are obliged to under their written-in-blood contracts with ESA.

New SOLAR ECLIPSE Guide blog


I’m starting to get people asking me for advice about how to watch the solar eclipse on March 20th, so I’ve put together a blog for absolute beginners, with all the info needed to observe and enjoy the eclipse – timings, what equipment to use, etc.



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