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When We Waved At Saturn…

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So, after all the build-up, all the hype, all the hard work, how did it go? What happened when amateur astronomers and skywatchers gathered at an 800 year old castle in South Cumbria, after dark on July 19th, to Wave at Saturn?

Magic happened, that’s what.

Since Friday night I’ve been trying to think how the evening and the event could have gone better, but honestly, I haven’t come up with anything. Everything and everyone co-operated and worked together to create a truly special event which supported NASA’s “Wave at Saturn” project brilliantly. And today, two days later, looking back at the photographs, thinking back to what we did up there on that hill above the Auld Grey Town, I can’t help smiling.

But before our actual event, in the background a lot was happening. Setting up the event itself was relatively easy – the date and time were set, so it was just a matter of choosing a venue and then letting people “out there” know about it. The choice of venue was an absolute no-brainer. Kendal Castle isn’t just very dear to me personally, it’s a fantastic place to do astronomy. Well, to do astronomy involving big and bright things – planets, the Moon, NLC, things like that. Because of the streetlights and other sources of illumination below it, on all sides, galaxies and star clusters, the “faint fuzzies” so beloved of the owners of large light bucket telescopes, are not best seen from the ruins of the castle. But for an evening of showing people a bright naked eye planet, with their naked eyes and through telescopes, the castle was the only place to go. I mean, come on, why *wouldn’t* you want to join in with a global astronomy event from the beautiful ruins of an 800 year old castle, a castle which was the ancestral home of the last wife of Henry VIII? So, that’s where the Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal chose to gather to “Wave at Saturn”, and to invite people.

“Inviting people” of course means publicity and promotion, and yet again we were supported magnificently by all our local media. Kendal’s weekly paper, The Westmorland Gazette, printed several pieces promoting our event. I was invited to talk about the event on several shows on BBC Radio Cumbria, our local BBC radio station which has always, as long as I’ve been doing astronomy, supported  Cumbrian astronomy. Dan Beale, a presenter on our local independant radio station, Lakeland Radio, had me on his show several times too, and again Dan is a great supporter – and a very enthusiastic member – of our Society.

Then things started to go a bit, well, nuts…

Out of the blue, I was asked by NASA – yes, NASA – if I would be willing to join in with their NASA TV broadcast on the night of the “Wave at Saturn”, by speaking to them live on the phone from the castle, and sending them photos of our event, as it happened, to use during their show. They wanted to reflect the global nature and appeal of “The Wave” and our event sounded perfect. Would I be willing to do that? Hang on a minute, let me think… OKAY!!!!

That ended up being rather challenging; thanks to the rubbish signal strength of my mobile phone operator here in Kendal (hello, O2!!) NASA had to phone me on my girlfriend’s phone, but that worked out okay, and we rehearsed that a couple of nights before The Wave. What was a little more difficult to sort out was taking, and sending, photos to the NASA TV team to show during their broadcast. I knew that I could email pics from my smartphone, so I would be able to send them the “build up” shots of crowds gathering and telescopes being set up which they wanted, but that wasn’t going to work for pictures of Saturn actually hanging in the sky above the castle, my phone couldn’t take exposures long enough for that. The solution was provided by our heroic EAS Treasurer, Simon White, who has a very smart memory card for his camera which allows it to send photos directly to his iPad via a wireless connection. I asked Simon if he would be willing to take pictures that way and then email them to NASA during our event, and of course he said yes. Phew…

Friday dawned bright, skin-tinglingly hot but partly cloudy, and as I panted and puffed my sweaty way up the castle hill and down the other side again, to film a short interview with Border TV (thanks Hannah!), I looked warily at the sky thinking “Don’t you dare… don’t you DARE cloud over later, not after all this work…”

A few hours later everything was in place. All the TV, radio and newspaper publicity was in place, we were all over Facebook and Twitter, and there was a genuine buzz around the town about our event. All that was left was to go up to the castle, set up, and then wait to see if anyone actually came to Wave at Saturn with us…

After that slightly cloudy start, Friday evening was, luckily, beautifully clear. The sky was almost totally cloud free as 6pm came and went, and promised to offer us wonderful views of Saturn later. Stella and I lugged a huge amount of gear up the hill to the castle just after 7pm – camera bags, telescope bags, tripods, even a small tent – but it didn’t take us long to set up, and soon we had a small but very welcoming Base Camp set up for our big night, and soon after we were joined by two fellow EAS members, Carol and Simon, who had lugged their own gear up the hill to be a part of the evening…

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The castle, of course, looked just beautiful, its ancient, crumbling stonework glowing orange in the sunlight. Soon people started to join us on the hilltop, and with a lovely, pale silvery Moon hanging above the remains of the castle’s tallest tower, we prepared to Wave at Saturn…

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Look at that above image and you’ll see a man bending down to look into a camera. That’s James Kirby, one of our newer members, and after Carol suggested it he very kindly agreed to be our “Official Photographer” for the event, recording it for us while we were busy looking at and showing other people Saturn. I’m so glad he did, because his photos from the evening are wonderful. Here’s one of them, showing the crowd gathering at around 9pm. All the images in this post that bear James’ “banner” on the right are (c) James Kirby.

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People began to come up to the castle in their twos, threes and fours. Couples holding hands in the fading light; young families, rushing up the hill, the kids desperate to look through telescopes; older people, taking their time, curious to know what was going on. And as sunset came, I began to sense that we were in for a very special evening indeed…

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By now we were enjoying really nice views of the Moon. The sky was dark enough to give reasonably good contrast views through our telescopes, and lots of people were already thrilled by what they were seeing. By 9.45 we must have had around half a dozen different telescopes on the hilltop, and their EAS owners were kept busy with steady streams of people wanting to see the Moon’s craters, hills and seas…

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But of course what everyone was there for, really, was to see and then Wave at, Saturn. But half an hour after sunset, even though we knew roughly where it was in relation to the Moon, and the castle, tracking down the Ringed Planet proved very hard. Here you can see Simon showing some of our event attendees where Saturn *should* be in the sky…

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Thinking it was probably lurking behind one of the trees by the castle, I picked up my telescope, walking away from the main crowd and setting up some distance away, hoping to find it from a quieter spot with a less cluttered southern horizon. And after a few minutes of frustrated “Where ARE you?!?!?” sweeping of the sky with binoculars I finally found it! Quickly I turned my telescope towards it, and couldn’t help smiling at the view: there was Saturn, its beautiful, tiny disc and its rings standing out so, so clearly against the darkening sky. I allowed myself a moment’s quiet reflection, pondering how amazing it was to think that out there, a billion miles away almost, the CASSINI probe was swinging its camera towards Earth, towards Cumbria, towards Kendal Castle, towards our event, preparing to takie its picture. That was quite a moment, I’ll be honest. Part of me wanted to keep Saturn to myself, to hog the eyepiece, but I knew I couldn’t do that, so I called out to the group that I had Saturn in my telescope and if anyone wanted to see it they could –

There was a veritable stampede of people to my telescope then, and soon a line of maybe 50 or 60 people was snaking away from my telescope and across the hilltop, every one of them desperate to see Saturn and its famous rings…

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Soon, over in the shadow of the castle, other EAS members were turning their telescopes towards Saturn, and showing it to amazed and delighted visitors…

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By now The Wave was just twenty minutes away, so it was time for NASA to call me up on Stella’s phone for the live phone inteview. All through the evening, ever since setting up at the castle, I’d been emailing the NASA TV team pictures of our event, and I had been told in a very brief chat with them earlier that people were loving seeing what we were doing, but this was the main event, a live broadcast from our event to NASA and the world. I felt very honoured and proud of our Society and what we were doing, I don’t mind admitting that.

I think more than a few people lined up by my telescope thought I was having a laugh when I told them “Sorry, I’ll have to show the rest of you Saturn in a few minutes, I have to go and talk to NASA now…” because it sounded so ridiculous, but I abandoned my telescope and walked away from the main group to a quieter spot further downhill, just to have a bit of space and quiet for the phone call. On my own, looking around me, it hit me then what a special night we were pulling off. The castle hilltop was covered with people, all drawn there by *our* event, all wanting to join in with something quite special, something that might not happen again for a long, long time. So when Gay Yi Hill from NASA TV phoned me up and started the interview I probably sounded a little choked up, because it really was quite an emotional moment. But Gay was brilliant, and we chatted about our beautiful venue, how many people were gathered, what they were seeing, and what it felt like to be a part of the global “Wave At Saturn” event.

With the interview finished I wandered back over to my telescope, where people were waiting patiently (mostly!) to be shown Saturn (it had obviously drifted out of the field of view while I was talking) and I centred the planet back in the eyepiece for them. Saturn looked just beautiful, and Titan was there too, a tiny pinprick off to one side. Looking at it I couldn’t help imagining that pinprick was actually CASSINI, which was even at that moment aiming its cameras at us and preparing to begin its long-awaited exposure, seeing Saturn eclipsing the Sun and the Earth as a tiny blue star beneath its shining rings…

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(Above: screenshot from the Sky Safari Plus Android phone App simulating the view from CASSINI)

Then, suddenly, we were at Wave minus one minute

And remarkably, almost everyone hushed, stopped what they were doing, and turned excitedly towards the castle and towards Saturn, ready and eager to wave at it.

Now…

And then we Waved at Saturn

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It was brilliant, it really was. There was such a great atmosphere there, everyone laughing and waving, many people calling out “Hello Saturn! or “Woohoo! Over here!” I knew James would be amongst them taking photos for us, but I stole a moment to move away from the main crowd and record the scene myself, wanting to capture Saturn in the picture too…

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Look at that picture closely and you will see Saturn shining in the gap between the trees on the rioght hand side, looking like a golden star. Writing this post, looking at that photo, I get goosebumps thinking that at the exact moment I took that photo CASSINI was taking a photograph of us. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that incredible?

People asked me many times in the run-up to the event why we were holding it. What was the point? Why bother, when Earth was just going to be a tiny blue dot, and no-one’s face would be seen, not even their town or country would be seen. Well, the answer to “Why bother?” is there on that photo. That castle was built 800 years ago. Since then we have done so much, discovered so much, achieved so much. I’m sure that 800 years ago, when the castle’s foundations were being laid, some of its weary builders – people not so different to you and I, really – stood in that very spot after their labours, after darkness had fallen and probably saw, without knowing what it was, obviously, Saturn shining in the sky, maybe even finding some pleasure in its brightness and warm, golden hue. Eight centuries later their once beautiful castle has risen and fallen with the passing of the years, but on a warm summer’s night in 2013 more than 100 people gathered at its ruins to pose for a photograph being taken by a machine in orbit around that golden star.

That’s why we did it.

Time passed, but the crowd’s enthusiasm didn’t wane. People kept waving, and laughing, and calling out to the sky. No-one waved for the whole 15 minutes (though a couple asked me if they should) and when I called out “One minute left” everyone waved again, maybe just to make sure CASSINI saw them…

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…and then suddenly that was it. 10.42 pm: CASSINI had finished taking its photo of Earth.

The global “Wave At Saturn” was over.

And you know what? Some people clapped and cheered, and others actually groaned with disappointment. That was what the atmosphere was like. People reacted. Wonderful, really, that non-astronomers had got so caught up in the mood of the evening that they were sorry it had come to an end…

Slowly but surely the crowd started to thin, people drifting away in their ones and twos. The young couples headed back down into town for a drink, the families went back home to tuck exhausted or hyped-up kids into bed; the older people wandered back home slowly, not rushing, especially as it was dark now…

By 11.15, beneath a star-spattered royal blue sky, and with last traces of marmalade and gold light painting the west, there were just a few of us left on the hilltop, shattered by so, so happy. We’d done it. It had been a fantastic night. We’d shown the Moon and, more importantly, Saturn, to we think around 120 people. Many of those people hadn’t looked through a telescope before, and they were truly amazed and thrilled. The Moon is a pretty stunning sight through a telescope when you see it for the first time, with those enormous, sharp-edged craters jumping out of the eyepiece at you, but even though it’s much smaller, and lacking in detail, that first view of Saturn and its rings through a telescope is a uniquely thrilling and life-enhancing moment, I truly believe that. And as well as joining in with the “Wave at Saturn” global event, at the castle on that night we opened up many people’s eyes to the wonder and beauty of the universe, and that’s just as – if not more – important.

So… what was all the fuss about? Just what did CASSINI *see* out there, almost a billion miles away..?

Well, the pictures started to come in late last night, and yes, CASSINI succeeded in capturing a picture of Earth, shining just beneath Saturn’s backlit rings! Here’s one of the first raw frames to come back and be released on the CASSINI website…

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“Huh! That’s not much to lo0k at!” you’re probably thinking, but that is just a raw unprocessed image, hot off the press. It’s raw images like that which the experts at NASA use to combine to make the full colour, sharp images we see on websites and in books and magazines. It’ll take a while for official colour portraits of Earth to appear.

…but as is the way now – and the CASSINI team is absolutely fine with this by the way, they said so via their Facebook page – amateur image enthusiasts have been working away busily with the raws, working on them to create colour views, and here I am proud to share with you here, with his permission, the first attempt by one of unmannedspaceflight.com’s most accomplished image experts, Gordan Ugarkovic…

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Awww, look at that… isn’t that beautiful? That’s us, that’s Earth, that’s home. And if you stopped for a moment on Friday evening, wherever you were, to look to the sky and think of a faraway spaceprobe, and wave at it, then you, yes you, reading this, are on that picture. I know, technically you’re “on” it if you did nothing on Friday night; everyone ON EARTH is “on” that picture. But personally I think that people who actually made the effort to look to Saturn while that picture was being taken have much more of a claim to being “on” it than people who were oblivious to the fact that it was being taken, or who jus knew it was being taken but really weren’t bothered, and I’ll stand by that view no matter who argues against it.

As more and more images come in the amateur renders of this new “Pale Blue Dot” image will get better and better, and in time NASA will release its own official version, but I want you to look at the next pic…

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That’s another raw image from CASSINI’s Friday night photoshoot, this time taken with the Narrow Angle Camera (CASSINI’s zoom lens), and on it you can clearly see not just the Earth, looking like a bright star, but the Moon close to it too! I know it’s over-exposed (as many people are pointing out) but I don’t care, myself. That’s THE EARTH AND MOON SEEN FROM SATURN!!! And if you think that‘s amazing, look at this processed version, the great work of “Lights in The Dark” blogger Jason Major…

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Wonderful, isn’t it? Can’t wait to see all NASA’s official, calibrated and polished-up versions. In advance of that though, here’s a “quick and dirty” mosaic stitched together out of the raw images by UMSF founder and now NASA expert Doug Ellison – sorry, Dr Doug Ellison, which hints at the beauty we have yet to come…

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So, there you are, that’s what we did, and how it felt, when we Waved At Saturn. Across the world hundreds of thousands if not millions of people did the same, from school fields, gardens, roadsides, car parks, office windows and elsewhere. If you’re one of them, well done you, for taking the time, and making the effort, to be a part of something special. In the years ahead the “Wave At Saturn” image is going to be reproduced in countless books and magazines, and on websites and blogs, and every one who found a moment in their busy lives to stop, look at Saturn and wave, will be able to say, proudly, “I’m on that…!”

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4 Responses

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  4. hello could any1 explain wot a had seen one night. in august 2013 I was watchin the stars for a few hours n these 2 stars which I observed side by side then 1 droped n then the other 1 droped from the sky only way a could explain it is if they were been dangled on string n some1 cut the string n 1 drop n then the next droped def not a shootin stars cos they were static if you no wot a mean thanxz

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