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Planets on Parade…

Amateur astronomy is a hobby of contrasts. Light and dark. Shadow and sunshine. Some nights leave you so frustrated and angry you hate the hobby, and I mean *hate* it. The nights when you know there’s a meteor shower or a big display of the northern lights happening above where you live, but it’s hidden by cloud are awful, just awful, and they’ve become even more unbearable thanks to the internet, because where we used to just sigh, shrug our weary shoulders and go down the pub, or watch some TV, we can now torture ourselves by reading the breathless, delighted Facebok and Twitter reports of other, more fortunate skywatchers, scattered around the globe, who aren’t cowering beneath a cloudy sky and are watching the show…

Then there are the Big Events we miss because we’re in the wrong place on Earth. The last few brilliant comets have been visible only from the southern hemisphere, which regular readers will know bugged the **** out of me! And it really does seem like, in recent years, *anything* worth watching, out of the ordinary, has appeared in the southern sky, which is frustrating beyond belief. And of course, the total solar eclipses, transits and other events always seem to take place at a time making them conmpletely invisible from where you live, which is another source of grrrr.

But sometimes… sometimes you ARE in the right place at the right time, and the clouds clear, and there, in the clear sky above you, is Something Incredible. Something that, even though you’re standing there with a small shop’s worth of telescopes, cameras and binoculars, makes you just stop and stare and mouth a silent “wow”, reminding you why you fell in love with the night sky all those years ago…

Last night was one of those nights, for me, here in Kendal.

It’s been over a week since we had a proper view of Venus and Jupiter shining together in the western sky. The weather here has been just godAWFUL; day after day of grey, lumpy, overcast sky, great gobbets of thick-as-cold-porridge cloud hiding everything “up there” from view. Most days it’s rained, too. And through it all, every day there have been more and more beautiful pictures of Venus and Jupiter “coming together in the west” featured on websites all over the net. But finally, yesterday morning, the clouds ripped apart, revealing poster paint blue sky, and with each passing hour the sky just got clearer and clearer, and I knew that I would FINALLY have another chance to see Venus and Jupiter in their conjunction glory.

And the weather forecast for this weekend, and into next week, suggested that it might be the only chance I’d get for the rest of the week, so I was ready to make the most of it.

So, after finishing work, I got home as quickly as I could, grabbed my telescope bags and binoculars and camera, and the ERP (“Emergency reserve pastie”) I keep at the back of the fridge, and by 5pm I was back up at Kendal Castle, having survived a slopping slog through Somme-like mud at the foot of castle hill that threatened to strp me there until a passer-by could pull me free. Didn’t take me long to set-up my gear…

The Sun was still up, so I put my home-made solar filter onto the end of the scope and had a look… the disc was mostly blank, but for a small sunspot group at 9 o’clock and a smaller one at 5 o’clock, but still, it was something to look at, and before the Sun sat a dozen or so passers-by took a look too, shaking their heads in amazement when I explained that “the little black spot” they had seen was actually bigger than Earth…

One of them had a dog with her, which nearly managed to nab my ERP out of my bag while I was showing its mistress the Sun. I’m not entirely convinced they weren’t working as a team, and would have shared the pastie if I hadn’t spotted what was going on, but I guess I’ll never know… 🙂

With the Sun out of the way, the scene was set for a truly glorious night, and with so few clouds in the sky I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be cruelly clouded out after making the effort to get up the hill…

Time to settle back and enjoy the show…

First to emerge from the twilight was, of course, the Moon, which revealed itself as a slim, fingernail-clipping thin crescent above and just to the right of the castle. And soon after, the sky was dark enough for Venus to pop into view, too…

By now it was getting quite chilly,but of course I didn’t care because “chilly” = “clear”, and the sky above me was so clear I knew that I was in for an amazing evening. And I wasn’t on my own; Kendal Castle is something of a magnet for people out for an evening walk, or out walking their dogs, or just cutting over the hill as a shortcut between the two halves of Kendal, and as I stood there, waiting for it to get dark enough to take proper pictures of the conjunction, one person after another wandered over to me to ask what I was doing, what I was looking at, and if they could have a look too. It was very gratifying that many of them already knew what “the bright stars in the west” were, through reading my weekly column in the local paper, but some didn’t, and when I explained that that star was actually the planet Jupiter, and the really bright star beneath it was actually the planet Venus they were genuinely amazed and impressed…

They were evn more impressed when they took a look at the Moon through my telescope. Because it was such a young phase, just a couple of days old, there wasn’t much to look at, to be honest, but as the sky darkened the famous and beautiful “Earthshine” came into view, making the Moon a spectacular sight at 24x magnification.

Eventually I seemed to exhaust the number of passers by, and was left on my own to enjoy the show. And wow, what a sight…

By 6.30pm Venus was a lantern blazing in the west, bright as a piece of purning magnesium. Above it, to its left, Jupiter was fainter but equally beautiful, and the two of them alone would have made a striking sight. But beneath and to the right of both of them was that gorgeous thin crescent Moon, making a line of three bright lights in the sunset sky…

With Jupiter, Venus and the Moon all lined up I realised that another world should be visible too – Mercury should be above the western horizon! Not just two planets, but *three* planets in a line! So I scanned the west, and of Mercury there was no sign… no sign… no sign…

There. Glinting like a tiny golden pin-head in the dusk glow. That was it. That was Mercury. I took a load more photos, but the elusive planet wasn’t immediately obvious on any of them, and I resigned myself to not having captured it. But when I checked the photos this morning, there it was… just… hanging just above the horizon… I’ve circled it on the next image…

So, there I stood, on my own, with a marmalade-gold sunset in front of me, Mercury shining like a yellow full stop above the faraway trees, a serene crescent Moon shining above the amber and gold streetlights of Kendal, the Auld Grey Town, and dazzling bright Venus and lovely Jupiter all stretched out across the sky in a line, now close enough together to all fit in the same frame of my camera. Gorgeous, just gorgeous. And on any other night I would have been more than happy, deliriously happy, with that.

But the highlight was yet to come.

At around quarter to seven I was joined by another member of the Eddington AS and fellow Tweeter, Phil Walker, who had, like me, hiked and slithered and slid his way up to the castle to take in the incredible view. Phil’s timing was perfect because at ten to seven the space station was due to gatecrash the party, rising in the west and then gliding up past the Moon, sliding past Venus, and then cutting between Venus and Jupiter before falling towards the eastern horizon and disappearing back into shadow. And just as Phil joined me the ISS appeared in the west, faint at first, but growing brighter by the second, bang on course. I swung my camera around towards the Moon and started to take photos… leaving the camera open for a 20 second time exposure I managed to get this (I think!) rather pretty view…

After the ISS had flown between Jupiter and Venus it continued eastwards and I continued taking pics. One I had really high hopes for, as it looked spectacular in the camera’s preview screen, but when I checked last night – noooooo!!! The planets and stars and the ISS’s own trail all had horrible ticks at the end, suggesting that either I’d knocked the camera after beginning the exposure, or one of the gusts of wind blowing up the hill had made it wobble. I’m sure it was the latter. Anyway, the pic was ruined, but with a bit of messing about skilful manipulation with Photoshop I managed to salvage it. So, hands up, confession time, this next image is doctored a little, to show what the scene actually looked like…

That’s nice, I think, but it doesn’t come anywhere NEAR close to showing what it was like to stand there watching the space station moving through those celestial lanterns. I’ve been watching the ISS for (cough cough!) years now (no, seriously, I remember standing in my back garden back in Cockermouth and watching the very first ISS element module drifting across the sky soon after it was launched, just a “star”, all on its own, all those years ago. We were both much smaller then..!) but it never, ever fails to move me as I stand and look up at it and tell myself “My god, there are PEOPLE on that star…”

I stood there for another hour, taking more photos, chatting with Phil, and then Stella joined us too, and all the while the sky darkened and Venus, Jupiter and the Moon grew brighter and brighter even as they dropped towards the town’s lights…

Eventually it was time to go home.

It didn’t take long to pack up my gear – practice really does make perfect, even in the dark, with half-frozen hands – and soon were were clomping back over the footbridge that spans the River Kent. Now the Moon was hidden behind a “Where did THAT come from?” line of cloud, but Venus and Jupiter still shone brightly, right ahead of us all the way, leading us home…

As I write this the sky above Kendal is thick with cloud again, the blue skies of yesterday and the stsrry skies of last night just distant, mocking memories. I was hoping that the weather would co-operate tonight too, to allow me to get some photographs showing the crescent Moon *beside* Venus… that would have been something… but I can’t see that happening, the cloud is heavy and mattress-thick and doesn’t look like budging. I’ll cross my fingers for Monday night, when the Moon is due to be directly between the two planets. What a sight that will be… but the forecast is bad, again, and I may miss that. On Monday night then I’ll be sitting here no doubt, cursing the weather, cursing the sky, cursing my hobby, grimacing and sneering as I read one giddy report after another from someone who is under a clear sky and enjoying the show, and with each image I see I’ll tell myself how much I hate astronomy.

But I won’t really.

Well. Maybe just a little.

Update: I’m an idiot. I was just going through the images I discarded last night, because they didn’t look pretty or dramatioc enough, and I found one where Mercury is *much* easier to see. Memo to self: always double-check!!!

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3 Responses

  1. Wonderful shots! I respect your patience in the cold and wind. We’re running 15 to 20 m/s wind gusts here, but it’s clearing in NYC this evening – we’ll see!

  2. […] and ‘fly-by’ of Jupiter, Venus and the Moon in the evening sky (take a look at my ‘Cumbrian Sky’ blog if you’re not aware of what’s going on in the western sky after sunset at the moment) […]

  3. […] vom 25. Februar aus Deutschland, Italien und Australien und vom 24. Februar aus Deutschland, England und Australien; weitere Aufnahmen sind hier und hier zu finden. Gefällt mir:Gefällt mirSei der […]

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