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See FOUR planets in a row next week…

If watching the total lunar eclipse has got you interested in astronomy and the night sky, you’re probably wondering “What can I see next?”

Well, next week there will be a very interesting line-up of planets in the morning sky. Don’t worry, you won’t need a telescope to see them; the planets are all bright enough to be visible with just the naked eye, and will look just like stars in then sky. And to make watching this “planet parade” even more exciting, the crescent Moon will be in that part of the sky too, moving down the line of planets, from right to left, as the days pass.

As was the case with the eclipse, seeing this parade of planets will mean getting up early or staying up late, but it will be worth it to see four of Earth’s sister worlds strung out across the eastern sky before dawn, like gemstones on an invisible chain.

Ok, here’s what you’ll see… click on each image to enlarge it…

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If you’re lucky you’ll be able to see this from your garden, but be aware that if you live in a built up area, with trees and buildings around you, or if you love somewhere with hills on your eastern horizon you might struggle. If you can, get out into the countryside – or at least to somewhere dark and more wide open, like a park – and you will have a much better view.

With a digital SLR camera – or a good “bridge” camera – on a tripod, or resting on something, you should be able to photograph this planetary pile-up using time exposures.

As I said, this will be clearly visible to the naked eye (although Mercury might be a challenge, being so low as the sky is brightening), but if you have or can get hold of a pair of binoculars they will enhance tour view and your enjoyment. They’ll definitely make the different colours of the planets much more obvious, and make them look brighter too. They will also show you some of Jupiter’s family of more than 60 moons, looking like tiny faint stars next to brilliant Jupiter. And with Mercury being so low, they’ll help you pick it out from the background glow.

Good luck!

Water! On Mars! Again! BIG Deal, or Big DEAL?

Much excitement yesterday around teatime UK time as, around the world, space enthusiasts, scientists and the simply curious – many of them still pale and watery-eyed from sleep deprivation after a late night of lunar eclipse-watching – gathered around their computers or stared into the screens of their tablets and phones to hear NASA make its Big Announcement. “Mars Mystery Solved!” had been the cry a couple of days earlier, prompting outrageous speculation on Twitter, Facebook and every other social media platform (and in Ye Olde printed media too): what were they going to tell us?

Many people were convinced it was a big astrobiology story – that NASA was finally going to announce that Mars wasn’t dead. But what were they going to say? That they’d found fossils? That they had found chemical traces of life? That they had looked again at the Viking laboratory results and decided that maybe the 1970s probe had detected signs of life after all? Others thought it might be an announcement that they had found one of the many space-probes lost on Mars. Others, wearing neatly-folded tin foil hats, were convinced NASA was going to “come clean” and admit that its photos really DID show yetis, small women or dinosaur skulls…

But those who took a little bit of time to think about it, and to do some research, already had a pretty good idea what the announcement was going to relate to. A quick look at the names of the people on the panel was enough to tell one that it was about water, or water processes, rather than life. And digging into the recent work of people on the panel strongly suggested that the news was related to the “gullies” and “dark stains” observed on Mars in recent years.

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And that turned out to be the case. No yetis, no tiny women, no fossils – but something very exciting for people with a more scientific approach. Basically, NASA has now got evidence that the dark streaks seen on the sloping sides of certain martian landscape features were caused by water –

WHAT???? Cue disappointed groans from thousands… Oh, great… NASA had found water on Mars. AGAIN.

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Hang on, hang on…! Well, ok, it might have sounded like NASA was reheating old news, but to be fair that wasn’t the case. This was different. The water found on Mars so far before has all been frozen or misty water. Orbiters have photographed veritable martian ice rinks, in craters and at the pole, and going all the way back to the Viking days landers have seen frost (frozen water) sparkling on rocks around them before dawn broke. The Phoenix lander (which many people seem to have forgotten about, you hardly hear it mentioned now, do you?) even sent back photographs of a slab of ice right beneath it, and yet more ice glinting on the floors of the trenches it dug in the dirt with its robot arm, and many people think that strange globules photographed on the lander’s own body were actually water droplets. Other missions, notably the Mars Exploration Rovers – now all but erased from history whenever a NASA media event is held, they just aren’t mentioned any more, it’s all about Curiosity – have found evidence of past water flowing or standing on Mars. But this water was, well, proper water. Of a sort.

What NASA was saying was that the dark streaks observed by orbiters had been caused by water. Not, they were quick to point out, liquid water running or rushing down the slopes, not by rivers gurgling down crater or valley walls, not even by weedy trickles slithering their way past and around boulders, creeping towards the floor below. They had been caused more by a dampness gradually spreading through the dirt, staining it, darkening it. So, yes, the dark streaks had been caused by water, but not what we think of as water here on Earth; rather a very salty “brine”, that you couldn’t possibly drink or use for anything, really, spreading like damp through the dirt.

So, to be clear, here’s what NASA HASN’T found…

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Seriously, some papers and websites are going well over the top about this news. If NASA had found water running freely on the surface of Mars that would be amazing news, astounding news! What they’ve actually found is evidence for water seeping through the ground, briefly, occasionally, leaving behind, for a brief time, damp dirt. But that’s still exciting, still important, because it’s something new, something found after years of painfully hard, challenging work, at the end of a very rigorous scientific process. And it means that if Mars has water of this type, it improves the chances of finding other, more familiar forms of water elsewhere – and that, in turn, improves the chances of Mars having life, of some sort, today. It also means future astronauts, and after them, settlers and colonists, might have water to use when they get there, instead of having to bring it all with them, or have it sent up from Earth for them.

And that is a Big Deal.

But everyone, please… a deep breath. Calm down. Yes, yaaaaay for the news, yaaaay for the discovery, yaaaaaay for science, and yaaaaay for NASA. But let’s keep it in perspective. Red Mars is STILL Red Mars. It still isn’t the kind of place to raise your kids, and it is still as harsh and cruelly cold as the north pole at midnight on New Year’s Eve. There are no rushing rivers with salmon leaping in the sunlight, no tinkling streams dancing over mossy stones, no rainbow-framed waterfalls roaring. It’s still a dusty, desolate wasteland of a planet that is as dry as a bone compared to Waterworld Earth – but now we know it is damp, in places, now and again. That’s a big discovery, in scientific terms, but no matter what they are saying on TV and in the papers it doesn‘t mean there absolutely definitely is life on Mars.

And it doesn’t mean astronauts will set foot on Mars one day or even one hour sooner than they would have done otherwise, either. There will not be a land-rush to Mars now. Schedules set for future exploration will not change. We won’t see landers dropping down next to these dark streaks and sampling them, and we certainly won’t see astronauts scrambling up those slopes to dig into the dirt and scoop it up in test tubes to analyse “back at the Hab”.

If Mark Watney put THIS type of martian water on his potatoes, THEY WOULD DIE.

Enough frivolity. If you want the hard science behind this story, I can direct you to two very good blogs, each of which goes into the science in much more detail than I could – or at least want to.

Firstly, you should take a look at what blogger “Space Kate” has to say about the story. Kate is very prolific on Twitter, but if you’re not you might not be aware of her great work.  You can change that now by going to…

http://spacekate.com/2015/liquid-water-on-mars-does-it-deserve-the-fuss/

Then – of course – Emily Lakdawalla has the hard science behind the headline. If you want to cut through all the weeds to get to the truth of any space exploration-related story, it’s really quite easy – just go to Emily Lakdawalla’s blog on the Planetary Society website and read her write-up, because the golden rule for whenever a big space/astronomy story breaks is “What has Emily written about it?” She can go into a lot more detail about a story than other people because a) she has all the space she wants on her blog, so doesn’t have to skim over a story and write it in soundbites, b) has a very strong science background, so knows what she’s talking about, and c) is an expert communicator. And she is very honest too; if she thinks NASA is over-hyping a story, or making wild claims or assumptions she’ll say.I admire her and her work a lot.

http://www.planetary.org/blogs/emily-lakdawalla/2015/09281219-nasas-mars-announcement.html

So, after all that hard science, what does this discovery mean for the future? Well, in an ideal world it would mean that NASA sat back in its chair, let out a deep sigh, stared out the window for a few hours and had a good hard think about what it is doing, before deciding to stop “following the water” and studying one rocky landing site after another and, instead, bite the bullet and design and send a mission to Mars dedicated solely to looking for signs of life, past or present. As huge a supporter of NASA as I am, and as thrilling as I personally find images of martian geology, even I have seen enough “rusty red” rocks, enough “melon-sized” boulders, enough “crumbling outcrops” and “fascinating veins” to last me the rest of my lifetime. It’s time NASA went to Mars for the only really good reason TO go to Mars – to look for signs of life. IMHO, of course.

But as optimistic and enthusiastic as I am, I’m not naive or stupid. I know that’s not going to happen. In the real world, this discovery means no new hardware will be built and sent to Mars, and there will be no boot-prints in the dirt – damp or otherwise – for a good couple of decades yet; for now, watching THE MARTIAN is as close as we’re going to get to see humans exploring Mars. What it means is more science is needed, and will be done, and more hard work is needed, and will be done, so scientists can refine these results even further. That takes time, but tough, that’s how science works.

But if you’re up before dawn any time soon, take a look at the eastern sky and you’ll see a line of three stars shining there. These aren’t actually stars, they’re planets. I took this photo the other morning…

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The middle one is Mars, see? When I took this photo, Mars was known to be a planet with water, but not actually known to be “wet” anywhere. That has changed, and that is why this announcement was worth making, and why this discovery is important.

Looking back at the Sept 28th Lunar Eclipse

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So… after all the build-up, all the “BloodMoon!” “SuperMoon!” “AbsolutelyDrenchedInGoreMoon!” hype, the much-anticipated total lunar eclipse of September 28th is behind us. And, surprise surprise, all the armageddonporn-loving “journalists”, raving nutter “pastors” and fruit loop YouTubers were wrong about it triggering earthquakes and nuclear war. (Even now, as you read this, they will be looking up the date of the NEXT eclipse and preparing to write absolute BS about that too). I hope you saw it, or at least part of it, from where you lived.

Here in Kendal we had a surprisingly good view. I say “surprisingly”, because all the weather apps were predicting, before and all through the day, that we wouldn’t see it – or at least wouldn’t see much of it – because of cloud. Consequently, trusting soul that I am (I know, I used the words “weather apps” and “trust” in the same sentence, stop laughing) I spent several days agonising about what to do – whether to risk staying close to home and hoping to catch some of the eclipse through gaps in the cloud, or head somewhere else with a better forecast. At least one of my astronomical society friends, facing the same dilemma, took the decision to flee the county and headed south on search of clear skies. Thankfully she found a great spot and enjoyed lovely views of the eclipse. At the last minute I decided that it just wasn’t worth trying to get to clearer skies – in the limited time we had available we wouldn’t be able to get to anywhere with dramatically better prospects than Kendal’s. So, we rolled the dice and stayed home, deciding we would head up to Helsington Church, just outside Kendal, at midnight.

When midnight came, the sky above Kendal was almost perfectly clear. All the weather apps were insisting I was under a cloudy sky, right then, but looking up from my phone I saw not a hint of a wisp of a cloud – just the brighter stars, and a huge, dazzlingly-bright Full Moon high in the south. It looked like we’d made the right call, so we headed out of town to Helsington, quietly optimistic about seeing the eclipse, by then just two hours from starting.

Helsington Church has been one of my astronomical society’s “go to” observing sites for a while. Just ten minutes drive out of town, it offers a good combination of reasonably dark skies and plenty of parking spaces, making it very useful for us, especially when wanting to observe something happening in the southern art of the sky. Usually it is very quiet at night, but when we got there we found almost all the parking places taken, which was a bit of a shocker! We figured out that they must have belonged to people staying in the new bunk house that’s up there now… the same bunk house with lights all over the outside of it, so the sky there isn’t as dark as it used to be. But we weren’t going to look for anywhere else at that time of night, and there was enough space for us to park, so we stayed, and I got out to take a quick look around before setting up –

– to find another problem.

The car park was full of bullocks; great snuffling, snorting things were clattering about the car park tarmac on their hooves, heads swaying from side to side as they wandered around, in no obvious hurry to go anywhere. There was no way I was going to set up my expensive gear with those things blundering about, being all “curious” and “inquisitive”, so we waited until they had wandered off yo one of the nearby fields, hoping they wouldn’t come back again. At one point we were hemmed in by them, with one at each end of the van, watching us. It was like being in a bovine version of Jurassic Park, not fun at all. I mean, seriously, they should have been asleep at that time of night, surely?

Anyway, eventually they left, and I was able to get set up. I was very grateful to Stella at this point, because a rather nasty back injury is stopping me doing any lifting or carrying, so she helped me get my camera gear and small scope set up ready to photograph and watch the eclipse. A while ago, with this eclipse in mind actually, I bought a 2x converter for my Canon DSLR, and when I did a couple of test shots I was extremely pleased I had done. Look at the difference:

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By the time I was properly set up it was about quarter to one, still an hour and a half away from the start of the eclipse proper and half an hour away from the start of the much more subtle penumbral phase, so I got back into the van for a while, and read to pass the time. And all the while the Moon burned brightly in the sky, and despite the predictions of the Met Office, the BBC Weather app and other apps, no clouds drifted across it…

I looked out for signs of the penumbral phase, and took photos too, but saw and photographed nothing, but by two am there was a very definite darkening on the top left of the Moon’s disc – the eclipse was underway…

start b…and after that we had a great night – sorry, morning! Our view of the eclipse was uninterrupted by cloud (it got a bit hazy at the end, but we could still see and photograph the Moon) and we were joined by quite a few other people too. A policewoman, on her late night patrol, stopped to see what we were doing and ended up staying for an hour to enjoy the eclipse with us, and several of the people staying in the aforementioned bunk house came out to take a look too. It was especially good to be joined by Moira, another of our astronomical society members.

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All in all it was a really good eclipse, both to watch and photograph. Ok, so it wasn’t as vivid or colourful as other total lunar eclipses I’ve seen – lots of people are commenting on how dark it was, and how that made it difficult to focus their cameras on it (use a bright star!!!!) – but every eclipse has its own magic, its own unique qualities, and this one was no different. Although my camera has picked up the colours well, exaggerated them to be honest (as time exposures always do), through the telescope its hues were subtle and subdued – gentle pinks, hints of violet and blue.

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Again, looking at the eclipsed Moon through my telescope I was struck by how much it looked like Mars, which is obviously a good thing for a Mars enthusiast! 🙂

As totality proceeded I kept having to wipe the dew off my lens, but I didn’t care. I had started the day convinced that I would miss the whole thing if we didn’t get out of Cumbria, and even then we weren’t guaranteed to see it, but those dice we rolled came up with two sixes and we saw all we wanted to, from a good site, under a dark sky, with great company. ANd I got good photos (I think!) too!

By half five the Moon had come out of the total phase of the eclipse and was brightening from the left, but by then it was starting to look fuzzy and blurry as it was covered by a veil of mist and haze, so we decided to pack up and head home. back in Kendal, as Venus blazed high in the brightening eastern sky, the bin collection wagons were trundling around, orange lights flashing, and the Moon was sinking behind the trees and houses, still looking very pretty but we’d had our fill and needed sleep. It had been a great night.

Some of my photos…

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A lot is being made in the media about how there won’t be another chance to see an eclipse like this until the year 2033, which is true; there won’t be another eclipse of a so-called “SuperMoon” until then. But if you didn’t catch this total lunar eclipse – or if you did, and are now hooked and want to see another – you won’t have to wait that long: the next total lunar eclipse visible from the UK will take place on July 27th 2018. On that evening, at sunset, the Moon will rise already fully eclipses – imagine how many photos will be taken of that!! And as it rises we’ll see Mars close by, to its lower right, making for some great photo opportunities. Less than a year later another total eclipse of the Moon will be visible from the UK, early on the morning of January 21st. So, put those dates in your diaries!

Getting ready for the lunar eclipse…

Well, after all the weeks and months of waiting, we’re now just (checks watch) fourteen hours away from the start of the total lunar eclipse. As you read this, around the world amateur astronomers in their tens if not hundreds of thousands are frantically checking the weather forecasts for their area, and drawing up Plan Bs, Cs and even Ds. The weather forecast for large parts of the UK, where I am, is pretty good, but as ever with astronomical events it will come down to making a decision to Stay or Go just before the event, depending on what’s actually happening up there.

I hate this part. I really do.

Anyway, amateur astronomers will already have a plan for the morning – they’ll know exactly what equipment they’re taking, what time the different phases of the eclipse happen, and what else they can do while the eclipse progresses. But if you’re an absolute beginner who is just wanting to see what all the fuss is about, and you’re lucky enough to have a clear sky for the eclipse of the Moon tomorrow morning, the temptation will be to go out, look at the Moon, and then go back inside once you feel like you’ve “done” the eclipse. PLEASE don’t do that! PLEASE don’t *just* look at the Moon! Yes, the eclipse will look very pretty – oooh, big Moon, painted orange-red in the sky, wow – but around, behind and above the eclipsed Moon there will be other things to look at too. So, if you’re planning on making the effort to get up (or even stay up!) and see the eclipse, I hope you’ll take this fantastic opportunity to start to get to know other things in the sky.

At just after two o’clock tomorrow morning the eclipse will begin, as the Moon starts to darken on the top left. As this happens, take a moment to look away from the Moon and pan left a bit, until you see an hourglass-shaped pattern of stars…

02-10This is the constellation “Orion”, and you’ll spot very easily its famous “belt” of three stars across its centre. Having found Orion, imagine the belt as an arrow and follow where it’s pointing, to Orion’s upper right, past a “V” of stars lying on its side, and you’ll come to a small knot of stars…

02-10bThis is the famous Pleiades (“play-uh-deez”) star cluster, aka “The Seven Sisters” because if you have really good eyesight you’ll see its seven brightest stars looking like a mini version of the Big Dipper; if your eyesight isn’t that good it might just look like a fuzzy patch, but binoculars will help you see the stars.

The Earth’s shadow will creep across the Moon’s face quite slowly, eventually covering all of it around quarter past three o’clock in the morning. By half past three the Moon will be deep in Earth’s shadow and glowing a red/orange colour. At this stage it will be tempting to just stare and stare at it, but there will be something else worth seeing. Go back to Orion, and look to *its” left, and you’ll see a bright “star” above the eastern horizon – this is actually the planet Venus!

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If you’re still out observing a couple of hours later, when the eclipse is ending, you’ll see Venus has been joined in the east by two other “stars” – these are also planets, Mars and Jupiter.

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So, there you go. If you’re lucky enough to see the eclipse in the morning, have a fantastic time watching it – but take the chance to see some other things too.

Charon’s turn in the spotlight

NEW HORIZONS is definitely the gift that keeps on giving – and will be that for at least a year, as more and more images are received by the science team and then, after processing, released to the public and the media. In my last blog post I highlighted the latest images of Pluto to be released into the wild by the NEW HORIZONS team; today it’s the turn of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, to enjoy the spotlight…

Last night the NEW HORIZONS team released a new batch of images the probe took of Charon as it whooshed through the Pluto system. They offered our most detailed look yet at this moon, which took everyone by surprise during the flyby by looking incredibly interesting – with craters, vast canyons and dark plains – instead of being the dull and boring icy ball it was widely expected to be.

Before looking at the latest pics – well. my processed versions of them – it’s worth jumping in the TARDIS and going back to 1978 when Charon was discovered. On the discovery image (below, left) it is just a blob on the side of Pluto, which itself is just a larger, grainy blob. Below, right, is one of the first images of Charon the NEW HORIZONS tea released after the historic fly-by. Click on it (and all the others) to enlarge it.

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That image showed Charon to be a fascinating object, with a dark polar hood, lots of craters and at least one large valley system. Ever since then, Pluto fans have been looking forward to seeing more detailed views of Charon – and last night we got some!

Here’s one of the “raw” images released onto the NEW HORIZONS website last night…

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That wide valley is “Serenity Chasma”, named after the spaceship in the hugely popular SF series (and film) “Serenity”. Last night’s release included several different images of the valley, which was good news for people like me because it meant it was then possible to stitch them all together to make a single view of the whole valley…

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LOVE that view! In fact, with around half a dozen new images of Charon released it was possible to make a new portrait of a good area of the moon…

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But when I looked a bit closer at the terrain to the left of Serenity Chasma, something… interesting… jumped out of the screen…

charon flows fIt’s not obvious on that view there, so let’s zoom in a bit… and I’ll put a circle around it for you 🙂

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Hmmm… look at those…. now, I’m no geologist or planetary scientist, I write this blog purely as an armchair enthusiast, but those features look rather like flow features to me. Some material has moved down that crater wall and spread out across the lower ground beneath it. And that is very interesting.

We’ve seen this elsewhere, of course. On Mars, many craters have been photographed with landslides of material slumping down their sides – like this one, which happens to be my very favourite crater on the whole of the planet. Yes, that’s how big a geek I am, I have a  Very Favourite crater on Mars…

slumpElsewhere on Mars we see other craters which have complete aprons of material spread out around them…

Hephaestus_Fossae_perspective_view-360x288Those tend to be up near the poles, where meteorite impacts into ground rich with subsurface ice have melted it and turned the ground into slushy mud which has flowed away from the impact site. But the features on that image of Charon look smaller and more well-defined, so they must either be landslides of material that have slumped down from the crater wall, or flows of material from… something else.

flows close upBut what? An ice volcano or vent, perhaps? Way, waaaay too soon to say, but I hope we get better images of them at some point, because they’re certainly intriguing.

To finish this post, let’s just remind ourselves how dramatically our view of Charon has changed since its discovery way back in 1978 – from a blob on the side of a bigger blob, to a world in its own right…

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UPDATE: I made this new version of my Charon mosaic, think it shows more detail…

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Pluto – a world of wonder

On Wednesday evening the NEW HORIZONS team – knowing full well just how excited everyone gets at the end of the week now, when new images of Pluto are due to be released – posted this not very cryptic message on Twitter…

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How cruel was that??! 🙂  So of course many of us spent a good deal of time yesterday afternoon with the NEW HORIZONS website open in our browsers, and kept refreshing it, over and over, desperate to see what all the fuss was about. The hours dragged, and by mid-evening still nothing had been released, and I was starting to wonder if they had been stringing us along, and were just going to post a single image ahead of a proper data release today (Friday). On Twitter and Facebook the community of “Pluto Watchers” waited impatiently, hungry for more pictures, swapping speculation about what we might be about to be shown –

And then the first image hit the net…

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The surface of Pluto… in exquisite detail… and in colour…

You can imagine the reaction, I’m sure. The NEW HORIZONS team was showing us that Pluto is a genuinely beautiful planet, with fascinating land-forms and features painted in countless subtle shades and hues.

But that wasn’t what the hype had been about. That image, as fascinating as it was, was just the curtain raiser, the warm up act for the star of the show – ridiculously detailed, high resolution, 65Mb colour portrait of the whole planet. Now, obviously I’m not going to embed a 65Mb image in this post! Here’s the link to it…

Pluto disc

I opened up that image and literally could not speak for a good couple of minutes. Scrolling around it, moving left and right, up and down, was hypnotising; it felt like I was like flying over Pluto in a glider, looking down on its craters, cliffs and glaciers – strangely familiar now, but, remember, completely unknown to us just a month or so ago – and seeing them in all their spectacular geological glory…

And, of course, some areas, some specific features, some swathes of the landscape, really stood out and all but dropped to their knees and begged to be highlighted. So, that’s what I did – I spent a good chunk of the evening cropping parts of the portrait and bringing out features that called to me.

I need to make something clear before going any further. The pictures I made, which follow below, are not meant to be scientifically accurate, or even useful; they are just meant to be what are often dismissed as “pretty pictures”. Here’s an example of the difference between the original image and what comes out after I’ve finished torturing it…

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,So, what I do is work with the images in various image processing programs to enhance colours, bring out hard to see detail and things like that, all to (hopefully) create something that looks striking and pleasing. You might not think they are. You might think they’re too dark, or there’s too much contrast, or their colours are too strong – well, fine. Whatever. As is the case with my processed images of Comet 67P, these are just my personal “takes” on Pluto, which will not add to our scientific knowledge in any way but just might, hopefully, show people what a beautiful world it is. And if that idea confuses you, or if you don’t think the images I’ve made are of any use or interest to you, well, that’s ok, you are of course free to make your own images the way you want them. 🙂

Right, now that’s out of the way, here are the pictures, click to enlarge them…

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Look at those views… There are places where cracks and fractures slice through craters and cut through mountain ranges; huge areas with bizarrely coloured ledges and scarps; plains of blue-pink ice, rippled and dappled by unknown, possibly unknowable processes, and more. This is a world that will enthrall, baffle and infuriate planetary scientists for years, possibly generations to come – and thanks to the generosity and joy in the hearts of the NEW HORIZONS team we are all seeing it unfold before our eyes.

And again – and you knew this was coming, I’m sure – this is a slap across the face stark contrast to the continuing ridiculous behaviour of the ROSETTA OSIRIS team, which just refuses to release its images. While they just sit on their pictures, claiming they can’t release them because someone might use them to beat them to scientific discoveries, the NEW HORIZONS team seems to have no concern about that, and is delighted to share their images with the world, and to actually work day and night to create these stunning images specifically *for* the public and the media to use and enjoy. That’s a huge and very telling difference. I think it’s wonderful the NEW HORIZONS team is taking this attitude, has such an obvious joy in their achievements, and is so keen to share those achievements, through their images, with us – and even enjoys teasing us about them like they did on Thursday! But, after the incredible work of the ROSETTA outreach team to get the mission such a high media and public profile, the OSIRIS team has managed, incredibly, to totally disengage from both the media and the public. If it wasn’t for the fantastic images being released by the NAVCAM team, and the efforts to promote them by the Outreach team, no-one would know ROSETTA was still studying the comet.

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As a lifelong space enthusiast, a supporter of NASA and a dedicated Outreacher, I am extremely grateful to Alan Stern and the rest of the NEW HORIZONS team for letting me, and countless thousands of people like me, join them on their adventure. But I have to say that, as a European, and a supporter of the ROSETTA mission and ESA as a whole, I am deeply embarrassed by, and deeply ashamed of, the OSIRIS team and their attitude.

More Pluto images are due to be released today, so check back soon to see them.

Planets on parade next month…

Insomniacs, vampires and sky watchers are in for a treat next month, when a veritable “parade of planets” will be on display in the eastern sky before dawn.

At the moment there are three planets visible in the pre-dawn sky – Venus, Mars and Jupiter – but by the middle of next month they will be joined by a fourth, Mercury, and if you go out at around half past five in the morning and look to the east you’ll see them all strung out in a diagonal line, like jewels on an invisible chain. Each morning the line will look a little different, as the Earth’s movement around the Sun and the planets’ own movements change our view, and it will be fascinating to watch the line-up shift and change over the course of a week or so.

To see this parade of planets you will need to be viewing from somewhere that has as clear and unobstructed view of the eastern sky as possible, without trees or buildings in the way. Obviously you should be somewhere with as little light pollution as possible too, to give you a nice dark sky and make the planets look beautiful and bright.

To the naked eye the planets will all look just like “stars” in the sky, but you’ll be able to tell them apart from the real background stars by a) their brightness, b) their arrangement in a line, and c) their lack of twinkling compared to the stars around them (contrary to popular belief planets do twinkle in the sky, but nowhere near as much as stars do). If you have a pair of binoculars you will be able to see up to four of Jupiter’s moons, depending on the date you look, and Venus will look like a fat cresent. Mars and Mercury won’t look much different – they’ll still look just like stars.

Here’s what you’ll see… All charts drawn for around 6am, looking to the east… click on them to enlarge them.

Oct 15

Oct 16

Oct 17

Oct 18

Oct 19

Oct 20

Pluto – from a dot to a world

It’s hard to believe it’s now two months since the NEW HORIZONS probe whooshed past Pluto, watched by millions of fascinated people all around the world. What a day that was! To the science team’s obvious delight, and pride, the first images beamed back to Earth – showing wide plains of patterned ice, towering mountains and even glaciers – banished forever the idea of Pluto being a boring, faraway ice ball, and at the time a justifiably jubilant PI Alan Stern and his team promised us that the best was yet to come.

They weren’t wrong.

Yesterday a new batch of NEW HORIZONS images was released, and within minutes they were spreading across the internet faster than a video of a sleepy kitten falling off a sofa. When I went on Twitter mid-evening I was greeted with a dozen or more breathless Tweets from spacey people I follow, all along the lines of “OMG! Pluto!” or “WOW! PLUTO!!!!” so I knew that some new pictures had come out, and could guess from the less than subtle tweets that they were probably pretty impressive. I clicked on the link –

WHUMPFF!!!!!!!!

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WHUMPFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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WHHHHHUUUUUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMPPPPPPPFFFFFFFF!!!!!!

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I think it was a good five minutes before I was able to look away from my laptop screen when that first picture appeared on it. I just sat here, staring at it, staring into it, with my brain feeling a bit fuzzy. I know “iconic” is a ridiculously over-used word nowadays – any image that is even half-decent is swiftly labelled “iconic” by someone – but I genuinely believe that that second image IS iconic, and one of the most striking, most beautiful “space” photographs ever taken. It’s right up there with the classics. Everyone will have different opinions on which images those are, of course, but  think there are some we can all agree on…

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…and I think that image of Pluto, showing its surface in jaw-dropping detail, as you would see it if you were flying over it, deserves to be thought of in the same way and will go down in history as a classic, as important.

I mean, just look at that second image again…

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Just look at what it shows… countless mountains of ice, casting long shadows across vast plains of ancient ice… meandering valleys with mist in them… it’s beautiful, just beautiful.

Inevitably, cos I can’t stop myself tinkering, I took a couple of crops from it to isolate and highlight certain areas and features…

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Really love that last one, showing the mountains curving towards the distant horizon, it really gives you a sense of flying over Pluto, looking down on its incredible landscape.

These pictures will be very hard to beat; we’ve been to and seen most of the worlds and moons in our solar system now, and there are few “firsts” left to take. Yes, we’ll have better and clearer pictures of Mars, Jupiter’s moons and comets in the future, but going to and photographing Pluto was a special case, a real landmark event, and I’m sorely tempted to think that we won’t see pictures with as much impact as these again until we get the first images of an extra-solar planet – a world orbiting another star, way out there in space. That won’t happen for a long, time, a LONG time, but one day it will. One day we’ll – well, our descendants will, I doubt any of us will live to see it! – thrill to the first images sent back by a space-probe sent out to explore an alien solar system. What we see will be fantastic and new and will blow our minds, as it sinks in that we’re looking at pictures of a planet whirling around another star. That’s how I felt when I saw these Pluto images. They show Pluto is so much more dramatic, so much more beautiful than we dared dream. Yet, at the same time, familiar too, with mountains, valleys, and plains not too different from Earth’s.

So… a good time to just think about how far we’ve come…

collage world…and, of course, to say a huge and sincere THANK YOU to the New Horizons team, both for allowing all of us to share in their adventure and for sharing their incredible images with us so quickly and so enthusiastically.

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Right from the start, just like the NAVCAM and Outreach teams on the ROSETTA mission, the NEW HORIZONS team has embraced public involvement in this mission, and has made sure that the media and the public see their breathtaking images as quickly as possible. We can only be grateful that the OSIRIS team on the ROSETTA mission isn’t in charge of the NEW HORIZONS images, because we’d not be seeing these stunning pictures for many months yet!

nightmare osirisMore images of Pluto taken by NEW HORIZONS should be released later today, so keep an eye out for those online.

We live in incredible times. Enjoy them everyone, Savour them. And on the next clear night, look up at the sky and remember that, for all our faults, and problems, for all our stupidity and foolishness, sometimes, just sometimes, the human race can do something incredible – like send a golden robot billions of miles across space to photograph a world of misty mountains, on its way to the stars…

Waiting for MY Great Comet…

I recently bought a copy of this beautiful book, and reviewed it on this blog – scroll down a littleways and you’ll find it there…

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As I say in my review, it’s a gem of a book, crammed full of fascinating facts and beautiful pictures… but it’s left me quite frustrated too. Why? Because now I am really, REALLY impatient for my own Great Comet to appear.

Through bad timing I missed a couple of the Great Comets featured in the book. When Comet Bennett shone in the sky before dawn in the Spring of 1970 I was just five years old, so obviously I didn’t see that one. When the next Great Comet came along. in 1976, I was eleven, and although I was “into space” I didn’t have access to monthly astronomy magazines, and The Sky At Night was on waaay too late for me to watch, so I had no idea that while I slept soundly beneath my posters of The Bionic Woman, and wondered why I found “Charlies Angels” and “Star Maidens” (Google or YouTube it) so… interesting… Comet West was spreading its peacock tail across the dawn sky. Missing out on seeing that comet haunts me to this day.

In 1986, in my twenty first year, and with the memories of seeing Challenger blow up on TV still fresh and painful, I followed Halley’s Comet on its long-awaited passage through the sky, but it was hardly “great”, and none of the photos I took of it were good enough to show anyone else. After waiting so long to see it, after reading about it for literally years, it was a crushing disappointment.

Ten years later still, by now considerably older  I finally saw a Great Comet of my own, as Comet Hyakutake came out of nowhere to unfurl its long banner of a tail across the sky. Look at the picture below… just look at the length of that tail, how it stretched almost from Polaris right through the stars of the Plough…

HyakutakeImage: Takanori NOMURA 1996/03/27. Kainan, Wakayama, Japan

I spent many happy nights just looking at Hyakutake, including one memorable night when an observing friend and I headed out into the Lakeland fells on a typically dark and dreary Cumbrian night, optimistically hoping to catch a glimpse of it through a gap in the clouds. When a gap miraculously appeared the comet looked like a violet search-beam against the inky black sky, so long, so ridiculously long that at first Linda and I were sure we were imagining it… but there it was, and it is still one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in the sky.

A year later, like countless thousands of others, I thrilled to the sight of Comet Hale-Bopp painted on the Cumbrian sky. Now THAT was a comet! It stayed in the sky for ages, months, and it was so big and so bright that you didn’t need to know anything about comets, or astronomy, or the night sky, if you wanted to see it. All you had to do was go outside, look towards the west after sunset and THERE IT WAS, a big misty “V” of blue-white airbrushed on the sky…

Comet Hale-Bopp C/1995 O1 April 1, 1997 Perihelion © Copyright 1997 by Jerry Lodriguss

Comet Hale-Bopp C/1995 O1
April 1, 1997 Perihelion
© Copyright 1997 by Jerry Lodriguss

By now I had a half-decent SLR camera and I spent a small fortune buying film for it to take photographs of Hale-Bopp. Yes, kids, film. No digital cameras in those days; you had to physically go into a shop, pick a small cardboard box off the shelf and then carefully put the roll of film contained inside into your camera, BY HAND. My film of choice was Boots own 400 ASA (yes, ASA!) colour slide film, which worked really well on Hale-Bopp, but if I was feeling really extravagant I would treat myself to a roll of Fuji 1600ASAS slide film, which was as grainy as a snowstorm if you used too long an exposure, but if you treated it with respect could get you nice images. Yes, Hale-Bopp was a thing of beauty, and although I shared it with a lot of others, at observing nights etc, the two of us spent many long and happy hours together just chilling out on our own, with no-one else around.

And then… the Long Drought began.

After Hale-Bopp departed my sky I hoped that it wouldn’t be too long before another Great Comet came along. As the years passed my interest in / passion for astronomy grew, and I started to buy and use the tools of the trade – telescopes, binoculars, computers, computer programs, and eventually one of those fancy, new-fangled digital cameras…

TOSHIBA Exif JPEG

Awww, look at it… the Kodak DC3200… a huge, clunky chunk of grey plastic. I loved that camera, even though it was absolutely useless for taking astrophotographs (not sensitive enough, not capable of taking time exposures). Still that didn’t matter as the universe continued to refuse to send any more Great Comets my way…

Comets did appear, of course; very few years a comet would appear that was just about bright enough to see with the naked eye, but nothing spectacular. Most frustratingly of all, a couple of comets appeared in the northern sky that, crushingly went on to become Great Comets for southern hemisphere observers after rounding the Sun, and all we could do was drool over pictures of them posted online.

Then, in 2012, Comet ISON was discovered, and calculations showed it might… MIGHT… put on a good show for northern hemisphere observers in late 2013. Some people got really carried away by it, and hyped the comet to the skies and beyond, predicting, confidently, that it would be the comet of the century. And thanks to a combination of lazy and sloppy science reporting, and “The end is nigh!” YouTube rantings of the same nutters who had predicted the apocalypse would follow when the “Mayan calendar ran out”, the public were led to believe the astronomical equivalent of a Cirque de Soleil show was going to appear in the heavens…

Well, as we all know things didn’t turn out that way. ISON was torn to pieces as it rounded the Sun, and all that emerged from its glare on the other side was a cloud of dust.

It’s hard to describe just how disappointing that was for people like me who really, really wanted to see a modern Great Comet in the sky. I had so looked forward to seeing it, photographing it, showing it to others. In my mind I had seen myself standing in the ruins of Kendal Castle, alone, before dawn, taking once-in-a-lifetime pictures of its tail glowing above the ancient ruins…

Ah well.

Since ISON there have been a couple more comets in the sky, but so far no Great ones. Last year, Comet Lovejoy – Comet 2014 Q2 Lovejoy to be precise – charmed us all as it drifted across the sky, taking months to work its way up from beneath Orion to pass beneath the Pleiades and then fade from view near Polaris. That was a very special comet for me because it was the first one I photographed “properly”, i.e. with a camera tracking the night sky. Every comet I had photographed before Q2 had been photographed with just a camera taking short exposures on a static tripod, and I got pretty good results with Lovejoy using that equipment, too…

Jan 19a

January 19th 2015

….but I wanted to do more, and after faffing about thinking about buying one for years, when Lovejoy was in the sky I finally bit the bullet and bought myself a motorised star tracker, an iOptron, and it was like a slap across the face. Now I could take images like the ones I saw online, or in magazines – but really it was too late, I had missed the comet at its best, and although I could take lovely images of Lovejoy looking like a fuzzy ball with a short stubby tail, I had missed the chance to take pictures of it when its tail was stretched out several degrees behind it. I really could kick myself for that. Such a wasted opportunity..! 😦

Now I have everything I need for the next Great Comet. I have all the observing gear I need, I have the lenses I need, and know my tracker inside out, so I know that if a bright comet appeared in the sky I could take absolutely kick-ass images of it. But none are due, and reading that book has left me very impatient for my own Great Comet to appear, the one I’ll look back on when I’m 80 and sigh as I remember seeing it spray-painted on the sky. I want a comet to be discovered that will grow to become my generation’s Great Comet. Not just another Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp tho. No, I want one of these

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Donati’s Comet, William Turner of Oxford, 1859

…or one of these

kirch-comet 1680Comet Kirch, 1680

I want a comet that I will spend years – no, decades remembering how it was so bright it took my breath away, and how crowds of people came along to my astronomical society’s special observing nights to be shown it. I want a comet that I filled a dozen memory cards with thousands of photos of it taken with my star tracker, at the castle, from my yard. from up at Shap, from all over the country. I want a comet that will make me late for work because I couldn’t drag myself away from it, I had to have just one more look at it, take one more photo.

mid-dec-ison-morning

I wonder when I’ll get one?

Statistically, it has to happen, right? I mean, all the books and all the experts agree we’re long overdue another showstopper, at least another Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp. It could be discovered any day now, right?

They say that one of the things amateur astronomers need most is patience, and that’s true. But… well… when I go out on a clear night I can’t help looking up, looking out, and thinking…

Come on Universe, get a move on. Bring me my Great Comet.

Soon.

Guide to the September 28th Total Lunar Eclipse

Very soon now, the Internet is going to be groaning under the weight of information about a total eclipse of the Moon happening on the morning of September 28th. Most of this information will be utter rubbish. At best, the memes and graphics on Facebook and Twitter will be just scientifically inaccurate nonsense; at worst they will be pseudoscience BS gobbledygook about “Blood Moons” and” Supermoons” etc. And inevitably, as happens with every astronomical event and story nowadays, the loony tunes brigade – hello, Jon Austin, tapping away there at the Daily Express – will gleefully predict the eclipse will trigger everything from earthquakes and wars to the Second Coming…

What’s actually going to happen? When will it happen? And what will you actually see?

Put very, very simply, at ridiculous o’clock in the morning (UK time) on Monday September 28th, the bright Full Moon will go dark, for a while, as it passes through Earth’s shadow. And that’s it.

Let’s get the nonsense out of the way, before the tin foil hat brigade have a chance to corrupt you with their breathless Facebook posts, exclamation mark packed tweets and migraine-inducing YouTube videos. The eclipse will not trigger any earthquakes, or wars. It will trigger *nothing*.  The eclipse “means” nothing. It will not make anything incredible or dangerous or cosmically significant happen, either down here or up there. anything happen. The Moon will not look “like a drop of blood!!!” in the sky. Don’t believe anyone telling you this stuff. They’re either genuinely scientifically ignorant, and are just repeating and sharing something they have read or seen without having any real clue what’s actually going on, or they are liars and charlatans, deliberately trying to worry or scare you, either for their own twisted sense of fun or to get hits and views for their pathetic websites and videos.

DURING THE TOTAL ECLIPSE THE MOON WILL GO DARK, AND THEN GET BRIGHT AGAIN. END OF STORY.

But why?

Well, you may remember that earlier this year there was a solar eclipse – an eclipse of the Sun – which was a huge media and public event. Although we were clouded out here in Kendal… not bitter about that at all, still… across the UK, and across Europe, hundreds of thousands of people thrilled to the sight of the Sun reduced to a crescent in the sky. This was caused the Moon passing in front of the Sun for a short time, blocking part of it from view. Exactly how much you saw blocked depended on where you were watching from. This is what was happening…

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Watching the solar eclipse required caution and special equipment – enough of the blindingly-bright Sun was left uncovered for it to remain far too bright to look at with the naked eye. The best views were through special eclipse glasses, through telescopes fitted with solar filters, or by looking at big images projected through telescopes onto screens. Yes, you have to be VERY careful watching solar eclipses. Get it wrong and you can seriously injure your eyes, or go blind altogether.

Watching a lunar eclipse, such as the one taking place on September 28th, is very different – and totally, totally safe.

Why? Because all that’s happening is the Full Moon is going to go dark – and you can look at the Full Moon without being blinded, can’t you? Yes, it’s dazzlingly bright, but it doesn’t physically damage your eyes. So watching the Full Moon go dark and then return to full brightness again is not dangerous; you can watch the lunar eclipse with just your eyes, safe in the knowledge that you are not going to damage your eyesight.

Here’s what’s going to happen.

In the early hours – I’ll get to how early shortly, I need to build up to it and break it to you gently! – the Moon will pass slowly through the shadow cast behind the Earth by the Sun. As this happens, the bright Full Moon will appear to get dark from the top left, as if a dark stain is spreading across it. When the Moon is fully inside the shadow it will appear very dark, although we can’t know in advance just how dark, or what colour it will appear (we’ll come to that later, too). Then, as it emerges from the Earth’s shadow, the Moon will appear to brighten again from the left hand side, the stain retreating, until the Full Moon is shining in the sky again.

Lunar_eclipse_sideview_v01

Sounds exciting! Well, to be perfectly honest, “exciting” isn’t the word that springs to mind when I think of a lunar eclipse. They progress very slowly, VERY slowly, and there’s no “magic moment” when something dramatic happens. Compared to a thrilling total solar eclipse – when the Sun winks out in an instant, plunging the world into darkness, and then returns in a blaze of light – a total eclipse of the Moon creeps along, and during the long total stage nothing appears to be happening from minute to minute. No, a total lunar eclipse is fascinating, and beautiful, and subtle and serene, but not exciting – at least for the general public. It’s exciting for amateur astronomers, legions of whom are already drooling in anticipation, and crossing their fingers for clear weather that morning. I know I am!

But… and this is the thing… this eclipse is not happening at a very user-friendly time. An ideal lunar eclipse happens in the evening, when people are still awake and are able to enjoy it without too much effort. This one is going to happen at a very unsociable hour…

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Yes, that’s right: the eclipse will begin at two o’clock in the morning. And it won’t end until half past five. I know… ugh….

So, this eclipse will not be observed by huge numbers of the general public. In fact, unless people make a special effort to watch it – staying up late or getting up early – it will only be seen by the following…

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But if you want to see it – and you must do, or you wouldn’t be reading this! – then here’s what you need to know.

To watch this eclipse you will need the following:

  • A good observing site
  • Warm clothing
  • Patience

Adding the following will make sure you enjoy the eclipse, rather than just see it:

  • Company
  • Hot flask
  • A pair of binoculars
  • A camera

GOOD OBSERVING SITE: a good observing site will be one which gives you a clear view of the sky from the south to the west, because that’s where the Moon will be in the sky. And because the Moon will be quite low in the sky throughout the eclipse, your site will need to have a fairly low, flat horizon in that direction too; any trees or buildings in that direction might hide the Moon from view. So, get somewhere dark, with a clear view across to the south and west, and you’ll be fine. If you can’t get somewhere like that, if you’re going to be stuck at home (and it’s a Monday, a work day for many, so a pre-dawn expedition out into the countryside might not be practical or possible) then just scout out your neighbourhood for the best observing site available. That might be your own garden, if you’re lucky, but maybe just walking to a nearby park, or up that hill up the road, will be enough. (Start looking now though, so you’re not scrabbling about on the morning!)

WARM CLOTHING: Come on, this is common sense really… two o’clock in the morning… it’s going to be chilly, maybe damp too. If you don’t dress warmly you will get cold and fed up really quickly, and the temptation to go back to bed – especially if the sky is partly cloudy and your view of the eclipse isn’t brilliant – will be strong.

PATIENCE: Oh, you’re going to need a LOT of that. Lunar eclipses move… very… slowly… the shadow creeps across the lunar disc in painfully slow motion, at least to the naked eye, and if you want to watch the whole eclipse, from start to finish, you’re going to be out there for three and a half hours. So, yes, you will need patience. Which is why the following items will really help you get though – and enjoy – the eclipse…

COMPANY: As is the case with most astronomical events, such as meteor showers, aurorae and comets, watching this eclipse will be a much more enjoyable experience if you watch it with others. Not just because you’ll be able to compare your impressions and views, but you’ll help each other stay awake at that crazy time of the morning! So go out with some family or friends and make a social event out of it. If you can’t persuade/convince/bribe anyone to come with you, take a radio, or turn on your car radio, just to have some background noise to help you stay awake. Trust me, it really will make a huge difference, and mean you’re much less likely to give up and go home early, especially if weather conditions aren’t ideal on the morning.

HOT FLASK: again, common sense. Take a long a hot drink (snack, too) just to help you stay awake and comfortable, as the time crawls by and the cold and damp do their best to send you back home early.

BINOCULARS: Although you absolutely can watch this total lunar eclipse with just your naked eye, and have a fantastic time, if you have or can get hold of a pair of binoculars, take them with you. They will give you a much clearer view of the Moon than your eyes can, and will really bring out the colours of the eclipse’s different stages, too. And you’ll be able to watch the shadow “eating up” lunar features, its craters and seas, as it crawls across the face of the Moon. (If you have a telescope, the same applies, of course).

CAMERA: It will be possible to photograph this eclipse if you have the right camera. We’ll look at that later on.

Right… that’s what you will need to watch and enjoy the eclipse. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Let’s talk times

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THE START OF THE ECLIPSE

If you intend to watch the whole of the eclipse, from start to finish, you need to be at your observing site of choice by 2am, because the eclipse will begin shortly after that. At 2am you will probably notice that the top left of the Moon already looks a little dark, a little grayish, because the Moon will already be in the outer part of the Earth’s shadow, so you might see some subtle shading. However, the eclipse proper will begin at around 02.10, when the Moon will start to be “eaten” by Earth’s shadow. This is when you’ll start to notice that the Moon looks a bit odd, a bit wrong, up there at the 11 o’clock position, and by 02.15 the darkening will be quite noticeable, especially through those binoculars you’ve taken along with you. As time passes the dark area will grow larger and more obvious, advancing across the Moon’s face from the top left towards the lower right…

collage text_cr1

TOWARDS “TOTALITY”

As time passes, you will see the shadow of the Earth covering up more and more of the Moon’s bright face. To the naked eye it will look like the Moon is being eaten away, until it looks a bit like a Pacman in the sky. Through binoculars you will see that the Earth’s shadow isn’t completely black, but more of a dark reddish-grey, and you’ll be able to see lunar features through the shadow, too. By 02.45 the Moon will appear half-eclipsed, and will look very strange in the sky indeed. And as time marches on… or crawls on… more and more of the Moon will be covered up, until by three o’clock it has mostly gone, only a small “crescent” down at the bottom right will be left.

collage text_cr2_cr

This is one of the most fun times of the eclipse, as the time of “totality” approaches, and the visible part of the Moon’s bright face shrinks smaller and smaller. It’s fascinating to watch this stage through binoculars, so I strongly recommend taking some with you!

And then…

TOTALITY BEGINS…

Finally, at 03.11, an hour after the eclipse began, the Moon will enter total eclipse.

totality

Now fully immersed in Earth’s shadow, the usually brilliant Full Moon will go dark –

But how dark?

Well, the graphic I’ve used above shows the Moon so dark it almost isn’t there, but that’s just the way the software rendered the Moon. We can’t know in advance how dark the Moon will actually get, because every total eclipse is different. The colour and brightness of the Moon during totality depends on several things, particularly 1) how deep the Moon passes through the shadow, and 2) the state of Earth’s atmosphere at the time. If the Moon is passing through the centre of Earth’s shadow, the densest part, it stands to reason that it will appear darker than it would do if it was only passing through it closer to the edge. As for the state of the atmosphere, that matters because Earth’s atmosphere acts like a lens and bends some sunlight around our planet and onto the Moon, which is why it doesn’t vanish from the sky altogether. If the atmosphere has been mucked up by very bad weather, or a volcanic eruption perhaps, that can darken an eclipse. But come the Monday morning, we’ll just have to wait and see what we get!

What we do know is that between 03.11 and 04.23 the Moon will be totally eclipsed. This is when you want to have those binoculars handy, because they will emphasise whatever colours and hues there are on the Moon. If the eclipse is a “dark eclipse” it will look a dark muddy red-brown to the naked eye, possibly quite hard to spot in the sky. If it is a light eclipse, it will be more of a pinky-blue colour, and easy to see. Inbetween those two ends of the scale there are countless shades of orange, and red, and pink, with hints of blue, or gold, or even purple possible. All we can do is get out and look, and take whatever we’re given.

MAXIMUM TOTALITY

The Moon will be at maximum totality, its deepest into the Earth’s shadow, at around 03.45. At this point we might see the lower part of the Moon looking a little brighter than the top part, because of where the Moon will be in the Earth’s shadow, as this diagram shows…

espenak

So, strangely, the Moon might actually look like Mars in the sky, with a reddish/orange disk and a lighter “polar cap” at the bottom. This is ironic because every year, EVERY year, nutters put out memes and images and “alerts” on social media trumpeting how Mars is going to “come close to the Earth” and so appear “as big as the Moon” in the sky. Utter, utter rubbish – it is impossible for that to happen. But on the morning of September 28th, around 03.45, the Moon might actually look a little like Mars in the sky…

Unlike the total phase of a solar eclipse, which flashes by in minutes, or sometimes just seconds, this total phase of the lunar eclipse is something you can enjoy at your leisure. You have time to drink in the view, to enjoy it both with your naked eye and through any binoculars or telescopes you brought along with you. Take in the colours of the eclipsed Moon itself, and how it looks in the sky too. Compare it to how different it looks to a normal, bright Full Moon. Try taking some photos. Or just stand there, enjoying the sight of the Moon looking funny and weird. Enjoy it however you want – but do enjoy it.

TOTALITY ENDS

The total phase of the eclipse will end at around 04.23, which is when the Moon will start to emerge from the Earth’s shadow. But even before this point you will probably notice the left hand side of the Moon starting to get lighter, the dark shades of the total eclipse brightening. At some point you will be aware that the left hand limb of the Moon looks silvery white again, or at least a lighter grey, and that will be it, the total phase of the eclipse will be over. But as the eclipse goes into reverse, there’ll still be lots to see as more and more of the Moon is uncovered. Through binoculars you will be able to see craters and seas and mountains on the Moon’s surface emerge from the shadow, as the Moon slowly returns to normal.

collage text_cr3

By 05.20 – almost three and a half hours after it began – the eclipse will be almost over, with just a small patch of shadow darkening the lower right of the Moon, which will be quite low in the west by now. But as the lunar eclipse ends, don’t pack up and dash back home. Turn your back on the Moon, so you’re facing the east, and you’ll see several bright “stars” shining close together in the eastern sky…

planets no labels

Those “stars” aren’t actually stars at all – they’re planets!

planets labels

Now, if you took some binoculars with you, you’ll be able to see some pretty cool things before you head home. If you look at Venus, you’ll see it looking like a tiny crescent, like this…

venus

…and if you lift your binoculars to look at Jupiter, you’ll see some of its moons close to it, looking like tiny stars…

jupiter

…and really, that’s it. By now the sky will be starting to lighten in the east a little, as dawn approaches ( sunrise will be at 07.06), and the eclipse will be over. Hopefully you’ll then pack up your things and walk home, or go back indoors if you were watching it from your garden, satisfied with what you’ve seen.

Finally, a couple of notes about the weather and photography.

If your local weather forecast isn’t good for the morning (or if it is just wrong, and when you get up you found it lied when it promised you clear skies and it’s actually completely cloudy, or raining), you have a decision to make – you either put it down to experience, and just enjoy looking at other people’s photos on the internet, or you try to get to somewhere with a better view. That’s your decision. But if the sky is only partly cloudy, and you can see the Moon coming and going, it’s still well worth watching the eclipse, because as long as you get gaps in the cloud at the main times you will still see something.

As for photography, if you want to record your eclipse experiences you’ll need something better than the point-and-shoot “compact” camera (below, left) you keep in your bag, or your car. Photographed through one of those wide angle cameras the Moon is TINY, just a dot. You’ll need to use something a little more advanced, like a modern “bridge camera” or a digital SLR, or “DSLR” (below, right).

c1

They will let you zoom in on the Moon, giving you a larger image of it, and will also let you experiment with different exposure times and different ISO (what we used to call “film speed” back in medieval times) settings until you find a combination which gives you good shots of the Moon. As a rough guide you want to be taking shorter exposures before and after totality, when there is still some bright Moon visible, and longer exposures during the time the Moon is totally eclipsed, and darker. Just click away, trying different settings, until you get something you want to keep and would be happy to show others. (Oh, and use a time delay if your camera has one, and put your camera on a tripod, too, to hold it steady while taking your pictures. No tripod? Rest it on a beanbag, or a rolled up coat, on a wall or the top of your car).

…and that’s it. Enough! I hope reading this guide has left you feeling prepared for the eclipse. As I said at the start, a lot of absolute rubbish about this event is going to be doing the rounds soon, so if you have found this guide useful share it with your friends and anyone you think might be interested.

Good luck for the 28th – and let me know what you see!