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The Great NLC Outburst of July 11/12 2014

Astronomy can be a very, very frustrating hobby, for many reasons. It can be frustrating because of the difficulty involved in seeing things – how come all the best stuff happens at stupid o’clock in the morning?  It can be frustrating financially – why is everything so expensive? And it can be frustrating technically – why won’t this ***** **** ***** telescope align???? But more than anything else, it can be frustrating because of the weather. We are totally and completely at its mercy. We can look forward to an event – a meteor shower, an eclipse, a transit, something like that – for months, sometimes years, sometimes even decades, as was the case with Halley’s Comet for many, and then, at the crucial time we miss it, simply because the evil, spiteful atmosphere of our beautiful, green, lush planet chooses that precise time to put a billow of clouds, or even just a single ******* of a cloud, between us and whatever it is we want to watch. Then all we can do is stand there, staring up at the cloudy sky, knowing something… something amazing, something beautiful, some special… is happening behind the blanket of bleakness, unable to see it. It can be soul-crushing, it really can.

In Ye Olde Days before the internet that would have been it. The torture would have ended with a deep, weary sigh and a long drive or walk back home, to slump on the sofa with a cuppa. But now… oh, now our technology prolongs and enhances the torture. Standing there, beneath a cloudy sky, we can go online with our phones and read breathless reports on Facebook of the event we’re missing. We can see other people’s beautiful pictures of the amazing event we’re missing, and read their “OMG! It’s incredible!” Tweets. That’s beyond cruel. It’s happened to me so many times now, I’ve lost count, and I’ll admit that more than once I’ve stood in the shadow of the ruins of Kendal Castle, staring up at a murky orange sky, missing a meteor shower, or a planetary conjunction, or comet, and vehemently given it the finger and sworn at it. Yes, I’ve actually hurled insults at the sky. Bad ones, too. Silly? Maybe, but it made me feel better, and the alternative was sinking to my knees, balling my hands into fists and shouting “**** YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!” at the heavens like Kirk screaming “Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnn!!” into his communicator, and doing that would be ridiculous.

A second time…

Yes, the Goddess of astronomy can be cruel. She can promise you a sight of such wonder and beauty that you will get up at you’re-having-a-laugh-o’clock, climb a hill and stand alone in temperatures which would have a penguin reaching for a hot water bottle only to cover the sky with cloud, or just push a single cloud into the worst possible place for it to be. I love her, I really do, but sometimes, oh sometimes she reaches into your chest, wraps her slender, starry fingers around your heart and drags it out, laughing as she holds it up in front of your face…

But I’ve come to realise, over the years, that every time she does that – every time an eclipse or a meteor shower or a comet is cruelly hidden from me – she will, one day, make it up to me and show me something… magical. It’s not Karma, it’s not something supernatural, or spooky. It’s just fair. The astronomy Goddess is cruel, true, but she is fair, and for every dozen dreams she crushes she will give you something special in return. You just have to be patient.

And really, patience is the key to enjoying astronomy, I’ve always thought. As I always tell people during my Outreach talks, it takes time to learn the sky, there are no shortcuts. It takes time to learn how to find things in binoculars, or set up your telescope, or master astrophotography with your camera. It takes time to get to know how the sky works, what the hobby can give you. If you rush, if you get impatient, it won’t help. You will know only disappointment and anger. But if you are prepared to roll with the punches, to suffer disappointments, to be tricked and laughed at by the night sky and the wonders painted on it by Nature then you will, on a few precious nights during your lifetime, be allowed to see something… incredible. Something which will make up for all the failures and disappointments. Something which will make you fall on love with the sky, and astronomy, all over again.

And on Friday night it was my turn to enjoy one of those gifts.

As regular readers will know, it is “noctilucent cloud season” here in the northern hemisphere at the moment. Noctilucent clouds – or “NLC” for short – are very high clouds which we only see in the summer months, glowing a beautiful silvery-blue colour, low in the northern sky around midnight. They can’t be predicted, and while some displays can become stunningly bright most are much more modest. Watching them takes patience, determination, and the ability to function on a ridiculously small amount of sleep. Every summer observers like myself long for clear nights so we can head to our favourite spot and basically stake out the northern sky, hoping for NLC to appear. When they do we take our pictures (which we now can post on Twitter and Facebook for other observers to enjoy, or hate, depending on their own weather situation) and enjoy the show for as long as we can. But usually they don’t appear, and then we head home, muttering and mumbling, frustrated by the sky and the cruel nature of NLCs again.

But the worst nights of all are the ones when a big display of NLC kicks off, and its seems like everyone else in the country is seeing and enjoying it, but local cloud means you see absolutely nothing. That’s just… awful, it really is. All we can do is look at the glorious pictures being taken elsewhere and swear at them and the people who took them, cursing the sky and our own bad luck. And that’s happened to me a couple of times this NLC season, most recently last week when a ginormous migraine-inducingly bright NLC display was observed from to the north and the east of me, but I missed it because of a stubborn bank of low cloud stuck to the sky above my northern horizon with superglue, so I could only see a little of the display peeking out from around it…

IMG_5987s

I hated that, but, at the same time, that little voice in my head was telling me “Be patient, your time will come…”

And it did, on Friday night.

After several beautifully clear – and, of course, totally NLC-free – nights in a row, I was pretty frazzled by Friday night, but with yet another clear sky forecast I knew I had to keep trying, to keep dragging myself up that hill to the castle, there was just no alternative, so I grabbed a nap between half ten and half eleven, just to try and recharge my batteries a little, just enough to get me back up the hill again and try again. By quarter to midnight I was on my way, camera bag and tripod bag slung over my shoulder as I plodded my way up the hill to Kendal Castle. As I went, occasional glances to the north suggested a subtle brightening of the sky, but there was a Full Moon that night, lighting up all different levels of “normal” cloud, so I didn’t get my hopes up. However, once I was at the top of the hill, looking north I had a really strong feeling that, well… well, this will sound odd, but the sky above the fells in that direction just didn’t look “right”. It was glowing, subtly, and I felt my NLCsense tingle as I aimed my camera at the glow and prepared to take a test exposure. Unwilling to believe my eyes, I knew that iIf NLC were there, they would show up on the photo.

<Click> wait… look at screen…

1st view s

Oh yes… look at that… looked a lot like NLC… I put word out on Twitter that I was maybe seeing something, and let Stella know too, then set-up properly, arranging everything in its right place so I wouldn’t have to ratch for things if a proper display kicked off.  Standing there after midnight, as the sky darkened, I became aware of a bright “patch” low in the NE. Nothing much to the naked eye, but maybe a long exposure photo would show something interesting..?

<click> Looks at photo…

1s

Oh look at that…

Game on. 🙂

For the next half hour the NLC grew brighter and expanded to the sides, too, and it soon became clear that some major activity was brewing. Now, that wasn’t a cue for me to jump up in the air, pump my fist and shout “Yes!!!! About time!!!” because I’ve been burned before. “Major activity brewing” can go one of two ways. It can either explode in a display of colour and structure, painting the northern sky with billows of impossibly beautiful blue for hours on end, or it can just go “You know what? I can’t be bothered tonight…” and fade away to nothing, leaving the sky as blank as it was before. So as I stood there taking my photos I tried not to get too excited.  But by half past midnight the lower portion of that “patch” in the NE was clearly evolving into something very interesting indeed, and my photos showed it developing into a strange but beautiful kind of NLC “plume”…

plume developing s

And that soon became this…

bright plume rising above horizon 0030s

Still trying not to let my hopes run away with me I took a close up of it, and it looked VERY interesting. I’ve enhanced that picture to bring out some of the subtle details in the feature…

plume close up s

And with even more enhancement…

plume enhance s

Beautiful, don’t you think? By now I was starting to allow myself to believe that maybe, just maybe, something special was brewing up beyond the horizon and it was headed my way, but it’s never wise to give in to such optimism because the universe is listening and likes nothing better than pulling that run away from under you, so I just kept taking pics, and updating people on Twitter and Facebook, biding my time…

…and, true to form, by one o’clock the plume started to collapse. Like a solar prominence falling back on itself, its spine broke and it started to bow down in the middle. And fade in brightness, too…

3s

Was that it? I didn’t know. But it did feel rather like that scene near the end of “Close Encounters” where the little UFOs have just buzzed the top secret landing site and whooshed up into the sky, raising everyone’s hopes, only for everything to fall silent again. I started to wonder if the show was over. If it was, well, ok, I’d got some fairly nice photos, and it had been worth going out for…

By quarter past one it looked like it was all over. The NLC activity had fallen right back down to the point where what little remained was barely scraping the tops of the fells, and to make matters worse some hideous low cloud had boiled in from the south, smothering my sky…

fading and cloud2s

It was that fateful Decision Time. On Twitter and Facebook, many people were quickly throwing in the towel, announcing they were going to (or BACK to) bed because the show was over. Others, clearly torn between staying out and retreating to their beds hummed and haahd. Me? I knew that going back now could be a big mistake; I’ve been watching NLC displays for *cough* years now (oh, alright, almost 35 years now, and ALL the best NLC displays I have ever seen started reasonably well and then faded, only to flare up again and become something spectacular. So with hardly a star visible in the sky, and with just the merest trace of NLC lingering above the hills, I settled back and made myself comfortable, putting on my little pocket radio (top tip: if you’re observing alone ALWAYS take a little radio with you for company, cos if you don’t, with nothing else to occupy, entertain or distract you  during a lull, that little voice in your head will whisper “It’s finished now, it’s over… you’re tired, and cold… go home… go home… you won’t miss anything…” With a radio on you won’t notice time passing and you’ll find it much easier to stick it out) and catching up on my FB and Twitter messages.

Slowly the sky cleared of cloud, leaving an enormous fat and bright Full Moon blazing behind me, and as the town hall clock chimed “2am” from the streets below me I looked the NE again and saw this…

returning2s

The NLC were back. And getting brighter. Quickly.

By ten past two, I was seeing this in the NE… that feature was developing, evolving, changing onto something very promising indeed…

cockrel developing s

It looked, to my sleep-deprived eyes anyway, like a bird of some kind, maybe a turkey, or a cockrel, and as the minutes passed it began to shine even brighter. I was joined briefly by someone who had just finished work and was walking over the hill as a shortcut home and he was fascinated by what he was seeing above the hills. He was even more fascinated when I explained what they were, and showed him the view of “The Cockrel” (as I had by then decided to call it) on my camera screen…

cockrel best s

I know, look at that… beautiful! But over to its left the NLC were really starting to waken up too…

cockrel pan

…and that was when I knew that Something Big Was Brewing. You don’t get a display that big and bright only to have it fade and break apart. It was going to be a good night, perhaps a very good night for NLC watchers – well, those who had stayed up anyway – and it was time to get serious. I sent Stella a message alerting her to the strength of the display, put the word out again on Twitter and Facebook, and packed up my things. I know what you’re all thinking – “Packed up?!?? You went home????” Of course I didn’t go home! What do you take me for! No. With a major NLC display brewing up I knew it was time to relocate. Where to? Well, if you were wanting to take kick ass photos of a huge NLC display, where would YOU go when you had a great big beautiful ruined castle behind you..?

It was only a short walk to the castle ruins, and before heading into the ruins, to take pics of them silhouetted against the NLC, I paused at the entrance to what’s left of the castle to take a few photos of the display. By this time it was simply gorgeous…

big display brewing s

…and enhancing that photo reveals just how much activity there was going on at this point…

big display brewing enh s

By now the display was really evolving into something special, and every photo I took seemed to look better than the previous one. I took one after another after another, each one subtly different to the others, which is a joyful experience, it really is. I think this is my best one from that period, taken around quarter past two, twenty past two…

5s

That’s the feature I had previously christened “The Cockrel”, which by now looked nothing like a cockrel any more, there was just too much going on in and around it. It actually looked like something – a head? – was pressing through the blanket of NLC… I clicked and clicked and clicked, and took this (I think!) breathtaking image of the NLC just before I turned my back on it and headed into the ruins…

 

best outside castle before going into ruins s

Well, that was the plan anyway, but suddenly I became aware that I had company – Stella had come up the hill to join me and watch the show with me, so I delayed heading into the ruins to take some “NLC selfies” of us…

s1s

s2s

ss s

FINALLY it was time to get the photos I’ve longed to take for a decade – the castle silhouetted against a brilliant display of NLC! Just inside the curve of the ruins I took this panorama…

castle1s

..and then I went right to the far end of the ruins and started taking pictures. Ahead of me, the view was just sublime, with the main portion of the ruins standing out against the bright electric blue NKLC display which was by now filling a good half of the sky. I found just the right position, and started clicking, almost breathless with excitement; I’d dreamed of taking these pictures ever since I moved down here, but had been thwarted ten years running. Now everything was in place, would they live up to my expectations? What do you think…

IMG_6909s

pano18

And that was when I took the time to just step away from the camera, and Look. This is something I feel quite strongly about, and always tell fellow astronomers to do – if something amazing is going on “up there” yes, take lots of photos, but for a while, even just a few minutes, walk away from the camera, a good distance away, and just Look At It. Drink in the view, savour it, roll it around your eyes, heart and soul like a fine wine. Look around you, take it all in, fix it in your brain so that when it ends you won’t just have a memory card full of images but a genuine memory of it yourself, too. So that’s what I did. I walked away from the camera and just stared at the sky, the whole sky, sweeping my gaze around it. Behind me, the Full Moon was a big, fat, bloated golden silver ball, dropping towards a few clouds that had gathered above the horizon. High above me the sky was a delicious delicate dark blue, studded with silver stars. And to the north, the sky was ablaze, lit by countless tendrils and swirls and billows and whorls of with cold, electric blue light. It was as if a sorcerous forest fire was raging silently to the north, perhaps the result of furious spell-casting by two duelling warlocks or witches…

pano22s

By now it was 3am, and to the east the sky was just starting to brighten with the approach of dawn, so heading back to the entrance to the castle, where Stella was waiting patiently (you can just make her out on that image above, sitting on the skyline silhouetted against the NLC), I took the chance to take some unashamedly cheesy pictures of the two of us together while I could…

IMG_6924s

ss2s

With those in the bag and the display still seemingly getting brighter, and more structured, I decided to go for some killer images, ones which would really show what it was like to stand there, at 3am on that Saturday morning, watching the sky burning sapphire blue…

pano23s

By half past three the NLC were so bright they were screaming out for some silhouette photos to be taken, and I was happy to oblige…

pano20bs

pano24s

s3s

I think out of all the images I’ve made of that display, this is one of my very favourites…

pano19s

By quarter to four the eastern sky was really brightening, and the air was thick with dew, so heavy that I was having to clean my misted up lenses after every grabbed picture, and although the NLC display was still going strong its subtle light was no match for the stronger light of the approaching dawn, and it began to fade. I knew that the show was almost over, but there were still photos to be taken…

pano27s

dawn approaches s

It was then that we both noticed something coming into view above the NE horizon, a spark of silvery-gold light…

NLC Venus 0400s

Can you see it? Just above the horizon, bottom right, beneath the tattered veil of the fading NLC… that’s Venus. Yes, the Morning Star had come to wish the great NLC display farewell…

Venus 0400s

After that unexpected treat, and with the NLC faded almost from sight, we knew there was nothing else to do and headed home. Of course, any sane person would have collapsed into bed right away after such a long nocturnal haul, but clearly I’m not, so I spent another hour and a half working on my images and getting some of them “out there” online before I surrendered to sleep deprivation and allowed my head to hit a pillow. But it was worth it; I think the pictures I took that morning are some of the best I’ve ever taken, and I may never get another chance to take them, so no regrets about feeling absolutely knackered now. I’d rather be exhausted and happy, with a memory card ( and a head ) full of lovely images, than be one of those people who gave up on the display early and are now kicking themselves…

Looking back now it seems ages ago, but it’s just a day, a DAY since I stood on the castle hilltop bathing my face in the ethereal glow of the best noctilucent cloud display I have ever seen. Everything came together perfectly – I was in exactly the right place at the right time, the weather was just about perfect, all my equipment worked without a hitch, and I got all the photos I wanted on the night, and the ones I have been dreaming of taking for a decade, too.

But before I walked off the hill – and, I think, much to Stella’s amusement – I stopped, looked up at the brightening sky, and said, quietly, “Thank you”. It was only fair. I’d been given a wonderful gift, and I was brought up by mum to say thank you whenever I received one of those. No-one else would have heard it, of course, but I’m sure I heard, whispered on the wind, a soft “You’re welcome…”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how amateur astronomy works. As I said, way back at the beginning of this post, it’s all about patience and rolling with the punches, because trust me you will get punched in this hobby. When people start off in astronomy it promises to be an easy ride. After all, reading the big glossy astronomy book you bought, or took out of the library, with its beautiful pictures and star charts, you can’t help thinking “How hard can it be to go stand in a field and look up at the sky and see amazing stuff?” Easy peasy, right? What could possibly go wrong? Ah, what they don’t tell you is that life as an amateur astronomer can be so frustrating it can leave you on the brink of tears. You will learn to hate the weather, to see it as a loathed enemy, your mortal enemy, because it will stop you from seeing the meteor shower you read about in “Astronomy Now” magazine, and cheat you of the amazing sight of Saturn emerging from behind the Moon’s limb, as you heard about on “The Sky At Night”, and it WILL hide from your view the shadow-casting fireballs and the beautiful, naked eye comets with the glorious tails that everyone else is raving about on Twitter. No-one tells you that when you’re starting out in the hobby. But it’s true. Being an amateur astronomer isn’t easy at all. The universe will drop you and scratch at you so many times you have to be made of diamond to do it.

But you have to soak up the punches, and push on through the disappointments and frustrations because every now and then the universe will reward you with a night – or even just a fleeting moment – of such startling beauty that your head will spin and your heart will leap and you will fall in love with the night sky all over again.

I had one of those nights on Friday night. There will be another but I’ve no idea when – maybe it will be tonight, with another sky-spanning display of NLC… or it won’t come until next year, when I see a newly discovered naked eye comet painted on the sky above my beloved castle. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Until then, on the cloudy nights I’ll think back to the night when I stood in the ruins of a castle and watched the sky burn blue.

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2 Responses

  1. […] und hier und noch mehr, Bilder aus Schottland – Vordergrund ist wichtig ! – und Schweden und ein endlos langer Bericht aus […]

  2. Thank you so much for this- your pics & story were phenomenal!

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