I’ll be honest – I’m not a “New Year” person. I find it unbearably fake. The thought of getting crushed in a pub, or in a crowd on the street on New Year’s Eve, and being enthusiastically “greeted” and warmly wished “Happy New Year mate!” by every drunk, vomit-soaked passer-by who, on any other night, would happily plunge a broken glass into your face just for looking a them, or their girlfriend, does not appeal to me. At all. So New Year’s Eve tends to be a domestic affair, well away from the forced revelry and the sounds of people throwing up in dark alleyways.
Thankfully, this year’s New Year’s Eve turned out to be a bit special.
All through the day there had been chitter-chatter online about a possible display of the northern lights that evening. All the dials we monitor were twitching, the graphs were slowly climbing, and across the UK fingers, toes and everything else were being crossed. By sunset nothing big had kicked off, and as we all stared up at a beautifully clear sky across much of the country I think it’s fair to say that many of us thought we were going to be cheated again, and that any aurora would happen the next day, when 2015 had turned into 2016 and it was daylight in the UK. But by mid-evening the signs were still good, very promising actually, and all the aurora Facebook groups were full of posts from people packing their camera gear and preparing to head out aurora-hunting. Stella and I held off until the yellow alert turned to an amber one, then we jumped in the van and went up to the top of Shap, where there were quite a few cars parked up in the lay-bys already, a sign that others had had the same idea.
But would we see anything?
Getting out of the van I was almost knocked over by the wind – it was blowing a brutal, icy gale up there. But that wind had scrubbed the air clean because the sky above me was drenched with stars, chips of ice and diamond dust everywhere –
I took some shots of the Orion Nebula region to stack later…
…and there, opposite Orion, above the northern horizon, there was clearly a pale, grey-green arc, a rainbow of aurora.
Yes! There was at least something to see!
I set up my camera gear as fast as I could, buffeted by the glacial wind, and started taking pictures. As I snapped away for the next half hour or so, the arc grew and shrunk again, brightened then faded away again, and it looked like we were going to get a fairly average “background” display, and Stella was happy to watch it from the comfort of the van, looking out the window, while I leaned into the wind like a polar explorer outside…
Then, as midnight approached, the arc started to split and splinter, and rays and beams began to shoot up from it. Subtle shades of lavender and green, not vivid at all, and no real side to side movement – not like the swishing, swooshing display we saw back in October – bit more of a slow, gentle fading in and out of view…
But that was still a beautiful sight, and it was a fantastic way to see out 2015 and see in 2016. By around half past twelve the display had faded away, and the rising of a big, bloated Moon reduced its brightness too…
But we didn’t care, we’d seen the northern lights in the last minutes of the last hour of the last day of 2015. Result!
As an added bonus, by now the bright star Arcturus was above the eastern horizon, so I was able to take some photographs of Comet CATALINA which was snuggled up close to it at that time. I didn’t take too many, as my plan had always been to get up at ridiculous o’clock on New Year’s Day morning to photograph the comet properly, but I was able to catch it.
We headed home around one, and I managed half an hour’s sleep before heading again at 3am, with fellow Eddington AS member and astro-photographer Simon White, to photograph the comet’s fly-by of the star. This time we just stayed local, heading up to a church car park not too far from Kendal. By this time the pair were high in the sky, but there was a touch of mist and haze in the air, which made everything a bit “soft focus” in the camera, but that didn’t matter; our weather has been so godawful recently we were just glad to be able to get ANY photos at all. In the end, I managed to get some really nice images of the comet and star shining close together, and although they’ll never rival the works of art taken by people like Damian Peach I’m pleased with them!
Made it back home just after 7am, and, resisting the burning temptation to work on my photos right away I crawled under the duvet and made myself sleep – and managed to, until Peggy, bored and hungry, woke me up four hours later…!
So, for once New Year’s Eve *was* special. Let’s hope 2016 brings us some spectacular sky sights too!
Huge thank yous to Stella for getting us up to Shap to see the aurora as 2015 came to an end, and to Simon White for a memorable comet chase in the first few hours of 2016.
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