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The NLC appear – at last!

Finally, FINALLY a good display of NLC – “noctilucent clouds” – was visible from my part of the world (Cumbria, UK… big clue in the name of the blog, up there at the top..!) last night. And it was an absolute beauty.

Regular readers will know that I have been getting rather frustrated (polite way of saying SERIOUSLY ******* HACKED OFF!!!!) with this year’s NLC season. There have been a couple of displays, but these occurred when the weather here in Kendal was uncooperative, and the only clouds I saw were the low, black grey water droplet kind. On Wednesday night I went up to the castle again, lured up there again by a clear late evening sky, but by the time I headed home at 2am I hadn’t seen even a wisp of NLC. Very annoying.

Last night, I was so disheartened by recent wild goose/NLC chases I had decided to not even think about going out NLC-hunting unless and until someone else, somewhere, reported a positive sighting online, on Twitter or Facebook, and settled down to watch the England v Uruguay World Cup match resolving to stick to that decision. But when we lost the match I was so disappointed that I knew I needed to get out into the night, even if I saw nothing, so at 11.30 I packed up my gear and headed out into the almost-midnight Summer twilight. Crossing the road I glanced left, looking north as I always do – and stopped in my tracks. There were patches of light blue-grey up there which looked… well, they just looked wrong. Or rather, right. When you’ve been an NLC hunter as long as I have you start to get a “feel” for the kind of evening which hosts a display, and as I headed across the street to the park last night my NLC spidey sense was definitely tingling, and when I reached the park and looked north again and saw what I knew for a FACT were large areas of NLC, my spirits lifted. Finally, FINALLY, a good display on a clear night!

I rang Stella as I all but jogged up the hill to the castle, letting her know a display was brewing so she could join me later, all the while casting excited but fearful glances at the northern sky, which was looking decidedly curdled by now. By the time I reached the castle, there was no doubt that Something Big was brewing, so I put the word out on Twitter and Facebook, alerting other observers, and then settled down to organising my own observing session.

As I set up my camera and tripod, I could see signs of NLC stretching across the whole of the northern sky, from the NW to the NE, and fired off some test shots as soon as I could… Here’s what the display looked like around ten to midnight…

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And here’s what it looked like around half an hour later, with the sky a little darker…

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By the time Stella joined me I had already taken several dozen photos, but I love this one of her looking up at the display as it developed…

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It was annoying – but inevitable – that the ONLY CLOUD IN THE WHOLE SKY was smack bang in the middle of the NLC display, covering it…

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Enhance that and you can see the full extent of the display…

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Around 1am it looked like the display was fading, falling back towards the northern horizon…

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…but I’ve been observing NLC a long time, and I know that such a fading isn’t necessarily The End. It might mark the end of Part 1 of the display, the late night/midnight part, but there’s always a chance that the display will rear up again and roar again before dawn, so at this point I just put a cover over my camera – a woolly hat if you must know! – to prevent dew, and went fir a sit down, catching up on how my fellow NLC watchers were doing by checking out Twitter and Facebook. It was clear from their breathless posts and gorgeous images that the display I was watching was being seen and enjoyed all across the UK, and watchers in Scotland were seeing a particularly good show. This was the first big “Social Media” display I’ve seen, and it was fascinating to follow the reports as they came in, as seasoned observers quietly and calmly went about recording and photographing it, and newbies and First Timers jumped about online like puppies, giddy with the excitement of it all.

And, as I had hoped – and as others online had predicted – around 2am the display began to come to life again, as a patch of NLC began to brighten and grow low in the NNW…

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Sensing the display’s second act was about to begin I grabbed my gear and headed into the ruins of the castle itself, intent on taking some pictures with those ruins silhouetted against the display. And soon I was taking them, as the display grew larger and brighter again, filling the northern sky with fresh wirls, curls and streamers of noctilucent cloud…

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Soon the display was back in full swing, so I just took picture after picture after picture, swapping position and lenses every few minutes, getting as many pictures as possible, realising that with Cumbrian weather being what it is, this might be the first and last great display of the season. Here are the best pics I took, in no particular order, ok?

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By 3am the sky was starting to brighten with the approach of dawn, but the display was still visible…

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Eventually I started to lose the display, and here are the last images I took…

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Back home again at around 03.30 I knew I should go straight to bed, but I was so desperate to see how my photos had turned out that it was almost half past four before my head hit the pillow!

So… finally, FINALLY a display worthy of the name. It took a while to happen, but last night was brilliant, well worth the wait. The forecast is for a clear sky again tonight, so fingers crossed for Round 2..!

No NLC yet, but…

…there are a couple of (hopefully!) clear nights coming up over the next week, so fingers crossed. Actually, to be honest, I have a bad feeling about this year’s NLC Season. I think we’re heading for another 2012. That year, you might remember, there were some decent displays, but here in Cumbria we missed all of them because of our crap weather. Last year, amazingly, the best displays occurred when the Cumbrian cloud cleared, allowing us great views. But so far in 2014 clear nights have been NLC No Show nights, and displays have happened when it has been cloudy in Cumbria… I might be wrong, I might just be having a Pessimistic Astronomer episode, but… well… just saying… I have a “feeling” about this year.

So, since the 2014 Season began at the start of the month, lured up there by beautiful clear skies, I’ve spent hours up at the castle, waiting for something to kick off, but I haven’t seen a hint of NLC. Not a whisper. Which is very disappointing, obviously, but hey, that’s something British – and especially Cumbrian – astronomers are used to. So what we do is make the best of things, and enjoy what’s up there instead, and this past week I’ve been able to take some *fantastic* photos of the International Space Station crossing the sky above my town and, at the end of last week, was treated to the magical sight of an almost Full Moon blazing above the castle with an enormous, beautiful halo around it. So, definitely a frustrating week, but a very rewarding one too. And made all the more enjoyable by having some great company up there, too – namely Stella, my great observing mate Carol, and keen local photographer James Kirby. Here’s a stunning pic Carol took of all of us together, silhouetted against the bright lights of the Auld Grey Town at silly o’clock in the morning…

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Anyway, here are some of the pictures I took during the past NLC-free week, proving that even if you don’t get to see what  you wanted to see, if you’re patient, and willing to do a bit of work, the universe will always offer you a compensation. (And yes, it does help if your backdrop is a drop-dead gorgeous ruined castle, I know. Hard to go wring with that!)

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The “bright lights” of Kendal…

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Moon peeping out from behind a cloud bank…

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The space station dropping down towards the horizon after a beautiful pass…

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ISS soaring over Kendal Castle…

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Late night/early morning at Kendal Castle…

And now, those “Moon plus halo” pics…

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No, no NLC, but pretty pleased with what I got!

Clear sky forecast tomorrow night, so fingers crossed for a killer NLC display to get stuck into. Last year I still had a very basic DSLR, but now I have a much better one, and lots of different lenses, so really looking forward to seeing what I can do with it.