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The BS Is Out There…

I’m going to have a rant here, you have been warned. I need to get this stuff off my chest and “out there” because it is, to use a quaint Ye Olde English saying, doing my head in. So if you come here for astronomy news, sky-watching hints and tips and book/tv reviews, thank you, I always appreciate you stopping by… but this post might not be for you. Just saying. Or you might feel the same way yourself, you never know.

Anyway.

I am getting really – and I mean really – seriously hacked off with the amount of sheer stupidity in the world when it comes to science, or rather ignorance of/distrust of/denial of science. There’s so much of it out there, and it’s getting worse. What happened? Did the Joker actually put something in the world’s water supply to turn people into idiots? Is it social media’s fault? Are people just more gullible and stupid nowadays? What the hell is going on?

We live in a very high-tech world now. Computers and technology run everything, and science made computers and technology, so therefore science runs everything. Science builds airplanes and keeps them in the sky. Science designs and steers the huge container ships that criss-cross the oceans, keeping world trade flowing. Science creates the software that runs the global banking systems which keep our economy going. Science develops the medicines which helps premature babies cling on to life, the surgery that gives heart transplant patients a second chance of life, and cancer sufferers lengthen their lives by precious months or even years. Science lets us talk to friends and relatives around the world, for free. Science gave us the smartphones, the tablets and the laptops we use every day. Science gave us Facebook, Twitter and Netflix. Okay, maybe they’re not good arguments for science, but you get what I’m saying: science is what makes the modern world go around. Without science, we’d be screwed. End of story.

And yet, a growing number of people insist that science is a bad thing, or an evil thing, or just… wrong. Yes, they say science is wrong. Faked. Made Up. They insist, from the security of their bedrooms and basements, surrounded by their fading X Files posters, with Fox News or Ancient Aliens playing on the TV in the background, that they know better than the men and women who devoted years, even decades of their lives to study and research so they could work for the good of mankind, trying to tackle problems like energy production, climate change, disease and global warming. They write about it on blogs, Tweet about it, post on Facebook about it, and create sphincter-tighteningly crap YouTube videos about it, spreading their ignorance, fear and bull***t around the world. Try to educate them, try to explain the science behind their conspiracy theories and they either stick their fingers in their ears and go “La la la! I can’t hear you!” or become abusive, accusing you of being a “shrill” or “sheeple” who just believe what The Government or “Big Pharma” or THEY want you to believe. And it’s getting worse.

Yesterday was the 12th anniversary of the rover OPPORTUNITY landing on Mars. If you had told me back in January 2004, as I sat there at my desk in the early hours of that morning, staring at that tiny RealPlayer window on my computer screen, watching the livestream broadcast from NASA of Opportunity landing, that when I was 51 (as I was on Sunday) that there would be people, grown adults, insisting that NASA faked the Moon landings, that global warming is a scam, that airplanes paint the sky with poisonous chemtrails to cull the world’s population, that there are ancient cities and statues on Mars, and that the International Space Station is fake too, I would have slapped you across the face for thinking I was stupid enough to even sit through being told such crap.

And if you had tried to tell me that in January 2016, thirty years almost to the day after the space shuttle CHALLENGER blew up in an obscene, flowering fireball in the crisp blue Florida sky, killing all seven brave astronauts onboard, there would be crazy, dribbling idiots tapping away on their computers, writing bull**** on Facebook and Twitter and blogs, and creating crappy YouTube videos insisting that the Earth is flat, I would have thought you were the insane one.

But we actually live in that world. It’s not bad enough that after centuries of scientific discovery, of knowledge gained through hardship, pain and often death, we live in a world in which black flag-waving psychopaths burn people alive in cages, demolish priceless ancient temples and turn innocent men and women into splashes of lasagne with their bombs, all in the name of their god. Oh no; we actually live in a world – the same world which was walked on in centuries past by Aristotle, Copernicus and Sagan – where parents are stopping their kids from being vaccinated because they believe wild-eyed, air-headed actresses and “celebrities” who tell them that vaccines are evil, and cause all manner of horrors. And in America – the same nation, remember, which put robots on Mars, flew a probe past Pluto and landed astronauts on the Moon – politicians, going against all the experts and scientists who dedicate their careers and their lives to its study, have just voted to say that climate change is NOT being caused by us, and are stopping scientists from trying to reduce it.

It’s tempting to just go curl up in a dark corner, wrap your arms around your knees, and hide, convinced that the world is either going insane or is there already.

And now we have a black rapper telling his followers that the Earth is flat, that NASA is lying, and that all pictures taken from space are faked. And they believe him!

Now, some people laugh this off. They say these idiots – and the are idiots, let’s be honest here – are in a minority, that they don’t matter, even that they are entertaining. Well, I’m sorry but they do matter, because they are spreading their BS and their stoopid is spreading globally.

And they tell their kids this stuff, turning them off – or even against – science. I am now often told, TOLD by kids I meet in schools, when I go in to do my Outreach work, that aliens are real, that UFOs kidnap people, and that the Moon landings were faked. How do they know this? Because they either “saw it on TV” or, far worse, one of their parents TOLD them so.

When I went to watch INTERSTELLAR – which was nowhere near as good as it thought it was, after all they hype which I admit I fell for, hook line and sinker – one scene really made an impact on me. No, not the scene where the astronauts walk across the icy landscape, or the scene where the ship whoops around the black hole, as impressive as they were. And certainly not that ridiculous scene at the end where Matthew M was floating through that bizarre Escher-esque library/whatever-the-hell-it-was, like a Cirque de Soleil acrobat,  spouting off about “Love being a force”. It was right at the beginning, when he was in the school office, talking to the teacher about his daughter, royally p’d off that she had been told BY a teacher the Apollo landings had never happened. That made my blood boil. Not because it was ridiculous, but because I can see that’s the way things are heading now.

Am I over-reacting? Maybe, a little. But I honestly am dismayed by this tsunami of ignorance and stupidity which is advancing across the world. It worries me. It scares me. Every new astronomy or science story, every incredible breakthrough, every scientific discovery now seems to attract craziness and BS like dog crap attracts flies. The LHC fires up to do history-making experiments – it will open up a wormhole to another dimension and kill us all! Astronomers calculate there MIGHT be a ninth planet way out there in the dark depths of the solar system – it’s Nibiru! We were right all along! The Nephilim are coming!! A comet is discovered and predicted to become a naked eye object in the sky – IT’S CARRYING SPACE PLAGUE AND IS BEING FOLLOWED BY UFOs AND WILL HIT EARTH AND DESTROY MANKIND!!!!!

Oh shut the **** up. I’ve had enough.

How have we got here, anyway? I think it’s a consequence of mankind “going digital”. People have always been free to write spread and believe rubbish – long before the first modem chirped and beeped people were buying books about “Alien astronauts”, “Our Spaceship Moon” and “Chariots of the Gods”, and there were no websites or forums to browse when the picture of the famous “Face on Mars” made UFO fans around the world wet themselves with excitement – but since the advent of social media nonsense has spread like a virus. Now the internet is groaning under the weight of conspiracy theory blogs, forums and YouTube channels, and more appear every year. Of course, no-one is forced to go to these sites, but it does mean that anyone who believes the rubbish – or is just curious about it – is able to access a huge database of nonsense, and re-distribute it, much more efficiently than lending a book or a video as they would have done back in the 70s and 80s.

Hmmm. Maybe this is why the sky is silent. Maybe this is why we haven’t heard any messages from extraterrestrials. Once a civilisation invents social media, and the nutters have a platform for their conspiracy theories, science becomes an enemy.

People often tell me not to take this so seriously. They tell me these people need educating, they need debating, or reasoning with, not condemning or ridiculing. “These are teaching opportunities” they tell me, and ok, yes, I can see that is true in some cases. Not everyone, to be fair, who spouts this stuff believes it 100%. Some have been convinced of it personally by people they know, and trust, and respect, or by things they have read online or seen on the TV, and without the proper education or scientific knowledge to know what’s fact and what’s woo-woo fruit loop conspiracy theory bull**** they believe it. Others may have mental conditions which make them more open to suggestion, or may be paranoid, or disturbed in some other way, and obviously, OBVIOUSLY they need sympathy and help and understanding. At the same time, these people are the ones most frightened and disturbed by the wicked liars who insist on their YouTube vids and in their “We know the truth!” forums that every newly-discovered comet or asteroid is going to hit Earth,so they should be protected from those, and the only way to do that is by calling out the people telling the lies – but we’ll come back to that.

It really doesn’t help that the media takes such delight nowadays in spreading this nonsense. Click on the TV and you can find an endless supply of conspiracy theory rubbish, “documentaries” about ancient aliens, UFOs, and worse. One British newspaper has a reporter – and I use the term very, very loosely – who just writes utter nonsense and shameful and shameless click-bait day after day after day. No X Files rejected script idea  is beneath him – alien skulls, UFOs shot down over Roswell, portals being photographed opening up above CERN, he’s written about them all,  and all under the banner of “Science”.

This is what we’re up against. This is why the stoopid is spreading.

So what do we do? What can we do? Should we do anything at all?

Well, yes, I think we should – I think we have to if we’re not to create a world, and pass such a world on to our kids, where science is distrusted and/or feared, and stupidity and ignorance are seen as acceptable or even cool. I think that we need to stop tolerating these fools, stop humouring them, and call them out, challenge their BS when we can. We simply can’t have kids growing up to believe, and then tell their kids, that vaccines are evil, that people never walked on the Moon, and that airplanes stitch cobwebs of poison across the sky.

And FFS, in 2016 we just can’t let people get away with saying that the Earth is flat. If they can find the time to spout that rubbish on Twitter they can find the time to do some proper research on Google- and by that I don’t mean watching YouTube videos or reading conspiracy theory websites and forums – and learn some very, very basic science. If they do that they will learn the facts. If they choose not to do that, well, then they are deliberately choosing to be ignorant and stupid, and we should not tolerate or humour them. We should call them out, and call them what they are – idiots and fools.

And if that sounds harsh, or intolerant, I don’t care, I just don’t. I’ve had enough. I don’t want any more kids to put their hands up after one of my school talks and TELL me that no-one went to the Moon, or that aliens are real, or that people rode dinosaurs. I want those kids to know about science, to grow up excited and inspired by it, not scared of it or distrustful of it, and to think it’s something they could do as a job in the future, not something to condemn, ridicule and dismiss.

Is that wrong? Is that “over-reacting”? I don’t think so.

I’m just not sure what we can do.

But I think we have to do something. Or at least try.

 

 

 

 

 

Doctor Who “on pause” during 2016…

Facebook and Twitter were full of much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth yesterday, when the (long-rumoured) news broke that Doctor Who will be missing from our screens during 2016, only returning as a Christmas Special, before Stephen Moffat oversees his final series in 2017 and then handing over the show-runner reins to another writer (Chris Chibnail, the writer behind the hugely popular ‘Broadchurch’ series – well, the first series was hugely popular, the second one was a bit of a damp squid* but there are high hopes for series 3).

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of what a HUGE fan of the show I am, so was I weeping and wailing too?

To be honest, no. No, I wasn’t. To my own surprise my first reaction was a rather shocking “Good…”

It pains me to say this, but Doctor Who really really needs this rest. And it needs a new show runner too.

Why does it need a rest? Well, I haven’t fallen out of love with Doctor Who, far from it. It’s probably still my favourite thing on TV. But… I have to be honest… watching it this past year or so has been hard work, sometimes really hard work. Not because of Peter Capaldi – he’s an excellent Doctor, and is clearly comfortable in the role – but because the show has got itself a bit lost. It has become too dark, too epic, too complicated and clever for its own good.

Now, I’m not saying TV shouldn’t be challenging, or brain-taxing, and a its best Doctor Who is definitely that, but this past year or so it has become just too complicated and clever for its own good and has stopped being entertaining for anyone but the most loyal and most knowledgeable fans. The story arcs have been so long and labyrinthine that following them has needed a spreadsheet, map and compass.

(And seriously, some of the stories have been so dark, so cruel and so gloomy that it really is time the BBC stopped pretending Who is a child-friendly programme, but of course they won’t because they need to sell toy Daleks and sonic screwdrivers to the kiddies).

The show needs a rest because it looks, and feels, tired. Some of the writing over the past couple of years has been fantastic, absolutely stunning (the arrival and then return of Missy were THE high points I think), but some of it has been dire, and dull and lazy. It just looks weary, too. There was SO much gloom, doom and darkness over the past couple of series watching it felt sometimes like physically hard work. Clara went from being an interesting, deep character into an over the top control freak, and became more powerful and more dynamic than the Doctor himself, and that drained some of the life out of the show, for me anyway.

And I think the main problem is that the showrunner Stephen Moffat has been so busy doing Who AND Sherlock that they’ve become a bit blurred in his head, and on his word processor too. And the same goes for Mark Gatiss, who I usually love as a writer but is definitely in need of a rest from writing for Who. Some of the Who stories this past year were so labyrinthine and head-scratchingly difficult to follow that they felt like Sherlock stories set in space. Suddenly the Doctor has started speaking like Sherlock, started problem-solving like Sherlock, even started treating people like Sherlock. The line between the two shows has become very, very blurred indeed, so much so that when I watched the time-travelling Christmas Sherlock special, “The Abominable Bride” I found myself expecting the TARDIS to materialise in Sherlock’s apartment, the Doctor to open the door and bound out wearing a dear stalker.

I am not going to follow the Whovian fans’ fashion of attacking “The Moff” for “what he has done” to Doctor Who because I think he has been fantastic. He is an exceptionally gifted and talented writer, superbly creative and inventive, with a brain the size of a planet. He breathed new life into the series, and the character, after Russell T Davies left, and brought the show back from the brink of becoming too fluffy and bubble-gummy and made it more epic and dark, as it needed to be at that time. But it has become TOO epic and dark now, and needs to back away from that, or it will become the BBC’s Game of Thrones, but with less blood and naughtiness.

Moffatt made some mistakes, it’s true. The brightly-coloured, fat-arsed “Power Rangers” Daleks were an absolute dogs dinner of an idea, and have rightly vanished from the Who universe. Likewise the “sonic shades” were ridiculous… but hang on, was that a mistake? Maybe it was just Moffatt having a mischievious dig at the rabid Who fans who detest even the smallest change to the show? Maybe he sat down with his notepad, tapped his pencil against his teeth and thought “Hmmm… What could I change to REALLY p**s them off?” He decided that changing the TARDIS design or colour would have been a step too far – someone would have taken out a hitman’s contract on him! – so he did the next best thing and tossed the sonic in the bin. Fans were aghast, as he no doubt expected, and wanted, then rejoiced when it returned. So, either was was a stoopid mistake, or it was very clever meddling there. If so, Mr M, well done!

Other mistakes tho were pretty bad… Clara’s death was unnecessarily graphic and horrible. Osgood was thrown away then brought back as a ridiculously unconvincing Zygon clone… thing… which left all her fans wondering what the hell she was and tossing away all the goodwill felt towards her. The dreams episode was a mish-mash of several ideas which were rubbish enough on their own, but stank like year-old Brie when combined.

But I can forgive him those mistakes, easily, for the countless good things he did. Firstly and most importantly, he gave us Matt Smith as the Doctor, and he is STILL “my” Doctor and still, I believe, one of the best Doctors ever. He gave us a Doctor blessed with wonderful comic timing and physicality, and reduced me to tears on many occasions with his brilliant angst-ridden performances.

…and he gave us the Weeping Angels… and the Silence… and took us inside a brain-damaged Dalek… brought the Doctor into a medieval hall ON A TANK AND PLAYING A GUITAR….

And he gave the world Missy – an absolute GENIUS move! At first, I’ll admit,  I hated the character – no, I LOATHED her, I thought every moment she was on screen was one wasted… but when she was revealed to be The Master it all slotted into place perfectly and I could only sigh “Ahhhhhh!!!! Now I get it!”, nod my head in appreciation and think “Oh Moffatt, you clever, clever boy…” She owned the screen every time she was on it.

Remember…

“So DAVROS is your arch enemy? I’ll scratch his eye out…”

“Get your own stick…”

Genius. Thank you Mr M for those.

But it is time for a change. Doctor Who is tired, is rehashing old stories, and a rest will do it, and us, the world of good. It will come back – as it always does – refreshed and, yes, regenerated. I hope Peter Capaldi stays around for another couple of series, but that’s unlikely; I think he will leave at the end of Moffat’s final series, regenerating in the 2017 Christmas Special into the new showrunner’s first Doctor, passing the torch and all that. Which will be a great shame, because as soon as Doctor Who returns to our screens the media will be looking for Capaldi’s successor and asking “Who’s next?” which will be a huge distraction.

So. Time for a break, everyone. Yes, I’ll miss watching the show, but I think viewers will benefit from a break as we were starting to take it for granted again. It will give Moffat time to put his Whovian affairs in order and carefully plot out Capaldi’s no doubt emotional and epic exit, and it will let him concentrate on Sherlock too, which he obviously loves.

I saw a joke on Twitter the other day which summed things up perfectly for me:

who change

Haha! How true! But it’s change that keeps the show fresh and vital, and makes it different to every other show. It’s the thrill of change that keeps us watching Doctor Who, and I’m sure these changes will breathe new life into it. I knew the show was in trouble when watching it stopped becoming entertaining for me, and more like an endurance test or an exam. It was as if viewers were being tested to see if they were worthy to watch it.

Enough. Time to take time out, re-group, and regenerate into something amazing again. Until then, relax everyone, chill. The Doctor isn’t leaving us, he’s just taking a break, which he deserves.

And needs.

* IT CROWD joke. But you knew that, I’m sure.

 

Planets on parade before dawn

If you are a Tweeter or a Facebook user you will no doubt have seen one or more memes breathlessly alerting you to an “amazing” or “spectacular” or even “astounding” line up of planets happening in the pre-dawn sky at the moment. As is the case with others relating to comets, meteor showers and eclipses, many of these memes are produced – with good intentions, I’m sure – by people who know little or nothing about astronomy, and are just repeating what they’ve seen or heard elsewhere. The problem is, many of these memes are so inaccurate (some are utter rubbish!) they give people the totally wrong impression about what is actually going on, and can lead to people being very disappointed when what they see in the sky doesn’t match the hype. Some are even suggesting the planets will only be visible like this for one morning, and that will be it.

So. Deep breath. What is actually going on in the morning sky at the moment? This:

planets

Essentially, five planets are currently on view in the sky before dawn, arranged roughly in a line stretching from the south east to the south west. They look just like stars. A couple (Venus and Jupiter) are really bright, a couple (Mars and Saturn) are a lot fainter, and one (Mercury) is so faint – and so close to the horizon before sunrise – that you might actually need binoculars to see it. And this parade of planets is not a one-special-morning thing; it will be visible for the next few weeks, with the planets shuffling along the line a little during that time. It’s NOT a spectacle, and it’s not astounding or amazing. Yes, it’s fascinating to see, and astronomers like myself will be losing a lot of sleep looking at and photographing it, but the man, woman or cat in the street might see all those planets and just think they’re stars. It’s rare, and a big deal for sky-watchers, but it’s not a slap-across-the-face “WOW!!!” thing for the public like an eclipse or meteor shower.

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Ok, that’s the basics covered. A bit more detail…

Many people think that you need a telescope to see planets in the night sky, but that’s not true. In fact, no fewer than six of Earth’s sister worlds are visible without any optical aid at all, looking like stars in the sky – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all look like obvious stars to the naked eye. Uranus can just be glimpsed with the naked eye, from a dark sky site, but only if you know exactly which “star” it is, because it never really gets any brighter than the faintest star the eye can see without help from binoculars or a telescope.

On any clear night the chances are at least one or maybe even two of these planets will be visible in your sky, shining like a star in one of the zodiacal constellations. You’ve probably seen Venus blazing in the west before, as the ‘Evening Star’ and no doubt have seen Jupiter and Saturn at some point last year too. Sometimes a couple of planets meet in the same part of the sky, which astronomers call a “conjunction”, and if they come really close they can look like a lovely double star which really catches the eye. Late last year, for example, Venus and Jupiter shone very close together in the east before dawn, and many early risers enjoyed watching them come together and then drift apart again as Christmas loomed on the horizon. I know I had a lot of very early mornings photographing them from a park in Kendal, but it was worth the lost sleep because they looked absolutely beautiful, especially when the Moon joined them…

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Sometimes we enjoy a very rare treat, when several planets gather together in the sky, and that’s what’s happening at the moment. Before dawn there are five planets on view, all strung out across the eastern and southern sky in a line, like shining beads on a bracelet. While the aforementioned conjunctions happen all the time, planetary ‘identity parades’ like this are quite rare – the last one of this beauty happened ten years ago – and we won’t be treated to another like this for a while, so you really should try to make the most of it, either by getting up early or staying up late.

The planets don’t just suddenly pop into view together though. They will appear over the eastern horizon, one by one, over the course of the night. The first planet to appear will be Jupiter, and that will actually be visible in the east from 10 pm, shining like a very bright silvery–white star beneath the back of the constellation of Leo…

planets 1

Then, as the hours pass, and the stars wheel around Polaris, fainter, orange-hued Mars, yellow–white Saturn and still-brilliant Venus will all follow Jupiter, poking their heads above the horizon one after the other…

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planets 3

planets 4

…until, by quarter past seven*, as the eastern sky is brightening with the approach of dawn, Mercury appears too.

planets 5

But by that time the sky will be so bright you might need to sweep the eastern sky with binoculars or a small telescope to find it. You’ll only have half an hour to do that though before the imminent sunrise makes it too dangerous, so be very careful.

If you don’t want to watch the planets appearing one by one, just get up at – or set your alarm for – quarter past seven in the morning, and heading outside you will be able to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter all stretched out in a line across the sky before dawn, each one looking like a star. On the far left end of the line, the lowest and closest to the horizon, Mercury will, as has already been said, be rather hard to see against the brightening sky, so you may need a pair of binoculars to pick it out. But I have to say again, to be absolutely sure, only try looking for a while; don’t still be looking for it when the Sun rises, or you might accidentally look at the Sun through your binoculars and damage your eyes or even blind yourself.

This planetary identity parade will last for the next couple of weeks, and at the end of January and into February the Moon will start to hopscotch along the line of planets too, which will not only help you identify which planet is which but will also look gorgeous!

Jan 27

Jan 28

Feb 1

Feb 2

Feb 3

Feb 4

Feb 5

Feb 6

So don’t worry too much if your morning sky is cloudy tomorrow morning, or the next few mornings, you should have time to see this celestial show at some point before it finishes, there’s no rush! And if you can, why not try photographing this rare line-up of worlds with a wide angle lens? It would provide you with a lovely souvenir of a show in the sky we won’t see again for quite a while.

Good luck! And if you want to know more about what’s happening in the night sky, you should definitely go over to the Society for Popular Astronomy website, where you’ll find lots of information for the beginner about all things astronomical!

 

The Dunes of Barsoom

Beautiful view… wind-sculpted dust dunes on Mars…

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A perfect start to the New Year

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 –

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I took some shots of the Orion Nebula region to stack later…

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…and there, opposite Orion, above the northern horizon, there was clearly a pale, grey-green arc, a rainbow of aurora.

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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…

aurora jan 1 2016 SA SC

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…

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rays2

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n lights jan 1 2016 SA SC

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…

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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!

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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.

cat pylon

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!

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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.

The Dunes of Barsoom

No words. Just look…

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Looking up at a martian dust dune…

Curiosity really is spoiling us with the pictures she’s sending back right now… here’s a mosaic of some of today’s images of the bug dust dune the rover is parked beside…

pano21 dune top

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