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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…

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2 Responses

  1. […] See more from Stu Atkinson at his Cumbrian Sky website. […]

  2. Just spectacular, Stu! Well worth yawning all day at work!!! :))

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