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Eclipse-watching from Narnia…

Well, the weather co-operated, my phone’s alarm woke me up as planned, and I didn’t break my neck carrying a ton of equipment up the steep, ice-coated hill to Kendal Castle this morning, and I saw the total lunar eclipse! Reward, I think, for missing so many events “up there” recently because of bad weather…

At 5.50am this morning, wrapped up like Arctic explorers, and carrying en0ugh equipment between us to put Himalayan sherpas to shame, Stella and I set off for Kendal Castle, our chosen viewing location for the eclipse. Everything was silent, apart from our boots as we crump-crumped through the snow, first through Abbot Hall Park and then up the steep hill to the castle itself. Behind us as we climbed the footpath the Moon was a blindingly-bright silver-white orb – and ahead of us, Venus was blazing like a lantern. It was literally a breathtaking sight.

Finally at the castle we dumped our bags on the snow and took in our surroundings. beneath us the orange and blue lights of sleeping Kendal were glittering like the lights on a christmas tree that had fallen over onto its side, and the distant hills were glowing blue-white in the moonlight, the same brilliant moonlight that was making the snow all around us sparkle and dance. I stood there for a moment, drinking in the view, savouring it, thinking that if anyone had ever watched an eclipse from Narnia it would have looked exactly like this…

It didn’t take long to set-up the telescope and cameras, in fact we were done before first contact, and looking into the ‘scope at 06.15 we were able to see the left limb of the Moon was already darkening in advance of first contact proper. Right on time the left limb of the Moon was touched by an edge of darkness, and the eclipse had begun…

For the next half hour Stella and I – inbetween breaks to walk and stomp about a bit, clapping our gloved hands together for warmth – watched the Earth’s shadow creep across the Moon. Slowly, so slowly, covering up one familiar lunar feature and landmark after another. As the shadow advanced across the Moon the colours and shades within it shifted and changed, and hints of purple and even turquoise started to become visible…

A few passers by (all of them dog-walkers; Kendal Castle hill is like dog central at any time of day, even on a crisp and frosty dawn!) stopped to look in the telescope, and enjoyed what they saw before vanishing into the dark again.

Soon after 7pm we were joined by BBC Radio Cumbria’s reporter Martin Lewes, who had arranged to meet up with us at the castle to do an outside broadcast about the eclipse. When he arrived, carrying his small but mega high-tech broadcasting equipment, he told us that the temperature was minus ten degrees C, which I was actually pelased about because it meant I had a new Personal Best for cold eclipse watching: the coldest temperature I had watched a lunar eclipse in before today was minus nine…! 🙂

By now the eastern sky was starting to lighten, with a wash of gold dawn brightening behind the low clouds in that direction, and Venus was starting ton fade from view. The Moon was now dropping towards the north-west, and with half of its disc eaten away by the Earth’s shadow it looked like a Pacman in the sky…

Our first attempt at a live broadcast was cut short when we lost the signal with the studio, but we managed to get a few words out on air, letting the people of Cumbria know what we were seeing, and urging them to go and look for themselves.

Finally the Moon was completely inside Earth’s shadow, and hanging low in the north-west like a distant pumpkin lantern, or hot air balloon. Very low now, it was actually getting harder and harder to see as it dropped into the thicker atmosphere and murk above the hills and the lights of Kendal, but it was a beautiful sight, and for a while we forgot the bone-chilling cold and just gazed at the eclipsed Moon, savouring the subtle colours and the stillness of the dawn. We managed to get on air with a second broadcast, and told Radio Cumbria listeners what a magical view we had. More passers-by… well, passed by, and told us that they had seen other early risers around the castle, and beneath it, gazing at the eclipse and taking their own photos…

…and through the telescope the fully eclipsed Moon was a grey-pink ball, almost lost in the brightening dawnlight… and it was such a magical sight, and moment, that I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if I’d looked around then and seen Aslan striding towards me through the pink snow, mane and tail swishing, asking if he could have a look through my telescope…

With the blushing Moon now hanging just a hand’s width or so above the horizon there was time to take a couple more photos…

… but eventually we lost the Moon altogether – the sky was just too bright, and it was too hard to see it through the near-horizon mist and murk – so we packed up our  things and headed back down the hill, frozen, and tired, but delighted with what we had seen. Somehow we made it down the ice-encrusted steps leading down from the castle without slipping and breaking our necks, and were soon home, more than ready for a cup of tea and a sit by the fire.

So, we did it, we saw the eclipse, and judging by the reports and comments on Twitter, Facebook and across the internet, many thousands – probably millions – of people around the world saw it too. I am sure many of them enjoyed it just as much as we did, even if they didn’t have the Narnian surroundings or the Moonset conclusion.

Some people think lunar eclipses aren’t really worth bothering with. They think they are too slow, too ponderous, too dull. Last night I even read a Twitter comment by a hugely-popular and high profile US astronomer and broadcaster describing the forthcoming lunar eclipse as “boring”, comparing it to watching paint drying, and even urging his Followers to watch a time lapse video recording of it instead. Which appalled me, to be honest; I couldn’t understand how any astronomer – particularly an astronomer whose job it is, at least in part, to encourage people to look up at the sky, and see things happening up there with their own eyes – could actually discourage people from seeing an astronomical event for real. I wonder how many people who read his witty Tweets last night decided not to bother with watching the eclipse as it happened, and chose to just look at pictures and YouTube clips today? I wonder how many of them would have been telling their friends and colleagues at work today about the magical sight they saw in the sky last night? I wonder how many of them would have been inspired to go into a shop and buy an astronomy magazine, or go into a bookstore and buy a beginner’s guide to the night sky, if they’d watched the eclipse from their garden, or the park down the road, or even just out of their window?

Shame.

Because yes, lunar eclipses are slow. The view doesn’t change much from minute to minute. There’s no “wow!” moment when Something Amazing Happens. But they have a beauty all of their own, an eerie, other-worldly beauty, and watching one gives you – if your mind is open to such things – a real sense of the geometry of the solar system, especially the Earth-Moon system, as you see, with your own eyes, the shadow of our planet falling on another celestial body, stealing it briefly from our view.

So, for those people who made an effort to watch the eclipse, who have patience, who don’t need their celestial events to be “wham-bang!” Michael Bay special effects, who can appreciate the majestic nature of such a slow-motion event, who can appreciate the wonder and beauty of the night sky, it was a wonderful night, and one they’ll remember for a long, long time.

I hope you were one of those people! 🙂

TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE on Dec 21st visible from Cumbria (and across the UK)

There will be a TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE tomorrow morning, visible across Cumbria and the whole of the UK (and other parts of the world too, of course). Here are the details if you want to watch it from Cumbria – please note, if you’re a reader from elsewhere in the UK, your times of “moonset” will differ slightly.

* The Moon will start to darken SLIGHTLY at 05.28 when it enters the PENUMBRA, the outer part of Earth’s shadow. This darkening isn’t usually that noticeable, but given a clear, frosty sky it might be this time, especially through binoculars. At this point the Moon will just start to look a little greyish…

* The Moon will enter the UMBRA, the darker, denser part of Earth’s shadow, at 06.32. The Moon will then start to darken ‘properly’ from the left, with the Earth’s shadow moving across the disc from roughly the 10 o’clock position.

* The Moon will be half-eclipsed by 07.10.

* The Moon will be TOTALLY ECLIPSED at 07.40.

* The eclipse will be at its deepest at 08.16, when the Moon is in the centre of Earth’s shadow. At this point it will probably be a dark orangey-red colour, but may look more of a purple colour due to its low height – we’ll be seeing it through a lot of haze and murk close to the horizon.

* From Kendal, the Moon will SET at 08.40, while it is still fully eclipsed. If you live north or south of Kendal, your Moonset time will differ slightly.

* The total phase of the eclipse will end at 08.54, quarter of an hour after the Moon has set for us.

Some things to bear in mind:

+ The whole eclipse will take place while the Moon is low in the west for us, so if you want to see it properly you’ll either have to get somewhere high or find somewhere with a flat, uncluttered western horizon.

+ Because the Moon will set fully eclipsed that means we have an excellent chance to get some beautiful photos with objects/buildings in the foreground. Have a think beforehand about the pictures you might be able to take, and give it a go, you’re bound to get something good!

+ YOU DON’T NEED A TELESCOPE TO SEE THIS ECLIPSE! You can watch the eclipse with just your naked eye! Having said that, a pair of binoculars will really bring it to life – they’ll enhance the colours, especially at maximum eclipse, and allow you to watch the Earth’s shadow slowly creeping towards and then covering familiar lunar craters and seas, etc. And an eclipsed Moon always looked eerily three-dimensional through binoculars.

+ Because the Earth’s atmosphere is very ‘clean’ at the moment, without much volcanic dust or gunk swirling about in it, it will allow a lot of ‘Earthlight’ onto the Moon, so there’s a good chance the Moon will be quite bright orange-red rather than a dark muddy brown during the total phase of the eclipse. Even better for photos! But, as I already mentioned, because the eclipsed Moon will be low in the sky its colour will be reddened by the thicker atmosphere there, so it might look more purple than red. We’ll have to wait and see!

+ … having said that, the fact that the sky will be getting brighter through the eclipse, as dawn approaches, will mean that the fully eclipsed Moon will probably look quite dim, too. In fact, the lower it gets, the brighter the sky will get, so we’ll be up against it in two ways! All we can do is go out and watch, and enjoy whatever Nature gives us! 🙂 (thanks Dan!)

So, in summary, you need to be somewhere suitable by 06.15 to catch the beginning of the eclipse. You won’t need a telescope, but binoculars will help a lot and make the eclipse much more enjoyable. The Moon will set at 08.40, still fully eclipsed, but hard to see because of the brightening sky. Inbetween those times you’ll be able to get lots of pictures and see a beautiful orange-red Moon low in the west. But remember to wrap up warm, it’ll be perishingly cold!!

I’ll be up at the Castle if anyone wants to join me there!

Events being held in Cumbria for the BBC’s “Stargazing LIVE”

In January the BBC will be showing a special series of programmes designed to introduce people to the brilliant hobby of star-gazing, or amateur astronomy. Astronomical Societies up and down the country will be supporting the programmes by holding special events – observing nights, lectures, exhibitions, things like that.

If you want to know what will be happening in Cumbria, there’s now a blog you can go to for details:

http://stargazinglivecumbria.wordpress.com

Keep checking that website for new details of all the events happening in Cumbria as part of “Stargazing LIVE”. 🙂

Aliens found on Earth? Er… no.

So, 24 hours ago, NASA made The Announcement, the announcement that had been kept secret for days, ever since NASA announced it would be making an announcement. The story was hidden behind a strict embargo (which, in the end, failed miserably because all it took to figure out The Big Secret was a determined Google search of the names and research projects of the members of the panel, something journalist Paul Sutherland did on his “Skymania” site, enabling to essentially figure the whole thing out)  but in the end the story was released early, so the press conference itself wasn’t the great reveal we’d all been worked up for.

So… what had NASA found? Had any of the wide-eyed, ET-crazed, speculation-devouring, conspiracy theory-loving bloggers and net citizens got it right? Had NASA found life in the methane lakes of Titan or beneath the UV-baked rocks of Mars? Um, no. Had they found bizarre alien life on Earth? Errr… No.

What HAD they found then?!?!?!

Basically, and please be aware that this is the mega-mega-mega-simplified version, they’d found a type of bacteria that uses arsenic, instead of phosphorous, to hold itself together.

Which is potentially big, Big news because every living thing on Earth needs phosphorous to, well, exist. It’s one of the building blocks, one of the very bricks of terrestrial life. So finding a critter that has substituted arsenic for phosphorous means that our narrow definition of life has now widened, and also means that our search for life “Out there” doesn’t have to be restricted to lifeforms exactly like the ones we know about already: there could be all kinds of weirdo stuff out there!

(If you want to read the actual scientific details – which I don’t have the time or patience or, to be honest, understanding of to put in this post, then you really should go to Emily Lakdawalla’s recent post on her blog for The Planetary Society where she lists and links to, the best reports on the story)

So, rather than go through the science of the story itself, I thought I’d look back at the actual press conference itself here, which was broadcast live on NASA TV.

It was quite a night, involving a panel of four scientists…

They were, from the left: Dr. Felise Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey; Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington; Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution; and Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Also taking part in the media conference, but on the phone, was James Elser, professor, Arizona State University.

Each of those people had a specific job on the night. Mary Voytek was there to act as moderator, and her task was basically to try and juggle keeping things calm with proudly, and justifiably, flying NASA’s flag. Mr Benner was there, by his own admission, to be a “curmudgeon” and if not argue against the claims being made, then caution everyone to calm down and be aware that there was a LOT of work left to do before any champagne could be opened. ( He looked very uncomfortable at times, I thought. ) Sitting on the far end, looking a bit lost I thought, Pamale Conrad was there to throw some light on what possible repercussions the discovery might have for NASA’s missions out into the solar system, specifically how it might help NASA look for, and find, extraterrestrial life, “out there”.

And then, sitting on the left, glowing quite serenely in the media spotlight, there was Dr Felise Wolfe-Simon, the astrobiologist who had led the team which had made the discovery which had threatened to break the internet and, it seemed, would now re-write the Book of Life…

If there was a star of the show, it was Felise. I must admit that when the NASA TV camera focussed on her for the first time, “Mr Judge a book by its cover” here assumed she’d be just another quiet, softly-spoken, embarrassed-to-be-there NASA scientist, dragged kicking and screaming from her lab and pushed on stage by her bosses to talk to the press and explain what she had done, and praise NASA for being so brilliant and wonderful –

Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

Like the singer on the TV talent show who walks on stage looking all pale and quiet who you think will be average, or worse, and then opens their mouth and a voice that could make angels cry comes out, Felise owned that stage. She was confident, at times even cocky, and didn’t look intimidated by her peers or boss at any time.

And when she described her work, and her discovery…boy, you could have heard a pin drop. She was so fluent, so passionate, so easy to listen to, I found myself quite hypnotised by her. I’m the first to admit that I find, and have always found, molecular biology about as exciting and interesting as watching slowed down film of paint drying. I know it fascinates and excites and inspires many, and there atre countless millions of people out there who are as fascinated by bacteria and DNA as I am by the crumbling cliffs of Mars or the seething surface of the Sun. But all those “bonds”, and “chains” and “links”, “partners” and “pairs”… I switch off whenever people start talking about them because they’re cold, heartless, and I find no beauty in that science, no sense of ‘epic’.

But Felise brought her subject, and her research, vividly to life in a way that only a very few people can. Carl Sagan could. Brian Cox can. Patrick Moore can. And while I’m not suggesting for a moment that she’s “the next Brian Cox”, or “the female Carl Sagan”, listening to her I did think that NASA has found itself a new ‘star’, and I found myself wishing she had a book out already, so I could read her beautiful language.

But was I the only one who got the impression that Felise might just possibly be seen by some of her older peers as a bit of a wild card? I don’t know. Some of the exchanges between her and Steven Benner were strained at best and tetchy at worst. Very interesting, that. ( But Benner, frankly, lost me when he started making those party decoration chains out steel and tin foil. Not his fault, mine entirely, but he’s never going to be a magician with tricks like that…)

The tone of the conference swung to and fro  between “Woo hoo!! Look what we found!! We’re BRILLIANT!!!! The world as we knew it has GONE! Tear up ALL the books! They’re all wrong!!!” and “Now hang on, hang on… this is interesting, but let’s not get carried away here, ok?” Which made for good, if confusing, TV.

At the end of the hour, what did we know, for sure? Well, we knew – if we didn’t know it already – that the whole “embargo thing” just doesn’t work now, especially in this Google Age when it’s easy for anyone with a basic understanding of science, and bit of patience and determination, to join-the-dots of a story and come up with the truth, or something pretty close to it. We also knew that NASA had Done It Again – put out a semi-cryptic press release that got everyone all fired up and aflame with fevered speculation and then the actual story turned out to be not so Earth-shattering after all. But to be fair, I guess they can’t win with that one; if they don’t let people know these things in advance they get accused of hiding or covering things up, so they’re on a hiding to nothing there, I don’t envy them. But I do think they could word these press releases a bit better, and make it clear through them what the announcement ISN’T going to be about, just so the waters aren’t too muddied by all the ill-informed or just plain bloody silly speculation.

And so, forgetting all the hype, all the chest-beating, banner-waving and over-optimism, the very bottom line, the absolute ground truth is that a team of very clever scientists, led by a very driven, very confident and very engaging scientist, has found something New, something Different. And any time something new and different is found, in any science, it opens all kinds of doors and leads to even more amazing discoveries further down the line, so this HAS to be a good thing. 

So, no, NASA hasn’t found life Out There. NASA hasn’t re-written all the text books. It’s a potentially very big breakthrough in biology, and astrobiology, but I got the impression last night that, well, not everyone is on Felise’s side, and I bet that even as I type these words there are other scientists or teams of scientists excitedly gearing up to criticise or attack this new discovery.

Interesting times… interesting times… 🙂