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EAS “SunWatch” Sat July 30th

Happy to report that the “SunWatch” held by the Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal yesterday was a great success!

The weather was fantastic, there were half a dozen telescopes gathered in Kendal’s Abbot Hall Park, and the Sun boasted a lovely necklace of sunspots for our steady flow of visitors to look at – just about perfect!

Here’s how the Sun looked yesterday:

And here’s the rather impressive “chain” of sunspots we were able to show people…

So, we set up at around 1.45, and soon people began to wander over to see what we were doing. We were able to show them the Sun through a variety of telescopes – some projected the Sun’s image onto a piece of card, another was fitted with a solar filter to allow direct and safe viewing of the Sun. We were very thankful that Cockermouth AS’s Chris Darwin came down to join in the day, and brought the Society’s solar telescope with him, so we were able to show people lots of prominences leaping up off the Sun’s limb, too!

Not sure how many people came along yesterday – 50 maybe? – but it was a very enjoyable afternoon, not just because it gave us a chance to show the public something they wouldn’t normally see, but also because it gave EAS members a chance to observe together, compare telescopes and just natter on about astronomy!

All in all, a great day, so thanks to everyone who came along!

Next for EAS: our monthly meeting tomorrow (Mon) night, then our “MoonWatch” next Friday night (5th).

Book Review: “Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries” by Govert Schilling

I’m a big fan of “timeline” books. You know, the ones that give you a detailed timeline of events relating to a specific subject or topic, helping you track the development or evolution of ideas or technology or just let you take a trip through history, seeing how things have changed. The problem is, although they’re very informative, most timeline books are big, fat, heavy affairs, and quite boring to look at: lots of text, teeny-tiny illustrations, they’re more like phone directories than reference books.

The Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries” is a timeline book with a difference. For a start it’s a truly handsome book, illustrated in full colour on very high quality paper, making it more like a coffee table book than a standard timeline title. But the man difference is it’s set out very differently: instead of giving a little bit of information about hundreds of different events in the history of astronomy, it just focuses what the author considers to be the 100 most significant events, describing each one in a full page essay, accompanied by a full page photo or illustration opposite. So this isn’t a book of lists, or tables, it’s a book of richly-illustrated articles, written by one of the most knowledgeable astronomy writers working today, Govert Schilling, whose name and work will be familiar to anyone who’s a regular reader of any of the monthly astronomy magazines.

So… the history of astronomy, narrowed down to 100 discoveries. That must have been a tough selection process! I know I wouldn’t like to try it! But Schilling has done a fine job, and in the process has written a delightful book which has something for everyone interested in astronomy, from absolute beginner to experienced observer, from self-confessed rock-hounds like myself to people fascinated and thrilled by dark matter and the mysteries of cosmology.

Some of the discoveries covered in the book are no-brainers, you’d expect them to be in any book dealing with the history of astronomy: Galileo’s discoveries of mountains on the Moon and moons around Jupiter; Piazzi’s discovery of Ceres; Hubble’s discovery of the true nature of spiral galaxies; the Huygens probe’s landing on Titan. But there are other less obvious – but no less fascinating or worthy – discoveries covered too: Johannes Hartmann’s discovery of interstellar material (1904); the discovery of the first gravitational lens (1979); the discovery of protoplanetary discs in the Orion Nebula (1992). Each of these stories is a fascinating one, and Schilling tells it in a very entertaining but accurate way, which is his writing style. He also takes great care to make these discovery stories personal and human, giving details of the people involved in the discoveries, not just the science behind them. Reading the text is like listening to a particularly good lecturer.

This is definitely a “dip into” book rather than a “read from cover to cover” book. You can open it up and, leafing through, find something that interests you personally. But the real reward with a book like this comes when you read the sections that deal with fields of astronomy that “aren’t your thing.” For instance, I’m very much a rocks and ice guy – I am fascinated by the planets and their moons, their geology, weather and topography. I am spectacularly unmoved by anything to do with dark matter, dark energy, or exotic particles. I just don’t care! There’s a voice in my head telling me they’re just best guesses, that in time some other fantastic theory will come along to displace them, and I’m much better off spending my time drooling over images taken by the Opportunity rover, Cassini or Dawn. But thanks to Schilling’s great writing even I found the stories of the discoveries of “The proper motion of the Milky Way”, “The Explanation for Superluminal Velocities” and “The First Gravitational Lens” quite fascinating.

Soooo… if you want a book that will lead you through the history of astronomy, one amazing discovery at a time, one excellent essay at a time, with beautiful illustrations, this is definitely a book you’ll enjoy. It’s a class above the usual “History of” book that clog up the astronomy sections of bookshops nowadays.

If I have any criticisims, it would be that there wasn’t enough about Mars in it forme, but I’m never going to be happy there, am I? 🙂

“ATLAS OF ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES”

By Govert Schilling,

Springer

ISBN 978-1-4419-7810-3

Watching the Sun and Moon in Kendal…

The Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal is holding two free public observing events in the next week or so, and everyone is invited!

First, this coming Saturday afternoon, we’ll be showing people the Sun at our “Sunwatch”…

 

We’ll have several telescopes on the Park set up to show people the Su, safely, either by using solar filters or by projecting its image onto card or screens. As luck would have it there’s a nice big juicy sunspot group coming into view on the Sun, and by Saturday it should be very well placed, so why not come along and take a look?

Then, on the evening of Friday Auust 5th, we’ll be back in the Pak again, this time to look at the Moon…

Weather permitting, of course, we’ll be showing people the craters, mountains and seas of the Moon through lots of different telescopes.

And while we’re talking about things going on in Kendal, if you want to see some real meteorites, I’ve just loaned part of my collection to Kendal Museum, and it’s now on display for everyone to see…

The display includes my small piece of the asteroid Vesta.

So, lots happening in Kendal over the next week or so. Hope to see you at some time!

re Vesta meteorites

I’ve had a few people asking me how scientists know that certain meteorites come from Vesta. Good question!

See here: http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/meteorites/planets/vesta.php

Arrival at Vesta…

Huge celebrations at NASA this morning, when signals from the ion-propelled DAWN space probe confirmed it had entered orbit around the huge asteroid Vesta. Initially NASA shouted – well, Tweeted! – from the rooftops that this was an incredible achievement because DAWN was the first probe to go into orbit around an asteroid, but then, after it was pointed out to them that, (cough), er, um, NASA’s own NEAR had orbited asteroid Eros and the Japanese Hyabusa probe had orbited asteroid Itokawa, they clarified that to say that DAWN was the first probe to orbit a main belt asteroid.

DAWN will now spend a year studying Vesta from orbit, taking lots of images and scientific measurements, before powering up her Starfleet Warp 0.0000000001 ion engine and setting off for the much larger body Ceres, now officially classified as a dwarf planet. By the time DAWN leaves Vesta we should have comprehensively mapped and charted Vesta, given names to its features, and gained an understanding of how it formed and why it looks the way it does.

And “the way it looks” is pretty incredible. Until Hubble came along we had only ever really seen Vesta as a few pixels of light on ccd images taken by the best optical telescopes. Then Hubble showed us Vesta had a strange shape, mostly round but with the bottom lopped off to leave it flattened, but with something of a peak…y…thing jutting out of it. Something like this…

Then DAWN was launched in September 2007, and we all began looking forward to her first images. When they came in – well, when they were released, there was, as many of you will know, quite a gap between the images being taken and being set free into the wild – the images hinted at the presence of craters and peaks on the asteroid’s surface. More images were released…painfully slowly…and with each one we saw more and more of Vesta’s surface. Yes, there definitely were craters down there, and yes, the southern region did look flattened…

Late last week another image was set free by the DAWN team, the most detailed ever taken (at that time), and it showed some really fascinating features…

As usual, I thought I’d have a play about with that image, try and sharpen it up a bit and bring out some of the details a little more clearly. .. (My efforts didn’t turn out too badly, if I say so myself, but these image manipulations are ALWAYS done for my own enjoyment and curiosity, in the knowledge that they can artificially enhance faults and artefacts in the original image. But see what you think… if the next image isn’t flicking between two different views, a Before and After thing, just click on it, ok?)

More images will be released soon, and I can’t wait for those to appear on the internet. I’m really looking forward to seeing those craters, mountains and strange landforms in more detail!

But I don’t actually need DAWN images to show me Vesta close up, because, well, I’ve got a piece of it of my own. Yes, I have a piece of Vesta right here with me, on this very table. It’s not huge, it doesn’t look particularly impressive in its own right, but it is a piece of the very body you can see on those images above.

My little piece of Vesta is actually a little piece of one of a group of rocks which were blasted off Vesta at some point in the past. A few of these rocks fell to the ground in Australia in October 1960, and became known as the “Millbillillie meteorites”. Many years later, Bev, one of my best friends, who lives in Australia, sent me a piece of one of these meteorites as a birthday present, so thanks to her I now own a small piece of the asteroid which DAWN is going to spend the next year studying!

Here it is…

I don’t care that it’s only small, it’s A PIECE OF VESTA!!!!!! That picture, above? THAT’S A PIECE OF VESTA!!!!!!!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s very cool. To actually be able to hold, in my hand, a piece of an object being studied and explored by a space probe, to be able to look at the images on my computer screen as they come in, and then hold, in my hand, a piece of the thing in the photograph… well, thanks again Bev!

So, DAWN has arrived at Vesta, and now the hard work begins. I hope that the images are released more freely and more frequently now, there’s really no excuse for them to be hoarded and hidden away from us now, not in 2011. The mission’s best friends are the space enthusiasts who will spread the word about DAWN’s mission and share the images with their Facebook, Twitter and astronomy forum friends, show them in schools and to community groups, and to their families and friends at work. That’s how the world works now, and I’m confident that now DAWN has entered orbit around Vesta the images will start to flow. Soon we’ll have names for Vesta’s craters, basins and mountains, and a whole new world will be opened up before our eyes.

In the meantime, you’ll have to excuse me – I’m going to have another look at *my* piece of Vesta… 🙂

NLC seen again… :-)

Another very attractive display of noctilucent clouds seen over Kendal this morning…

NLC as they *should* be seen…

There was another very nice display of noctilucent clouds, or “NLC”, visible from Kendal and across parts of the UK the other morning (July 7/8th), and this time – no offense meant to my other camera, which has served me very well this past year or so – I had a *proper* camera to take photographs of it with, a DSLR which is mine to use for a month, with an option to buy after that. Woo-hoo!

So, anyway, here are some of the pics I took, and I’m very pleased with them, especially as I didn’t have a clue what I was doing with thecamera at the time, just twiddling knobs and pressing buttons until it took a decent pic! 🙂

 

 

The next pics should be even better, once I’ve read the manual!! 🙂

Patience rewarded…

As many of you reading this will know, I’m not a religious person. In fact, there’s not a religious bone in my body (that I know of). If there was a God I’d have married Farrah Fawcett Majors when I was twelve, as I wanted to. That’s not to say I don’t have beliefs. I believe in friends, and family. I believe in the triumph of science over superstition and woo-woo’ism. And I believe in The Doctor’s ability to ruin the plans of the Daleks at every opportunity. I don’t believe in the whole Karma “What goes around comes around” thing, either. If that was true some very evil people in the world wouldn’t be around today…

But I do believe that patience is rewarded, especially when it comes to astronomy. I don’t think there’s some godlike entity Out There, watching over us, but I do think that if we take the time to appreciate the universe, and show understanding when it doesn’t do what we want it to, when it keeps things from us, we are eventually rewarded. So, recently, when members of my astroomical society and I gthered up at Kendal Castle to watch a total lunar eclipse, only to have our plans thwarted by the weather, I accepted it with a disappointed but not gutted shrug.”Relax,” I told everyone, “we’ll see something else, something better, you’ll see…”

In the early hours of this morning, I was proved right, when the thrd display of noctilucent clouds in as many days boiled up above Kendal’s northern horizon, putting to shame the two that had come before, and bathing the Auld Grey Town in an icy, glacial blue light for fourhours ntil the rosy-blue glow of dawn banished it from the sky. As I watched the tendrils, waves, whirls and whorls of blue-white light glinting and glistening above the distant hills, again from the shadows of the ruins of Kendal’s ancient castle, I thought to myself  “This is it… this is my reward for all the missed eclipses, meteor showers and aurorae…

Let me tell you about my night.

Stella and I had a fantastic day out and about yesterday, just knocking around the Penrith area. Went to the market (poor, but bought a few things), then went to Haweswater to drk in the sunset view there, delighted by the sight of the lake and its steep, craggy surroundings drenched in the marmalade glow of a summer sunset, before heading back to Kendal. With the sky clear and blue I decided to grab an hour’s kip before heading up to the castle again in the hope of seeing NLC for the third night in a row. I thought I was maybe being a bit greedy, a bit optimistic, a bit arrogant even to expect to see something more after two good nights, but my golden rule, which I tell everyone, is “If you don’t look you’ll DEFINITELY see nothing”, so up I went to the castle, with my rucksack, camera and tripod.

By midnight I was half… well, a quarter, to be honest…convinced that there was a hint of a trace of a wisp of NLC activity over to the north, just above the hills, so I put out a tentative “heads up” on Twitter and settled down to wait…

After a few mnutes it was obvious that the bright lines were getting brighter, so I decided to take a photo to check – disaster!!! My tripod was broken! It wouldn’t keep the camera steady! I quickly took it apart, hoping for the best, but fearing the worst – and found it: a thread had been stripped. It was dead.

Great. Just great timing.

So, to Plan B: there’s a large, flat-topped observation table…thingy… up near the castle, with a map on it showing a labelled map of the view from there, and that became my camera support. Not ideal, but needs must. I set the camera down, aimed it at the northern fells… click… and saw this appear on the screen shortly after…

There could be no doubt: there were NLC coming into view above the faraway fells…So, we were on! Again! 🙂

I sent out a proper alerton Twitter – that’s the way of doing things now – and soon reports started coming back of nlc being visible elsewhere, too. And as the minutes passed, and the sky darkened, a surf-like wave of nlc broke over the far horizon and began to surge up the sky towards Capella, the unofficial “NLC Guide Star”. It didn’t take me long to sense that we were in for a major display, just because the nlc were so stretched out and already so bright. There was clearly a lot of nlc heading our way from the north. But how bright would it get? How much of the sky would it cover?

I settled back to wait and find out. And magic followed.

Here’s how the view changed as time passed. BY a quarter to one, this is how the northern sky looked…

By 01.30 I was finding it quite hard to believe what I was seeing…

Half an hour later, the amount of detail visible through binoculars inside the nlc was…humbling…

It was at about this time that I realised I had a chance to take some pictures I’ve wanted to take for a long, long time, almost seven years in fact. The first time I walked up to the castle after moving to Kendal, back in 2004, I stood in the centre of its ruins, looked north, and imagined being there, in dead of night, during a mjor aurora or nlc display. No aurora yet, but here was the nlc display I’d wanted…

I packed up my gear and turned my back on the nlc and headed for the castle itself, up the gravel path that leads to where its main gate used to be, over the hump and into its dark, quieter interior. Turning round again I saw the view I’d dreamed about – the castle ruins silhouetted against the burning blue glow of the nlc… I was going to get my pictures!!

Then I remembered. I had no tripod. Oh –

But I was surrounded by slabs and plates and blocks of stone. Surely one of them had to be flat enough to balance a camera on and use as a makeshift platform..?

Eventually I found one large and flat enough – right on the far wall, across the other side of the ‘courtyard’. But not at ground level oh no, that would have been far too convenient. If the universe was going to give me this long-dreamed-of view, I was going to have to earn it.

So, like a kid exploring the castle for the first time, I clambered. In the dark, with a camera, I dug mboots into the rubble-stuffed wall and anchored myself into it as best I could, placing my camera on the slab of lichen-encrusted rock and lining it up with the nlc, pressing the shutter, counting off the time release seconds… Would it work? Did it work?

See for yourself…

🙂

And then I fell off the wall.

How I didn’ crack my head open like a boiled egg on the stones I’ll never know. But I’m still here! And, on the plus side, I think I can now pass the audition for a contortionist, should a travelling circus roll into town on a recruiting drive…

Images taken, I headed back to my original observing site, the map viewpoint, and took some morpictures of what I by now considered to be an “NLC storm” almost. Looking at it, just standing there between frames, just looking at it, was quite overwhelming…

It was… wrong, wonderfully, beautifully wrong, as if, during the daytime, when none of us could notice, the Earth had been transported many light years closer to the Orion Nebula and it was now rising up from behind the horizon. And in my raised binoculars countless streamers, tendrils, swirls and tears were crammed together, bathed in ion drive-blue light. At one point the nlc seemed to be almost flowing around a denser, darker mass, like water flowing around a boulder in a stream…

I knew what I had to do. I had to go back into the castle, to try for some more In My Wildest Dreams photos…

This time I didn’t fall over.

Through all this, of course, I had company. Not physically, there was no-one there with me – though Stella did come up to see the view for a short while – but virtually, online. I was just one of many people, up and down the UK, but mainly in the north, watching the show. Inbetween frames I read Tweets from people in Scotland, Ireland and other parts of Cumbria. I exchanged breathless “Can you believe it?!?!?” texts with Ray down in Barrow. I was alone, but there were many people there with me.

By now it had gone 3am, and the sky behind and around the nlc was starting to brighten with the approach of dawn, the icy, cold blues giving way to those welcome warmer, kinder, blue-orange pre-dawn hues. But still the nlc persisted, stubbornly refusing to surrender the sky to the Sun and the new day. I wasn’t done yet! It still had more to give! But the battle was already lost… as the Parish Church bells struck 03.30, the nlc was fading from my view…

I knew the show was over. My best photos were on the memory card already, the nlc was dying. Time to go home.

Shortly before 4am I was walking over the bridge I cross every time I trek to or back from the castle. I looked to the north, expecting to see nothing… and saw instead the last, lingering traces of the great glowing waves which hd crashed over the hills four hours earlier…

Back home I was desperate for sleep, but couldn’t resist going through my photos, just once, just to see if they’d turned out alright…

And that’s how I’ve spent most of today. Going through my photos, posting them on websites, submitting them to others, emailing people about them, replying to Tweets posted about them. It’s been a busy day after a magical night.

As I write this it’s almost 10pm here in the UK. The sky beyond the window is icy blue, clear, perfect. In another hour and a half I’ll be heading up to the castle again, wondering if the nlc will come out to play for the fourth night in a row. If it doesn’t, well, that’ll be okay. Last night’s display was one I never dreamed of seeing in my lifetime and probably never will again.

But you never know…

NLC seen from Kendal for second morning running…

…but, to be honest, after yesterday morning’s unbeLEEvable display, July 2nd’s was a ittle bit underwhelming. Maybe we were spoiled by that mega-display. It didn’t help that this morning’s was fainter, and half-hidden by haze, and shorter-lived. Still, any other morning I’d have been “woo-hoo!”ing happily as I clicked away with my camera – which I’m really not happy with, its infinity focussing is **rubbish** – so no complaints!

Here are some pictures from last night…

I wonder if we’ll see anything tonight..?

NLC Spectacular!!!

For years – and I mean years – I’ve been jealous of the beautiful images of noctilucent clouds I’ve seen on the pages of astronomy magazines and on websites like Spaceweather.com. They have all been so gloriously detailed, so colourful, so rich! Frames filled to overflowing with electric-blue ripples, waves, whirls ands wirls of light, like some kind of magic spell cast on the sky, or a portal to another, brighter, more colourful universe beyond our own had opened up in the sky. In contrast, my own were…boring. Flat. Dull. A ripple here. A hint of a wave there. Like comparing an opera with a school choir’s concert. Last year I had high hopes of taking some spectacular images of my own, but it didn’t turn out that way: the weather here in the Lake District was poor, and we missed the best NLC displays. “Never mind,” I thought, “2011 will be better…”

It hasn’t been. If anything, it’s been even worse. During the whole of June, while skywatchers across Europe were being stunned and delighted by sky-filling displays, from here in Kendal I saw one measly pathetic half-hearted NLC display, described in the previous post, and that was just a begrudged showing of streamers and lines that peeked reluctantly over the horizon.

Not happy. Not Happy At All.

But if I’ve learned one thing as an amateur astronomer, it’s patience. I have faith that if I just make the effort, if I stay up late or get up early, if I haul my sorry carcass up to the castle just one more time the universe will reward me for my devotion. So last night, even though I wanted so, so badly to just crawl under the duvet and tell the ice crystals milling about in the upper atmosphere to get on with it and leave me the hell alone, I packed my rucksack, trudged across the park and hiked up the steep hill to the ruins of Kendal Castle again, hoping that I’d see something…anything… just a –

Halfway up the hill I started to see, out of the corner of my eye, tantalising areas of brighteness in the northern sky. Hmmm. Interesting. I kept walking, and eventually made it to my observing station, a large, low observation point in the shadow of the castle which serves asa convenient table for me to lay out my binoculars, camera, radio and other bits and pieces. As I looked to the north I was sure that down there, just above the horizon, there was a line… more than one… maybe even a curly…something…

Oh…

Raising my binoculars I saw what I’d been hoping to see: faint but sharp cross-hatch patterning in the sky, a telltale sign of a noctilucent cloud display. Sweeping the binoculars along and above the hills I saw more signs of NLC, and I realised, with a huge grin, that Something was going to happen.

I had no idea then just how magical the night would end up being…

Here’s the view north at around a quarter to midnight last night…

The minutes passed, the sky darkened, and the NLC brightened…

This is what the view through binoculars was like…

Sensing that something Big *might* be brewing I put the word out on Twitter, alerting anyone who Follows me about what was going on. I also texted another local astronomer and accomplished astrophotograoher Ray Gilchrist, an NLC observer, to let him know what was happening. In an amazing coincidence, earlier in the evening I’d sent a message to Ray suggesting that we swap mobile numbers so we could set up a kind of mini “alert network”, to let each other know if anything was happening “up there”. Less than an hour later I was texting Ray to let him know that I was watching a potentially major display of noctilucent clouds coming into view before my eyes…

The sky darkened more,,,and the display brightened…

..and all I could do was stand there, grinning, taking one photo after another, inbetween each image lifting my binoculars to drink in the ever-changing view of the structure within the NLC , the patterns shifting, changing…

Around 1.15 am the display just became beautifully bright and detailed, and that when I took what was probably my best image of the whole event…

By this time Ray had finished work – how frustrating it must have been for him to read my breathless, gushing Tweets and text messages! – and he was set up and observing to the south of me, and other people on Twitter were seeing the display too…

At this stage I took a series of images to assemble later into a panorama… and before you ask, yes, it really was this beautiful…

For a while a large swathe of the northern sky was almost drenched in NLC…

I’m not sure when I took this next image, but I hasten to add this isn’t its original state; I’ve sharpened it a lot to bring out subtle details in the clouds that weren’t immediately obvious to the naked eye but were beautiful in binoculars…

Wonderful, just wonderful… 🙂

The display began to fade around 1.45am, by which time I was down to my last set of camera batteries, my memory card was almost full, and a voice was whispering in my ear that I had to be up again at 6am to go to work, so I started to wrap up my observing session. As I did so the NLC shifted and changed in their graceful slow motion; some areas brightening, others fading, a celestial kaleidescope tinkling before my increasingly-tired eyes. By the time I was packed up and ready to head home the eastern sky was brightening quite considerably, but the nlc display was still going strong, increasing in height as it decreased in brightness, and I did ponder staying for another hour to see if it sudenly flared before dawn, but no, I was too tired, I knew I had to call it a night. So with a last glance over my shoulder I bade farewell to the best NLC display I’ve ever seen and trekked back down from the castle to ground level, grit in my eyes but well over a hundred images in my camera. I had no idea how good they’d be, but I hoped, obviously, that they’d at least be as good as some of those images that have made me so jealous over the years…

I don’t think I did too badly, do you? 🙂

One last one. This is a panorama made of half a dozen different images stitched together. I’ve played about with it until it shows what the display actually looked like to my naked eye… it’s my official portrait of the Great NLC Display of July 1st 2011…