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The Dunes of Gale…

The Mars Science Laboratory CURIOSITY is approaching a very dramatic-looking field of dust dunes. Here’s a mosaic I made from several frames, and the processed. Wouldn’t be a all surprised to see an Arrakian sandworm breaking through one of those dune crests, would you? :-)

pano18 dunes

( And these views looking in the other direction aren’t bad, either… )



Welcome to Mars…

The Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity” is sending back some genuinely jaw-dropping views at the moment. Here’s a mosaic panorama I made by stitching together half a dozen individual frames and then processing it afterwards to bring out the features and details in the landscape…


“And We Saw…”

A new astro-poem inspired by the New Horizons encounter with Plut

“And We Saw…”

After dropping Mercury, Neptune
And all the Faberge egg worlds between
Into place, setting them whirling through space
Around the newborn Sun, the universe sat back,
Surveyed her work, and sighed.
“That’s enough for you, little star,”
She thought, satisfied with her newest fine orrery
Spinning in the darkness – then changed her mind:
“Alright, just one more…” she smiled,
Sculpting Pluto out of mystery, myth and magic
Before banishing it into exile,
Casting it into an orbit so far away
That when Earth’s curious apes finally turned telescopes
Towards the sky they spied only a lonely pollen grain,
Drifting through the night.

Ages passed until, one day, a gold foil-wrapped bullet
Screamed past, sensors sniffing, cameras clicking
Faster than an eye can blink,
Transforming in mere hours that mote in Lowell’s eagle eye
Into the solar system’s twinkling Narnia.
All too soon Pluto was reduced to a perfect achingly-blue
Circle, falling behind – time then for the probe to begin
Beaming back to Earth, pixel by precious pixel,
On a chirruping dial-up line,
Mankind’s first long-awaited portraits of Planet 9 –

And we saw…

Candyfloss pink glaciers, slithering like serpents ’round proud mountains…

Wide open plains of ancient ice, stained by time, dusted with crushed meringue…

That huge broken heart, a pale birthmark on its face, like dropped ice cream

Splashed on a pavement…

And lurking in the shadows of the misty Norgay Montes,
Just beyond Cthulhu’s reach beneath Charon’s bloodshot eye:
Mt Wright, an open sore on the planet’s cheek,
Icy pus oozing down its sides…

(c) Stuart Atkinson 2015


Kielder 2015 Autumn Starcamp

We have been going to Starcamps at Kielder for a few years now, and always enjoy them, no matter what. I say “no matter what” because going up to Kielder to look at the night sky can sometimes feel like more of an adventure holiday, or an SAS endurance training course, than an astronomy event; the weather is often, to put it politely, “challenging”, and although the sky is often a beautiful crystal blue, mist, wind and rain can sweep in from nowhere within minutes, leaving frustrated and soggy starcampers sheltering in their tents and caravans (or the nearby Anglers Arms pub) for days on end, looking forlornly out the window at a sky smothered with cloud as thick and claggy as cold porridge.

And the rain… oh, the rain… We’ve got used to setting up our tent in the rain, and taking it down again in the rain, and to sploshing around a campsite so wet and muddy, scattered with so many puddles and pools of standing water that it looks like a cross between the Somme and Glastonbury. Last time we were there we pulled down – I won’t dignify our frantic scrabbling to pull out its poles and haul its waterlogged canvas off them with the term “took down” – our tent in horizontal rain and sleet, and poor Stella literally had to sluice the water off the tent with a mop before it was dry enough to cram into a bin bag and stuff into the car…

But when it’s clear, and dry, Kielder is glorious, its tall trees, gurgling river and woodland walks combining to create a beautiful retreat from the noise and bustle of civilisation. Add to that the yummy bar meals at the pub at the campsite’s end, the scrummy full English breakfasts up at the castle, and the chance to catch up with old friends and make some new ones, perhaps, and you can see why it’s our favourite place to go camping and look at the stars. So we were really looking forward to going back up there last week for the 2015 Autumn starcamp. This time, tho, we would be warmer and drier whatever the elements threw at us – we were in our folding camper!


The weather could do what it wanted; as long as I was given one clear night to take my photographs, look through some big telescopes and just enjoy a dark, starry sky, I’d be happy…

It didn’t quite turn out like that.

This year we went up for five nights… and… are you ready for this…? Every Night Was Clear.

Not totally clear every night, and not crystal clear every night either  – the usual mist and moisture were ever present observing companions – but I managed to see and photograph the stars every night we were there for at least part of the night, and two nights were essentially clear right through until dawn, so I was delighted. I managed to see everything I wanted to see; take every photo I wanted to take; photographed some objects for the first time, and – perhaps most importantly of all – managed to show some newcomers around the night sky for the first time too.

And, even more remarkable – no rain! Well, it drizzled half-heartedly for a while one afternoon, and there was a spattering of misty rain one morning, but none of the monsoon conditions we’ve suffered through before. We even put up the camper in sunshine, and took it down in sunshine too.


In fact, the whole time we were there we kept having to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t asleep and dreaming!

Inbetween putting up the camper and taking it down we had five wonderful days of stargazing, fellowship and basically just chilling out. And we’re already looking forward to returning to Kielder in the Spring.

We arrived a little later than planned on the Wednesday afternoon, and were immediately greeted warmly by event organisers Lynn and Kevin. To our surprise, the campsite was already quite busy, with tents, caravans and mobile homes scattered across it, and after helping Stella set up our home for the week I wandered up the hill to take a pic of the view looking down on the field…

pano33After setting up there was time to say a few hello’s before heading down to the pub for our traditional “First Night Bar Meal”, which was lovely, but ruined by a woman on the next table who would NOT SHUT UP THE WHOLE TIME WE WERE EATING!!!! Seriously, she just latched onto us like a limpet mine and yabbered the whole time we were eating. Hate people like that.

Anyway, when we emerged from the pub it was dark – and as we scrunched our way back up the gravel path to the campsite, and up the road to our caper, stars were strewn across the sky above us! In fact, the first night we were there was probably the clearest, and that’s when I got some of my best photos…

Milky Way

M31 stack

M33 best single frame

M42 stackMilky Way panoramadouble clusterIMG_4127Pleiades 2IMG_4120

…and that’s pretty much how it was for the next couple of nights too! Both Thursday and Friday night we stood there, in the dark, in the shadow of Kielder’s tall trees, beneath a myriad of stars, with the Milky Way airbrushed across the sky, the space station, lantern-bright, arcing from west to east, satellites drifting through the familiar constellations, just wonderful. Kielder really is dark, and with no passing cars to destroy your dark adaption you really can enjoy the stars at their best.


It has to be said, though, that while we were there there was some noticeable light pollution from the nearby village of Kielder itself; clearly not everyone is joining in with the effort to make the area one of the darkest in the UK, and all the time we were there one particularly bright white security light, mounted on the side of a house in the village, was shining right across the campsite through a gap in the trees (see above pic), which made the sky less dark than we’ve enjoyed on previous visits, but I’m sure they’ll sort that out.:-)

Some of my best pictures from Thursday and Friday nights…

M31 best framed stack of 30fplough turningM45 cloudorion risingIMG_4320

I forgot to mention that on the Friday night the traditional “Meet and greet” was held at the brilliant new “warm room”. After a fascinating talk about the history of telescope making…


…everyone was treated to mulled wine (pretty good stuff, actually, not the cheap stuff “tastes like petrol stirred with mouldy twigs” mulled wine ) by the organisers…


…before heading off to their telescopes and trackers and cameras again. It’s a great opportunity for old friends to catch up, and for newcomers to start meeting people and getting a feel for the event. In fact, Friday night was probably the poorest night of the lot, with stubborn cloud that came and went, mostly came, and lingered for ages, and I eventually gave up and headed to bed just after 1am.


( I know! Look how bright that tent is on the right! Looks like a ****** nuclear reactor is fired up in there! Not sure that classes as a “red light” to be honest…)



And then, Saturday… always a busy day at Kielder, because that’s Talks Day up at the castle, when various guest speakers give illustrated presentations to star-camp attendees and members of the public who just come along for the afternoon. This year I was one of the speakers, giving a talk entitled “Skywatching – A Beginners Guide: The HONEST VERSION!” – and it seemed to go down really well, with many would-be stargazers telling me afterwards they were grateful for a no-frills guide to what becoming an amateur astronomer requires, and then gives you. One of the most popular parts of my talk was when I showed this slide, listing some of the things I’d heard wandering around the campsite during the past few nights…


That slide was greeted with a lot of (bitter!) laughter, because the 2015 Autumn Kielder Star-camp will probably go down in history as “The Year of The Gremlins” because everywhere you turned someone was having problems with their equipment – batteries dying, cables breaking, gears grinding, alignment systems failing… Luckily, being a low-tech type who just wanders around with an iOptron, plonking it down where and when I feel like it and taking photos as I want, those aren’t problems I have, but it must be crushing to travel all the way there, with a car full of kit, and be under a rare clear sky only for your gear to break on you. I hope everyone managed to get something.

Then, Saturday night… and after another yummy meal down at the pub we headed back up to the campsite, to find the day’s forecasts of cloud had been wrong and it was a lovely night, with long periods of beautifully starry sky. It was misty at times, and dewy too, but after midnight that mist cleared and left behind a sparkling sky. I got some wonderful (I think!) photos…

veil frame

m106IMG_4532Saturday night was probably the night I enjoyed most at Star-camp, because that was when I managed to get some proper Outreach done, by showing some people around the sky for the first time. A young family from near Glasgow were pitched just opposite us, and really wanted to learn about what was shining above them, so I was happy to oblige, and spent a very enjoyable couple of hours pointing out and identifying stars and constellations for them. They were absolutely fascinated, and soon were starting to pick up the names of some of the amazing things glowing in the sky above their tent. At one point I took them up the track to the road that runs along the top of the campsite, and showed them Orion rising up behind the trees, the three Belt stars glinting like diamonds  through gaps in the low clouds hugging the eastern horizon. And when they told me they wished they could take some photos of the sky, to hep them remember how magical Starcamp had been for them, I had an idea…

IMG_4462 IMG_4463

I went to bed about 2am, delighted with the evening’s viewing and photography, but set my alarm for half past four so I could get up again and hopefully see the “Parade of Planets” in the eastern sky before dawn: Venus, Jupiter and Mars are all gathered together in the morning sky at the moment, and having already photographed them from here in Kendal, and up at Shap, I really wanted to see and photograph the from Kielder’s dark sky. I had already tried to get up early on Friday morning to see them, but like an idiot I set my phone alarm for THURSDAY, so slept right through a golden opportunity to see them. This time everything worked, and at half four I pulled on my heavy jacket, unzipped the awning and looked out –

…to find the sky was spectacularly clear, strewn with stars shining like diamonds, sapphires and rubies! And there, shining above the trees – Venus, bright as a phosphorous flare, with Jupiter nearby. YES! Grabbing my photo gear I headed out, and bumped into a couple of the Scottish family again, so I spent some time with them, telling them about the planets, before heading off on my own, back up the hill, to take the photos I had wanted to take since getting there.. Note: dew and then *frost* on the camera lens made these first two images look the way they do…

conj1IMG_4538IMG_4589Eventually the sky brightened so much that the planets all but disappeared, so I headed back to the camper, wriggled into my sleeping bag, and got some much-needed sleep, more than happy with what I’d seen and photographed.

…and then, Sunday, our last full day, and a chance to unwind as people started to pack up and drift away from the campsite, heading home in time for work the next morning. Stella and I weren’t heading back until Monday afternoon, so we were able to just have a quiet day, spending some time with Peggy in the camper…


…watching DVDs, going for a walk etc…



…before treating ourselves to a huuuuge Sunday roast at the pub…

20151018_181246Incredibly, Sunday night offered up some stars too! But it was a patchy night, and instead of repeating photographs I’d taken already I concentrated on wide field shots before heading to bed…

m way stackveil


Monday morning dawned bright and dry, so we were able to pack up the camper and its fancy new awning without any repeat of the previously described horizontal rain incident, and we were home by mid-evening after a hugely enjoyable almost-a-week at Kielder. It was probably our best Kielder visit to date, and it was great to meet up with friends like Richard, Lynn, Kevin, Robert and Antoinette (and Louie!) again. It was also great to be at such a dark sky site with other members of our astronomical society – Carol and Simon, Moira and Ruth, David and Marilyn – and to see a couple of them making strides forwards in the hobby – getting to know their telescopes and equipment better and learning more about the night sky itself. An added bonus for me was being able to show “The Girls from Glasgow” the night sky, and help my new astro buddy from Cockermouth, Jayne, and her husband (at their first starcamp) take their first steps into our fascinating hobby, and take her first astrophotos too! And of course it was great for the two of us – sorry, the three of us – to just get away from the bright lights of Metropolis, I mean Kendal.

And it has to be said, finally, that the campsite is looking fantastic now. A lot of work has been done, the drainage looks to have been sorted out, and it feels even more homely and welcoming than before.

Thanks to all the event organisers for making the Kielder Autumn 2015 Starcamp such fun. :-) We’re already looking forward to returning to Kielder in the Spring –

I wonder if the weather gods will make us pay then for last week’s good weather..?


the-martian-600x450Can you imagine how much I was looking forward to seeing this film? Can you even begin to imagine?

I have been a huge fan of the story of THE MARTIAN for a long time, ever since it first appeared online as a story a few years ago. I read it several times on my computer and tablet before buying the book when it was published – signed copy, of course! – and then when I heard it was going to be made into a film I was as excited as a dog in a lamp post factory. Then, of course, after I was excited I was terrified; what if they ruined it, like other brilliant books have been ruined by film-makers in the past? What if they dumbed it down, and stripped away all the science leaving just a “Castaway on Mars” rip-off?

My anxiety was eased somewhat when I heard who was going to be directing it – Ridley Scott. Phew. “Epic” is his middle name, he would be able to handle it, surely. But… his films are SO dour, SO serious, would he be able to keep in the comedy the book is full of? ( Oh, please, Ridley, don’t make a “dark” MARTIAN, don’t turn it into a Dark Knight film..) I knew a lot would depend on the casting of the lead role: would his Mark Watney be funny, and irreverent, and sometimes just plain silly, like he is in the book? Ah… casting Matt Damon in the lead seemed a good move – a safe pair of hands, Matt, and in my mind I could see him as Watney without any trouble –

But… but…!!

All I could do was cross my fingers and wait.

As the film entered production, and as I waited to see it in my local cinema, two questions were burning in my mind: how faithful would the film be to the book, and how real would Mars look in the film?

It was very important to me, as a “Mars enthusiast”, that the film of THE MARTIAN put a realistic Mars on the big screen. Mars has not been treated well by film makers in the past. RED PLANET’s Mars was okay, suitably red and dusty and craggy-looking, but ruined by those oxygen-farting bugs. MISSION TO MARS looked promising – stunning views of Mars from orbit – until the most stupid astronauts ever to go into space “woke up” the Face on Mars and were torn to bits by a sand storm (and the less said about the end, with a gormless- and bored looking Gary Sinese meeting the worst CGI aliens ever to be shown in a big budget film, the better)…

And then, of course, we come to TOTAL RECALL – the original one, not  the recent Colin Farrell bomb.

In Arnie’s film – which is about as scientifically accurate as an episode of Blakes 7 but is a hugely enjoyable romp, let’s be honest – Mars is not just “the red planet”, it is the OH MY GOD!!! THAT IS SO RED MY EYES ARE MELTING!!!! red planet. His Mars is a planet dipped in fire engine red paint, then dusted with red brick dust and then drowned in red paint again just to be certain everyone in the audience gets it that MARS IS RED.

total_recall_1990_pic02-1024x550An honourable mention must go to the classic “ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS”. Look carefully at this poster…


See where it says, bottom left, “Scientifically authentic”? Let’s examine it’s scientific authenticity… UFOs!! A ripped space suit! An APE MAN!! A MONKEY ON HIS SHOULDER, WITHOUT A SPACE SUIT! It’s still a fun film tho. And I was pretty sure THE MARTIAN would be rather more “authentic”… :-)

So, yes, it’s fair to say that it was very important to me that THE MARTIAN treated Mars, MY planet, always has been, with respect and, okay, yes, love. Regular readers will know of my passion for Mars, how I’ve been a “martian” since I was at junior school, long before the fictional Mark Watney ever thought about going there.

Then… the long wait until “word” started coming out of the studios about how the film was going.

Images started being released, and to my relief Mars looked… right. Well, not perfect, but much more realistic than it had been shown in other films. Just by looking at the promotional stills I got a sense of THE MARTIAN’s take on Mars, and it looked every bit as wide open and epic and noble and beautiful as I’d hoped it would. That was a good sign, and when the first trailers were released I literally cheered watching them, I was that happy and that relieved. It looked like Ridley Scott had pulled off what had eluded so many before him and made a Good Mars Film.

Release date approached, and the the early reviews started to appear, and they were all good. ALL good. It had blown people away; even the most cynical reviewers had loved it. I couldn’t wait to see it myself –

And last Tuesday night I finally did.

I swear I walked into the Brewery Arts Center a nervous wreck. I wanted so badly, SO badly for the film to be good, to not let me down, to not ruin the book in any way. And I took my seat and just sat there mentally sending Ridley Scott messages…. “Don’t you dare spoil this story for me, don’t you DARE…”

Lights down… music began…

… … … … … … …

End titles… credits roll… lights up…

…and I just sat there, staring at the screen, with a big grin on my face and all my worries and fears swept away. He did it. He actually did it. He not only brought THE MARTIAN to life, he brought Mars, the real Mars, to life too. Well, almost. But he’d done the best job yet.

I loved THE MARTIAN, and I loved the Mars that is shown in THE MARTIAN. Mars has never looked more beautiful on the big screen. Never. Watching the film, the Mars in my head, MY Mars, kept whispering “It’s still not right… where are all the rocks? It’s so flat! SO much open space! And the mountains look wrong! And… and…” But I didn’t listen. I told that voice to shut up, because the Mars on the screen was GORGEOUS, a huge John Ford western Mars, a Big Country Mars that looked noble and ancient and BIG, with sweeping vistas, a caramel sky, dust devils whirling softly in the distance, dust wafting over the ground. Yes, it was too flat, with too much open ground, but I forgave it that for just looking so stunning. Good job, Ridley. Good job.

But of course, to be fair here, I have to talk about the martian elephant in the room. Yes, that. The dust storm. The storm that strands Watney on Mars in the first place.

Obviously, it’s ridiculous. RiDICulous. Dust storms on Mars just aren’t like that. A dust storm on Mars is basically a wafting breeze carrying a lot of dust with it; it wouldn’t blow you over, it wouldn’t even bend you. So the scene where Watney and his team stagger through the dark, through a hail of jagged fragments of rock and stone is… ridiculous. But it’s in the book, and Ridley Scott obviously loved his shrapnel storm in PROMETHEUS **SO** much he shoe-horned it into THE MARTIAN too! And author Andy Weir admits that, freely; in a book otherwise crammed full of good science The Storm is just a plot device to strand Watney there. And you know, that’s ok, I didn’t mind that, because IT’S A FILM NOT A DOCUMENTARY!!!!! :-)

I loved so many things about the film. I loved the way that science is a hero in the film (and the book), and the people who do science are heroes and heroines too. I loved the fact that no-one died (I really did wonder if Ridley Scott would re-write the story so SOMEONE died, cos he loves killing people in his films). I loved that no-one had been turned into an all out boo-hiss villain. I loved the first shot of the crew on Mars, which actually made me whisper “Oh yes!!!” in the darkness of the cinema. I loved how, at the end of the film, Watney was shown surrounded by lush green, a stark contrast to all the martian hues through the rest of the two hours. I loved how they showed Sojourner rolling happily around inside the hab like a dog – and I was THIS close to blubbing when Watney knelt down and affectionately patted it goodbye, before abandoning the Hab and setting off to be rescued.

I loved how the film kept the fun of the book, which I was really quite worried about. I mean, “Ridley Scott” and “fun” go together like “politician” and “honest”, i.e. they don’t, but he kept almost all the humour of the book, especially Watney’s despair at only having disco music to listen to. ( Actually, I’d have been fine with that, but that’s just me and my taste in music… walking about on Mars with Sister Sledge playing in my helmet would do me just fine, thank you…!)

Yes, there are cliches in the film, lots of them. The JPL scientists are all shown as uber geeks, all messy desks, sleeping on couches and SF tee-shirts. The NASA chief, quite a nuanced, deep character in the book, is an old faithful Mr Stuffed Shirt who “comes around” in the end. The Chinese are deep and inscrutable… etc etc…

But he patted Sojourner goodbye, so I forgive all the above.

A few things did jar… a little… The Pathfinder landing site shown was just Anywhere On Mars, nothing like Ares Valles where it actually landed; I would have loved to have seen the actual landing site recreated, even with CGI, but sadly that was not to be. The film also gave the impression that JPL was basically a few farm barns where unwashed extras from an episode of Dawson’s Creek worked, and where a “spare” Pathfinder lurked under a tarpaulin that could be woken up with just a bit of a brush off and some jump leads. The spacesuits looked like… well, not really like spacesuits, but they were ok.

The storm was – yeah, enough about that.

What I really, really wish they had done (and I’m not even sure if this was a scene in the book) was show Watney sitting on top of a hill, or just standing out in the open, after sunset, looking wistfully at Earth, shining in the dusk like a blue star. That would have looked magical, and if ever a film could have done that image justice, THE MARTIAN was it. I wonder if they shot it and it will be in the obligatory “Director’s Cut” DVD? I’ll know when I buy it.

So, to summarise… THE MARTIAN is a great film. Is it faithful to the book? Yes – well, faithful enough; filming the whole book would have been almost impossible, unless you were Peter Jackson and used to making films that last half a day. There’s enough of the book’s science in it to satisfy the people who love the book, and not so much that people new to the story will be bored. People who go to the book after watching the film will either enjoy the additional botany and geometry and mathematics, or they will think “Huh, the film was better…” and put it down again. THE MARTIAN isn’t the best SF film ever made, not by a longshot, but it is, hands down, the best Mars film ever made, and will bring that planet to life in the minds of a whole new generation of people.

As for how it shows Mars… I’m very, very picky about this, I know, but it didn’t quite nail it for me. It almost had it, but if you *know* Mars like Mars enthusiasts do, the Mars in the film is a bit too flat, a bit too jagged-hilly, and way, waaay too stormy! The view of the dust storm boiling over the mountains is fantastic to look at, very dramatic, but not accurate – but, again, that’s ok, I can easily forgive that when the film just looks so luscious and rich, and treats Mars, for the first time, with the respect it deserves.

And he patted Sojourner goodbye…!!!!! :-( :-(

But above all, the film is just great fun! It is hugely entertaining, just like the book. I must admit, watching The Storm I wondered if Ridley had made a dark and brooding film and stripped away some of the humour. I mean… the guy made PROMETHEUS, a film which relishes misery and angst, wearing gloom with all the pride and joy of a goth pulling on a new black t-shirt; PROMETHEUS, a film with so many unlikeable people you lose count, and really don’t care if they die or not – is drenched in depression, and after watching it I felt like I’d been to a funeral… But THE MARTIAN is full of so much fun, and wit, and warmth, it was as if Ridley was actually enjoying himself making it. Who ever imagined they’d hear disco music in a Ridley Scott film???

I will buy the DVD, yes, and I hope to see the film in 3D too, as the Brewery Arts Centre was only showing it in 2D on the night we went. But it didn’t matter; it was a rollicking good story, and even though – as is the case with Apollo 13 – I knew exactly what was going to happen at the end, and knew he would be Brought Home, my heat was in my mouth, hoping for the best!

Good job, Ridley, Matt, and everyone else involved. Good job.

And after watching the film, one thought keeps coming back to me. Now Ridley Scott has shown a good Mars film can be made, and Mars can be shown properly on screen, the idea of someone being brave enough to take on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and do it properly, doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all…

Hunting the aurora… in Cumbria…

EAS Aurora Hunters 2

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know just how many times I have tried to see the northern lights from Cumbria, here in the north of England. It’s a pretty thankless task, for many reasons. Firstly, when it comes to the aurora, the “north of England” isn’t actually that far north. It’s almost the end of the world for politicians and media types down in London, they think we are permanently covered in snow and have to fight off sabre tooth tigers and mammoths, but in terms of being well placed for watching auroral activity we’re really not that far north at all, you need to go up to Scotland to have a chance of seeing anything with any regularity. Also, to be blunt, our weather is crap. The Lake District HAS lakes for a reason – it rains SO much here you would not believe it, and usually when it’s not raining at night it’s cloudy, so doing any kind of astronomy is “challenging” at best.

But that doesn’t stop us haring up to the north of our beautiful county if the KP index and the “space weather dials” suggest there’s even a hint of a whisper of a chance of seeing even the top of an auroral display peeking above our northern horizon. And off we go, with cameras and high hopes… only, usually, to have those hopes dashed by the weather or the aurora itself. What promised to be a Big Display ends up as little more than a water colour wash green glow on the horizon. And every time it happens we tell ourselves “Our time will come… our time will come…” Not really believing it, of course…

But sometimes, just sometimes, our time DOES come. And last week, on two nights in a row, we were able to see the northern lights from Cumbria.


Wednesday evening, and across the UK aurora-hunters and sky watchers are wondering what the night will bring. Earlier that morning, after doing nothing all night, a big auroral display had kicked off after our sunrise, delighting viewers in the US and leaving us banging our heads against ant available wall. As the day progressed we all kept checking the websites and blogs and Twitter feeds we rely on to give us warnings of possible aurora, hoping that when darkness fell we would see something, but it was very uncertain.

Then, at around quarter to eight in the evening, looking at my phone I saw a Facebook post from an aurora watcher in Finland, shouting to the world that he was seeing a BIG display in his sky… That pricked my ears up! REALLY??? Finland was dark ahead of us, so surely at least the upper part of a display as big as the one he was describing would be visible for us too? We get to our Shap observing site around half an hour later, but the sky was almost totally cloudy, with just a narrow, letterbox strip of clear sky to the north. Even though it wasn’t properly dark yet I decided to take a test shot, and aimed my camera at the clear sky…

1st 20-29 frameYES!!!!! AURORA, right there!!!

…and then it all went… nuts…

The sky cleared, and by some miracle it stayed clear ALL NIGHT, as the biggest and most impressive display of the northern lights seen from our part of the world for almost a decade painted the sky green, red and purple.

It started off slowly, with just – just! haha! – a huge green arc across the northern sky, looking like a lime green rainbow…


But slowly the arc started to sprout beams, and rays, which jabbed up into the sky like searchlights…



IMG_3258 20-44

Watching this from Shap we were more than happy with that. It was more than we had seen for a long time, But it turned out that was just the warm up act for the main show, like those cute little UFOs that fly over everyone at the end of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS before the Mothership arrived…because at about half past nine, the green arc vanished, as if switched off like a light bulb, and when it came back the northern sky blazed with cold, green fire…

IMG_3338 21-59 frameIMG_3341 22-02 frame

IMG_3343 22-03 frame

I took photo after photo after photo, laughing at the beauty of it all, as did Stella and someone who had come up on the off chance to see if he could see anything. By ten pm activity was dying down, the great green curtains had stopped rolling and flapping, but the northern sky was still glowing…

stella aurora frame

stella frame

bothIMG_3411 23-26 frame

beamcarol frame

By 01.30 on Thursday morning activity had died right down to a soft background glow, so we headed home, delighted with what we had seen. But activity continued throughout the day, so after dark on Thursday evening we headed up to Shap again.


Word had obviously gone out about the possibility of seeing the northern lights the next night, night because every lay-by we passed was crammed with cars full of hopeful aurora watchers, but our site was thankfully quiet and deserted. This time no aurora greeted us upon our arrival, and the sky was a lot cloudier. In fact, it just didn’t “feel right” for an aurora, so I took some constellation photos to pass the time, hopeful that something might appear. Reports on Twitter and Facebook were suggesting a display was visible further north from us – a LOT further, like Orkney and the Hebrides – but we couldn’t see it. There was a trace, a suggestion of a green glow on photos taken facing north, but that was all –

Then, suddenly, it appeared… The Blob…!

IMG_3530 22-46

At just after quarter to eleven a vague patch of pale green appeared above the NW horizon, and brightened and kept brightening. No rays came from it, no beams, nothing, just a green glow that came and went. But we were happy with that, and Stella posed in front of it for a photo… look at it carefully, over to the right…

IMG_3546 23-04

Yes! Some rays! I couldn’t see them by eye, but they showed up on the photo on the back of the camera, so I tried a few more shots towards them…

blob and rays

IMG_3548 23-08Again, activity died down around half past midnight, so we decided to call it a night. Stella bedded down in the back oif the van, and I curled up on the front seat, setting my alarm for 04.30 in the hope of seeing a quartet of planets lined up in the pre-dawn sky. Did I see them? Well, that’s in the previous post… :-)

Planets on Parade…

Yesterday morning (Friday, October 9th) I was lucky enough to see, and photograph, a beautiful line up of planets in the eastern sky before dawn –

Actually, no, I wasn’t lucky. Luck had nothing to do with it. As you need to do with many astronomical events, I planned it out carefully in advance, checking times, and dates, and angles and exactly how they would look, and where, and was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to see what was going on; the only element of luck in the whole thing involved the weather, because it was wonderfully miraculously clear at 04.30 when I went out, ready to photograph the Great Parade Of Planets…

When I got up at half four, unfolding myself out of the front seat of the van I’d slept in for three hours, after an evening of aurora-spotting, I peeked out the misted-over window and saw the sky was breathtakingly clear. Looking in the side mirror I could see Venus blazing like a diamond just above a nearby wood, and knew that the Moon wouldn’t be far behind, hidden by the trees, so I slid out of the van, grabbed my camera and tripod, and headed away a short distance before finally looking back… and seeing…

1st view

Oh wow…

A short time later Mars cleared the trees, and Jupiter rose too…

2nd view

Here, let me put some labels on that for you…

2nd view labelled…and basically I stayed out there for the next two and a half hours, taking different photos of the planets as they rose higher, with different lenses and settings, just – and many astro-photographers and observers forget to do this – having fun with something amazing in the sky! :-) While I waited for the planets to gain some altitude I took the opportunity to do some tracked deep sky imaging with my iOptron star tracker…


On the left, below, you can see a single 2 minute long tracked image taken with the tracker. On the right, a processed stack of ten 30 second images…

collage M42

…and with a bit more work you can get images like these…




But back to the planets. Here are the best photos I took…

Leo Planets f

planets plus cloud


Planets and clouds

As dawn approached I was also able to get *another* planet in my pictures, Mercury…!

4 worlds labelled

I was pleased to have four worlds on one photo, but then it was pointed out to me that I’d actually got SIX…

6 worlds f labels


Stella joined me for a few photos, as you can see…



By seven am it was just too bright to see Mars, Mercury and Jupiter, but Venus and the Moon were still visible in the cold, blue sky, but I needed to get *some* sleep so returned to the van.

And just to round things off, earlier in the evening I had managed to track down Uranus and Neptune too, so I actually photographed every (official) planet in the solar system except Saturn over the course of one night… :-) I just missed out on photographing Saturn as it had already set when we got to our observing site, but I’ll definitely try again from Kielder starcamp next week.

collage 8 worlds


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