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How to find Comet Wirtanen

You’ve probably heard that there’s a “bright” comet in the sky. Well, that’s true – kind of! Comet Wirtanen IS bright compared to most comets that visit our sky, and some experienced observers with very dark skies have reported seeing it with their naked eye, but it is really a binocular or small telescope object, and even through those it just looks like an out of focus greenish star, a smudgy fuzzy patch. By mid-December it will be high in the sky and MIGHT be bright enough to see with the naked eye, but it will still only look like a fuzzy patch and nothing like the dramatic images of comets – with bright heads and long, glowing tails – being used to illustrate features about it being posted on social media!

collage comp b

But if you want to find it now where do you look? Luckily, you can use a well-known and very easy to see pattern of stars to point you in the right direction and tell you when the comet is visible in your sky…

Basically, if you can see Orion’s Belt in the east then you can see the comet in the south, because 46P is slightly higher in the sky than the Belt.

finder nov 30b2

And if you can see Mars, over to the west, the comet is halfway between it and Orion’s Belt, a little lower in the sky.

finder nov 30a2

The weather here in the UK is absolutely awful at the moment, with one horrendous weather front after anither sweeping over the country, but some gaps in the cloud will appear soon, surely, and when they do these charts will help you find the comet. But again, please bear in mind that you will NOT see this comet with your naked eye, you’ll need binoculars, and even then it will just look like a small fuzzy patch. But it will be fun to track it down, and even more fun watching it grow brighter, as it climbs higher in the sky, over the coming days and weeks until it passes between the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters in mid-December.


Above: my simulated view of what Comet Wirtanen MIGHT look like in mid December. Hopefully it will be bright enough to be visible with the naked eye, but you’ll probably need binoculars to spot it as it will be large and fuzzy rather than small and bright.

The total lunar eclipse of July 27th 2018

A total eclipse of the Moon was visible across the UK last night – or rather, it wasn’t. After a good four, maybe five weeks of giving us clear or mostly clear skies the weather gods decided that the day of the long-awaited eclipse would be the perfect day to bring our summer heatwave to a crashing end, and by the time the eclipse had begun yesterday evening the whole of the UK was under a blanket of sludgy cloud thicker than a Love Island contestant, which every forecast predicted would remain in place right through the evening.

Not fair, just not fair. We’d been looking forward to this eclipse for a long, long time. Not just because the eclipse itself would be a striking sight in its own right but because the fully eclipsed Moon would have company as it rose up into the sky: the planet Mars, shining like a red spark close to it, at its closest to us, and its brightest in our sky, for 15 years. So we were all really looking forward to this eclipse, and to have the clouds roll in literally a couple of hours before it began was… well, heartbreaking, gutting, infuriating, you choose.

****** weather.

But the bad forecast didn’t stop eternally-optimistic astronomers and sky-watchers across the UK from heading out in the hope of seeing it anyway, trying in vain to find a ragged gap in the cloud cover to see the Moon through. Three of us from Kendal – myself, Stella and our great observing friend Carol – raced out of the Auld Grey Town just after 7pm in search of a glimpse of the eclipse, and with very few possibilities we headed up… and up… and up to the Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in England, which stands alone on the high Yorkshire moors surrounded by miles and miles of nothing – a perfect eclipse-watching site!

Below: the view to the south-east… the Moon would rise over there…


We arrived to find the place heaving with people – as usual – and after ordering drinks and some food in the packed-to-the-walls bar we grabbed chairs outside and glowered at the cloud, which was completely covering the sky, checking-in on the progress of the eclipse via a live video stream on NASA TV.


There was a great atmosphere at the pub, with a few other people there to watch the eclipse, but the cloud had other ideas…


Above: Carol pointing towards the Moon…

Below: what we should have seen…!


When the drizzle started our prospects looked bleak, but we kept our seats and hoped for a gap in the clouds. Then the first rumbles of thunder began to roll across the moors, the first flashes of lightning started to pop, and as the sky suddenly went from a dull grey to a charcoal black the rain got heavier and we retreated inside. Soon we were in the centre of a serious storm, with driving rain lashing the pub, flowing in under the door as it sluiced off the roof and spread across the ground outside. Inside we were warm and dry, but every few seconds the outside world exploded with a flash of white as a lightning strike lit up the countryside. It was as if nukes were falling around us and detonating every few seconds – very impressive but not exactly conducive to eclipse-watching! But we enjoyed our meals, and enjoyed chatting to people, and by the time the storm subsided there was a very soft, very squidgy sofa available inside the main – warm! – part of the pub so we went and sagged into that, checking the sky regularly but in vain. As totality ebbed away the Moon stayed hidden from view…


By 11pm we knew we were beaten, so we headed back to the car and set off for home – and you know what’s coming next don’t you? Yes, with barely a couple of minutes of the eclipse remaining the clouds parted and the Moon shine through…


We found a corner to park up at and scrambled to set up cameras in the hope of catching at least ONE photo of the eclipse, but I don’t think I managed to get the last trace of the Earth’s shadow before it slipped off the Moon’s face.




Before we headed home Stella made a rather macabre discovery – the limp, rain-soaked bodies of half a dozen moles impaled on spikes on the fence next to where we had parked. WTF????? Why? WHY? It was all very Blair Witch I can tell you…



So, a frustrating night but still a very enjoyable one! Ok, we didn’t get to see the eclipse, which was very frustrating, but we *missed* it in style, at a great place, and it was just nice to all be together on an adventure!

Looking at Facebook and Twitter this morning it’s clear that almost the whole of the UK was clouded-out last night. If you look at this weather plot you can see just how bad it was – no need to know any technical details, basically every black dot represents somewhere people hoping to watch the eclipse were pummelled by rain and half-blinded by lightning instead… Essentially a black river of disappointment and despair flowed relentlessly from south to north up the UK last night, and no-one under it had a chance of seeing anything…


There’s another eclipse in January, an early-morning one, so no doubt we’ll try again then. Before then we have the Perseid meteor shower to look forward to in a couple of weeks, and Mars will still be big and bright and beautiful in the sky when the cloud clears.

But still… ***** weather..!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Total Lunar Eclipse on July 27th 2018…


Above: the lunar eclipse of September 2015 photographed from just outside Kendal

Ok everyone, please cross your fingers, toes and everything else for a clear sky this coming Friday evening so we can all enjoy watching a fascinating and beautiful astronomical event – a total eclipse of the Moon. It’s not scientifically important, it’s not a thing anyone will be studying as such, it’s just something cool to see in the sky. Best of all you won’t need a telescope or any other optical equipment to see it, your eyes will do just fine. So, please, cast your clackety runes, chant at the heavens, hug a tree or a crystal, do whatever you think might help to bring us good luck and good weather on Friday evening so we can enjoy one of the most eerie and beautiful sights in Nature – the Moon turning a strange shade of orange-red.

Why is it doing this? Because during the course of that evening the Moon will be slowly moving into, through and then back out of Earth’s shadow. When it is fully in the shadow the Moon will appear an orangey-red colour, which we call “totality”. Before and after totality we’ll see part of the Moon darkened by a more blue-grey shadow.


(Note to any Flat Earthers reading this: look at the Earth’s shadow being cast on the Moon during the September 2015 eclipse – it’s curved, see? Just like the Earth. Here’s a chance for you to do some real “research”… Go out on Friday night and see it for yourself, then stop going on about stupid ice walls, projected Suns and a quarantined Antarctica and grow up, you plonkers…)

The last such eclipse we saw from our part of the world was in September 2015. Read about that here

Now, if you read certain newspapers, mentioning no names (cough) Daily Express (cough) youll have seen that all sorts of nutters are making all sorts of apocalyptic predictions about this eclipse, as they do with every astronomical event now. Apparently this “Blood Moon eclipse” is going to do everything from triggering earthquakes and landslides to opening up a Hellmouth from which demons will pour, thisrty for our blood and hungry for our souls. Utter, utter rubbish. These idiots, lunatics and liars predict the end of ther world before every eclipse, every meteor shower, every close approach by a comet…

collage ecl

It’s quite pathetic, as are they. No. The only bad things that the eclipse might possibly cause to happen are to leave skywatchers with stiff necks after looking up at the sky for so long, or leaving them with deptression and anxiety if they miss the eclipse because of cloud. The eclipse is perfectly safe to watch, and won’t cause the world to fall apart around us.

That’s what Brexit is for…

Although this eclipse will be visible across the UK, unfortunately it is going to be quite challenging for us up here in Cumbria (and further north) for a number of reasons. Firstly, because we’re so far north, the eclipse will have begun long before the Moon rises (which is also true for our friends Dahn Sarf too I should make clear, but they will see more of the eclipse than we will). In fact, the eclipse will be more than halfway through at Moonrise for Cumbrian skywatchers – we will see Moonrise more than 20 minutes after people in London because of our higher latitude – hey, don’t blame me, I didn’t build Earth..! – so totality will have begun almost an hour before the Moon clears our horizon at around 9.15, when we will see the Moon rising totally eclipsed, looking like a tangerine. BUT, the time of YOUR Moonrise will depend on where *you* are and what *your* local horizon is like. If you live somewhere quite high up, with a low, clear south-eastern horizon Moonrise will be approximately 9.15, giving you a good hour of totality to enjoy. However, if you live somewhere in a dip in the landscape, like Kendal, or somewhere surrounded by fells, like Grasmere, you might miss the total phase of the eclipse altogether because the Moon mighty only clear your local horizon after totality has ended. So, what should you do? All I’d suggest is that if you’re really wanting to watch the eclipse this coming Friday evening you need to make an effort and put some work into it. Make some plans. Between now and Friday, if you don’t know of such a place already, find somewhere out of town, with a clear view to the south-east, and watch the eclipse from there. You’ll want to be there by absolutely no later than 9pm.

So, what will happen, and when? As I said, the eclipse will begin long before we even catch sight of the Moon. The Moon will begin to move into Earth’s shadow at around 7.25pm, long before it rises for any part of the UK, no matter how far south it is. By 8.05 the Moon will be half-covered by Earth’s shadow, but again it will still be out of sight for everyone in the UK. Totality begins at 8.34, when the Moon is fully covered by the Earth’s shadow, but it will still not be visible from the UK – so frustrating!!!

Down in London the Moon will rise at around 8.50, but we’ll have to wait up here in t’north until around 9.15 to see the Moon climbing up from behind the horizon – and even then we might not see it right away. With the sky still bright behind it you might struggle to see it the Moon at first, but just keep looking for it, even using binoculars if you have them (they’re not essential though, so don’t worry if you don’t have any, ok?). Eventually the Moon will pop into view, glowing an orange-red colour. It should look really pretty as it climbs up from the horizon, bloated and orange, almosty like a huge hiot air balloon. This is when you might like to try taking photyos of iot – but if they don’t turn out don’t worry, the important thing is to actually see it.

Going back to binoculars… you don’t NEED a pair to watch the eclipse, it will be clearly visible to the naked eye, but if you have or can borrow a pair they will definitely add to your viewing experience. WIth the Moon magnified through them the subtle colours and hues of the eclipse will be enhanced, and the Moon will look much more beautiful than it will to just the naked eye…



But seriously, don’t worry if you can’t get any.

When totality ends at around 10.15 the Moon will start to brighten from the left side. By then the Moon will still be quite low in the sky though, which is why it is so important to find somewhere with a low, flat south-eastern horizon to watch it from.

By 10.45 the Moon will be only half eclipsed, but will still look very striking in the sky. It will all be over at 11.20, as the Moon emerges from the last traces of Earth’s shadow.

And that’s what will be happening on Friday night. One last thing – between 10.00pm and 10.15, look out for a bright red star shining to the lower right of the fully eclipsed Moon. This “star” will actually be the planet Mars, at its closest to us, iand at its brightest in the sky, for 15 years!

I hope you get the chance to watch this eclipse. As I said, it’s not scientifically important, or significant, it’s just a lovely thing to watch in the sky.

Good luck!

Falcon Heavy – The Day After


Well, he did it. Elon Musk launched his huge Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday evening – after multiple delays due to problems with wind (stop sniggering in the back there, I meant wind in the upper atmosphere, not his own, for pity’s sake…!).  Looking back on it this morning it all seems  bit bizarre, and I imagine lots of people are asking themselves this morning “Did I really see that? Did that really happen?” Well, yes, you did, and yes, it did.

Oh, and yes, you really did see a red sports car floating in space, with the Earth shining blue and white behind it. We’ll come back to that…

Falcon Heavy was scheduled to launch at 6.30pm UK time, and following the build-up to the launch through the day on social media, and watching the TV news, felt a bit like the build-up before a big sports event, or even a Royal Wedding, as people arrived at the Cape, set up cameras, got themselves into their viewing positions etc. It was great fun following people on Facebook and Twitter who had gone to watch the launch in Florida, it really felt like I was there with them – when in reality I was sat on my sofa, with different websites open on my laptop and phone while my cat tried to get my attention and I tried also to get some writing done, Talk about multi-tasking…

By 6pm it was obvious that things weren’t going according to plan. The winds in the upper atmosphere were messing about, too strong to permit a launch on time, so the launch was put back to 7pm… then half past seven… then quarter past eight… and by then I was, like many people, really starting to think that a scrub was very likely and they’d have to try again the next day. But then the winds died down, and around a hundred people all Tweeted and posted on Facebook at the same time that Space X had given a GO for launch at 8.45…

Oh boy… they were really going to do it..!

Of course a last minute scrub was still very possible. They happen all the time. A valve gets stuck, a gauge shows a pressure reading that’s too high or too low, and that’s it, a hand slams down on the big red Abort button (not really, but that’s what it feels like) and that’s it, game over, at least for that attempt. But last night the time ticked by, and it all felt… well, destined to come together.


When the Space X live broadcast started around 8.30 then things got very real very quickly. The video feed showed the Falcon Heavy on the launch pad, looking absolutely beautiful against the perfect blue sky, shining in the Florida sunlight, with steam and gases belching off it. The video feed showed a huge crowd gathered at the Space X HQ, and as every minor or major milestone in the countdown passed it was greeted with whoops and cheers. Eventually there was just a couple of minutes to go, so, as they do, the Space X commentaters stopped yabbering on and we just saw the rocket on the pad, waiting to fly…


And then up it went, leaping into the sky, a pillar of golden fire trailing behind it. It thundered off the pad, leaving behind great billowing orange, brown and white clouds, and yes, I’ll admit it, I shouted “YES!” and punched the air in celebration. It was a magnificent sight,  one of the most amazing, most moving things I’ve seen in all these years of being “into space”. When that beast of a rocket leapt off the pad it felt like the early Shuttle days, it was that emotional, witnessing such raw power being harnessed and used in that way…


And then, ridiculously, everything just got better and better. The boosters separated as planned, then pirouetted back towards the space centre as planned , performing a beautiful aerial ballet before landing simultaneously – SIMULTANEOUSLY!!!!



When the smoke cleared and I saw both boosters standing there on their landing pads, upright, it was like something from a science fiction film…


Then the cameras cut away to a view of the barge the “core” (middle) stage was due to land on out at sea, and that seemed to be going well, but then the screen filled with brown smoke, hiding everything, and then the video feed cut off altogether. At the time no-one knew what had happened, they thought maybe the booster had landed but in doing so had maybe broken or dislodged the cameras, or the communications dish sending back the pictures. We now know that the core stage missed the barge and hit the water nearby at over 300mph, blowing up and showering the barge with debris, but that’s not a failure in any way; landing on the barge was always going to be a bonus.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. All this happened after what was one of the most memorable moments in spaceflight I’ve ever experienced. Soon after the boosters peeled away, as they started their descent back to Earth, music started playing over the broadcast… “Life on Mars” by David Bowie, and as the sing began it was almost drowned out by the noise of the cheering, screaming and chanting Space X crowd – then we saw why…


There it was… an insane sight… our first view of Elon Musk’s Tesla, with “Starman” in the driving seat and the achingly-beautiful blue, cloud-dappled Earth far, far below it… 


I swear that if you listened really, really carefully you could actually hear the sounds of jaws hitting the floor all around the world.

This had divided people before the launch. The whole “put a car in space” thing left as many people thinking it was a stupid, vain thing to do as thought it was a fun, cool thing to do. I was (and still am) firmly in the latter camp, and I was grinning like an absolute idiot at that point, as the car, with its Stig-like mannequin driver, appeared on my screen. As I laughed and laughed, poor Jess was looking at me like I was insane… But at that moment it felt like things had changed. Forget all the waxing lyrical about “destiny” and “opening up the frontier”. History will decide that. What mattered at that moment was that the test flight had worked, brilliantly, and that alone will give the Space X team confidence to push onwards with their even more ambitious plans.

Was it the start of a new age? Not sure about that. But maybe, perhaps, it was our first glimpse of the end of this one…

But the show wasn’t over, because suddenly people on Twitter started to report that Space X was streaming live video from the Tesla. I clicked on the link to the YouTube channel – and there it was, live, real-time video of the car, ruby red against the blackness of space, with the blue and white Earth drifting past behind it… Unbelievable…


I watched that video feed for the next four hours, just savouring the view. And the view changed. As the car orbited the Earth our planet not only drifted in and out of view, but its size and phase changed too. I took screengrab after sceengrab, hypnotised and delighted by the views, stunned by the sight of the Earth shining through the car’s windscreen or looming above it. Here are some of them…






And I wasn’t alone. At one point a quarter of a million people were watching that video feed. A quarter of a million.

Of course, not everyone was as enthusiastic. Ok, I get it, I really do. Putting the Tesla on the rocket was an ego trip for Musk, totally, and I can see why that might rub some people up the wrong way. But some people on social media were being so miserable about it, so snarky and dismissive about it that it almost spoiled the moment. This happens a lot with space missions and “events” I have found. There seems to be a group of people who feel they have to talk down the things that people outside the “space community” find cool, interesting or exciting, especially if they’re not involved in them. I don’t think they mean to; I think they have genuine concerns about how some things are done, or how they’re perceived, but they come across as grumpy and a bit selfish. And this happened last night, with people slagging off the Tesla. It didn’t matter that it was simply a beautiful sight, and that a quarter of a million people were watching it instead of watching some stupid talent contest on TV, or the latest Kardashian reality show; it wasn’t doing any science, so it was worthless.

Well, sorry, but I personally think that’s rubbish. Yes, putting a car on a rocket and firing it off into space is, on the face of it, a ridiculous thing to do, a really silly thing to do, but as PR it worked brilliantly, and Twitter and Facebook almost choked with the number of people watching and posting pictures. That has to be a good thing, surely? All those people, seeing their home planet on their computer screens, their tablets or their phones? All those people seeing for themselves how beautiful our planet is, and how lonely and fragile it looks against the blackness of space? How can that be a bad thing?


And yes, before anyone says anything I know that you can enjoy live views of the Earth from space any time you want by logging on to the feed from the space station. I do that all the time. But last night many people will have seen Earth from space for the FIRST time, so that’s got to be a good thing.

Although it is a fantastic thing to belong to, the space community can be very closed and cliquey sometimes, and last night was one of those times. I wish just once, just *once*, everyone who is “into” this stuff, either as an enthusiastic amateur or a professional who works in the field of space exploration, would put their hands up and say “Ok, I don’t agree with it myself, but yeah, ok, you got me, that’s amazing…”and share in the moment.  I wish the “cool kids” would come out of the kitchen, grab a drink and join in the party, dance with the rest of us out here in the living room where the carpet is rolled up and people are having fun.

Having said that, last night some people went way too far the other way, proclaiming Elon Musk as the new messiah and attacking anyone who dared to criticise him or what he had done. That is totally unacceptable. Everyone should just respect the view of others, debate with them, but stay friendly. There are some truly pompous a***holes out there who take a perverse delight in attacking others.

But back to what last night meant. This launch, and the Tesla payload, got so many people all around the world excited about space again that this morning Twitter is still groaning under the weight of Tweets celebrating the launch, from people who were moved and inspired by it in a way they haven’t been before, or at least since the Shuttle days. Today people are talking enthusiastically about how it’s now not science fiction to think of sending people to the Moon, or Mars, because now there’s a bloody big rocket we can use to make cool stuff like that happen. How can that be a bad thing? Last night, literally, the world was watching, united on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube… it was wonderful to be a part of it.

So, what next? Don’t know. Don’t care. Last night we watched magic happen, and in these dark, troubled times, with the threat of nuclear war more real than it has been for years, with a lying childish idiot in the White House, and with the world seemingly going to hell in a hand basket we needed to see that rocket thundering into the sky. We really needed that.

And right now there’s a shiny red sports car on its way into deep space. Yes it’s stupid, and silly, but not everything to do with “space” has to be noble or worthy.

Sometimes, in space as it is down here on Earth, it’s ok to do something a bit daft that makes people smile. 🙂


It’s Falcon Heavy launch day…


Big day in the “space world” today… At half past six this evening UK time a rocket will blast off from the Kennedy Space Centre. Nothing new about that; rockets are launched from there all the time. But this rocket is different – it is the first flight of the Space X “Falcon Heavy” rocket, and it is a monster of a rocket, very impressive-looking indeed. For those who don’t know it is essentially three Falcon rockets strapped together to make a single big rocket, which again isn’t new, as other rockets use the same arrangement. But instead of just falling back down into the ocean and becoming scrap, these rockets will ALL come back down again in a controlled manner, and land, so they can be reused on future flights. The two side boosters will land on landing pads back at the space centre – simultaneously, which will be very cool to watch, then, a while later, the central, third rocket will land on a barge out at sea…

That’s the plan, anyway…

I know this all sounds very “Thunderbirds” and there’s lots that can go wrong, but Space X has landed lots of rockets like this already so there’s a good chance it will work. It’s not guaranteed, and the whole thing might end in a huge explosion. But that’s what test flights are for. Whatever happens, it’s going to be spectacular…

Assuming it makes it into space, a booster stage will fire and the rocket’s payload will be sent on its way – and the payload is a shiny red Tesla sports car with an astronaut dummy sitting in the driver’s seat… And that car will be sent on a flight out into space, to the orbit of Mars. Not TO Mars, it won’t land on or even go into orbit around Mars, but it will go into “that part” of space if you like.

SpaceX Starman

A car? In space? Why???? We’ll come back to that…  🙂

There’s a huge amount of hype about this flight. Space X fans are famously evangelical about the company and about its founder, Elon Musk, and many of them are saying it will “open up the space frontier”, it will “revolutionise spaceflight”, it will “open up space for everyone”. It won’t do any of those things, I don’t think. It’s a stepping stone to greater things, yes, but on its own “FH” will not rip through the frontier and lead us all to a new golden age of space colonisation. It will take Elon Musk’s *next* rocket – the “BFR” or “Big Falcon Rocket” – to set us along that road.. maybe…

The significance of today is that it is something daring and something new, and is being done by a private company instead of NASA or a huge space agency. (NASA is supporting it, of course, but they’re not in charge). Elon Musk, Space X founder, is a real cult figure now. Some see him as the messiah, the saviour of mankind, a real life Tony Stark who strode arrogantly onto the space stage, shook everything up and is now setting the agenda for space exploration. Others can’t stand him. They think he’s egotistical, a fantasist, a rich boy snake oil salesman with more money than sense. They see his decision to put one of his Tesla cars on the rocket and send it into space as yet more proof of his huge ego. I imagine some of them would even be happy to see FH blow up when it launches tonight, just to put him in his place.

Whatever you think of Elon Musk – and, full disclosure here, I’m a big fan, whilst recognising he’s not perfect – the fact is he has put his money where his mouth is, and has built rockets that work the way he wanted them to, i.e. the way others have talked about doing for many years, but never managed to. He hasn’t just talked about doing it, he’s *done* it. Ok, so his plans for colonising Mars are over the top and unrealistic, real SF stuff, but I like it that he’s even wanting to do it, and isn’t scared of trying, and I’m still pretty sure that the first man or woman to set foot on Mars will have a Space X logo on their spacesuit instead of a NASA, ESA or Russian one. Elon is pushing at the frontier, moving the technology forwards, challenging those who sit on their hands and say “It can’t be done… it would cost too much… it’s too risky…” He’s *not* Tony Stark, that’s a silly comparison. And he’s certainly not a messiah or our species’ saviour, we need to calm down a bit there. But he is an important figure, and he has done what he set out to do, and today’s launch, if it comes off, will be another tick on his ambitious “Things To Do” checklist.

As for the car… well, this is a test flight of the rocket, and they had to put *something* in its nose to see how well it can carry a payload. It would have been risky – no, foolish – to put a proper multi-million dollar satellite in there, or a space-probe or something like that – because there’s a pretty good chance the whole thing is going to go BOOM! when it rises off the pad, so what a stupid waste that would have been. So Elon has put one of his old cars in there, with a Stig-like dummy in the driver’s seat instead. Some people are saying that’s ridiculous, just another sign of his ego, but hey, you know what? It’s his money, his car, his rocket, so I reckon he’s allowed to do whatever the hell he wants! Yes, it’s a ridiculously flamboyant, cheesy, thing to do, but it’s very cool, and because it’s covered in cameras, if the car reaches space then we’ll have amazing views of it with Earth in the background before it’s sent on its way to deep space.

So, for “spacey types” today is a very important day, We need FH – or rockets like it – to work so we can put bigger payloads into space than we can now, and we need bigger payloads if we’re going to build bases on the Moon and send people to Mars, which are our ultimate goals. For non spacey-types, today’s launch will be something interesting to watch live online or on the TV news later in the evening. Whatever happens the launch will be spectacular – we’ll either see a big, big rocket thundering into the sky, and its various parts landing again like something from a science fiction film, or we’ll see a whopping great explosion in the blue Florida sky. And that’s kind of okay too, It would be a disappointment, but it’s a test flight, and if things do go wrong Space X will learn from them, try again, and hopefully get it right the next time.

Anyway, just giving everyone a heads-up about what’s going on. You can watch the launch live online, on various websites, maybe NASA TV too, or catch up with it on the news later this evening. It might actually be covered live on the TV news, especially because there’s a chance of it blowing up, and there’s nothing the TV news shows like more than a big, expensive rocket blowing up so they can talk about how much it cost. Space enthusiasts like me will be watching with our hearts in our mouths and our fingers crossed, ready to either celebrate with whoops and cheers and breathless tweets and Facebook posts or console each other.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go and start biting my nails… 😉

More thoughts on the “Humanity Star”



Since the clandestine launch and deployment of the Rocket Lab “Humanity Star” there has been a lot of discussion and debate about it online. If you put “Humanity Star” into Google and do a general search you will find many articles reporting on the project, most – but not all – describing how astronomers are “up in arms”, “outraged” or “disgusted”. Some might be those things, but I’m not one of them. I’m not engaged in some wild-eyed furious vendetta here. I have very serious concerns, yes, which some people share and others don’t. That’s fine. That’s how mature discussion and debate works. I’m not trying to push my concerns or objections down  anyone else’s throat. But I’m not going to hide those concerns or objections either. As an active amateur astronomer and Outreacher I feel I have a duty to speak out if I think something happening in the world of astronomy is wrong – and I genuinely feel this is wrong.

Reading all the articles, forum posts and comments online it is pretty clear to me that a person’s reaction to and enthusiasm for the Humanity Star “space disco ball” is largely influenced by how long and how often that person actually looks at the night sky already. Most casual sky observers and interested newcomers – people who don’t do amateur astronomy as a serious hobby but are curious enough that they will take the time to go out and look at an eye-catching meeting of planets in the night sky, or will watch the space station if they’re told when and where to look for it – are thinking “That sounds cool! I’ll go look for that! Great idea!” and I’m sure that if/when the HS is predicted to cross their sky they will go out and look for it. Which would be…


However, more experienced observers – people who like to spend hours at a time under the stars, enjoying the peace and quiet; people with knowledge of what’s “up there” – are the ones annoyed by the HS’s perceived contribution (however small) to light pollution and the way it will intrude on the peaceful environment of the night sky. Many serious amateur astronomers (but, again, not all; some are really not bothered by the HS at all and are wondering what all the fuss is about) see it as a genuine threat to the night sky, because it might encourage others to do the same in the future.

As I said on my previous blog post, I can see both sides, but the fact that Rocket Lab felt the need to essentially smuggle their Humanity Star into orbit suggests to me VERY strongly that they knew in advance that people would raise concerns, so they delivered a fait accompli. Bit cynical, that, but hey, it generated lots of publicity, so job done there…

Some commentators support Rocket Lab’s line that HS will “inspire” people and get people to look up at the sky. Some amateur astronomers agree, and say that anything which gets people to look up at the sky, even for a short time, has to be a good thing. I get that… kind of…and maybe some people will raise their eyes to the sky for the first time and ponder their place in creation. But the problem is lots of initial over-enthusiastic press reports claimed that HS will be “the brightest star in the sky”, and to be fair to Rocket Lab they don’t make that claim anywhere on their website. They say “bright”… repeatedly… but don’t claim it will outshine everything else. But some reporters have, as is the way nowadays, just lazily cut and pasted other reporters’ copy so misinformation has spread.

In fact, having done a lot of research into this using astronomical event prediction websites and apps it seems that HS is not going to be the spectacular sight the press claimed, and many people are now expecting. And the problem here is that most people checking out the website’s tracking page, and looking for HS on their phone apps, will not understand how the astronomical magnitude scale works. They won’t know how bright something that is “magnitude 2.2” or even “0” is. But they WILL remember reading online that HS will be “the brightest object in the sky” so they will go out at the time predicted and expect to see a brilliant flickering light crossing their sky looking like one of the UFOs from “Close Encounters”. They definitely won’t see that. In fact, many people will find it hard to see when it passes over their part of the world because it won’t even be anywhere near as bright as the brightest stars, and if their observing location suffers from light pollution they might not see it at all.

So I think more people are going to be disappointed by the HS than inspired by it. And if that disappointment turns to disillusionment then they could actually be put off looking at things in the night sky rather than inspired to look for them; Rocket Lab’s “space disco ball” could have exactly the opposite effect to the one they claim they want it to have.

Friends of mine in “the space community” – proper space people who know more about orbital dynamics, statistics and things like that than I ever will (thanks, DE!) – have all assured me that the impact of HS on the night will be next to nothing, and I believe them. They’re the experts. My main concern is not about the light pollution HS will cause, though I still believe it will cause some. My main concern is the precedent the launch and deployment of HS sets for the future. I have no doubt it will inspire others to do the same.

And that’s just human nature, especially the nature of wealthy humans involved in big business. I don’t think it’s too much a stretch of the imagination to believe that having seen the huge media interest in HS, other companies are now wondering if they would enjoy similar interest if they launched an HS of their own. But there’d be no point in launching a satellite the same size and brightness as HS would there? No. It would have to be bigger, and brighter, or there’s no point in doing it.

So could the launch of HS lead to a kind of “arms race” in the utilisation of the night sky as an advertising space? That might be a little too far-fetched! But I’m genuinely concerned that as more and more companies start to launch small rockets and small payloads into space (which is a good thing!) the temptation to use the sky as a billboard will become stronger and stronger. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear I’m not.

Many people I know have made the point that we – amateur astronomers and sky-watchers – enjoy watching the space station and “iridium flares” in the night sky, sometimes even travelling away from home just to see them, so why should HS be the cause of such wailing and gnashing of teeth? Again, my main concern is not that HS will increase light pollution, though it will slightly, simply by its nature. I enjoy watching iridium flares and the ISS too, but the big difference is that the space station and iridium satellites are up there for scientific/practical purposes and we see them sometimes as they’re ‘working’. This satellite was put up there purely to be a light in the sky to catch people’s attention and be looked at, that is its sole reason for being there.

So, stripping this back to basics. HS is small, and not going to be up there that long. It will cross the sky in just a couple of minutes when visible, and won’t be dazzlingly bright, so by itself HS might not be a problem, it won’t stop us from looking at and enjoying the night sky. But it’s setting a dangerous precedent, and now it’s up there, and everyone is talking about it,  other companies will now feel able to launch their own satellites to advertise their capabilities and promote themselves, each one feeling the pressure to have *their* satellite bigger and better than the previous one.

As for all the flowery talk about HS “inspiring” people, “bringing them together” and “uniting the world”, don’t fall for all that new age, harp-plucking, fairy-folk, Kum-by-a gumpf. HS is going to be too faint to catch many people’s attention; it is up there purely to attract attention *to the company*.

But won’t all this go away once HS falls back to Earth in about 9 months time? No. Because Rocket Lab is already thinking of doing it again – their own website says so:


Will those “future iterations” of HS be exactly the same as the first one? No, of course they won’t. Will they be smaller? Fainter in the sky? Of course not – what would be the point of that? They will have to be bigger, brighter, more obvious. So don’t dismiss people like me when we raise concerns about HS leading to more satellites like it – its own creators have already said openly they want to build more.

And apart from that, doesn’t it strike you as fundamentally wrong that a small group of people – maybe just one person – decided that the night sky, which belongs to everyone, was theirs to do with as they wish? Doesn’t it make you feel uncomfortable that that small group of people – or that one person – took it upon themselves to add something to the night sky, just because they could?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not happy at the prospect of our night sky becoming the personal advertising space of a small elite group of rich people. The night sky belongs to everyone on Earth; it’s not the private playground of a few loaded entrepeneurs.

Some people have said “Oh it’s just a few geeky astronomers making a fuss!” or “what will one extra star matter?” Ok. Think of it this way. How would music lovers react if someone decided that it was ok for someone to start buzzing away with a kazoo during performances by orchestras? Just for a couple of minutes. Surely that would be ok? How would ballet audiences react if someone decided that every performance of Swan Lake was going to feature a surprise appearance by a man dressed as a clown, who would dash out from the wings and run across the stage, honking a horn? Just for a minute or so. Surely that would be ok? How would visitors to art galleries react if, every time they went to view their favourite paintings or sculptures, the respectful peace and quiet was shattered by someone playing a Honey G song over the PR system? Just for a minute or two. Surely that would be fine?

What have those nightmarish (and ok, maybe just a little bit ridiculous) visions got to do with HS? Just imagine a future where it was impossible to enjoy a peaceful night under the night sky because every few minutes another HS would appear, distracting you with its flashing, before fading away again. We would lose the tranquillity and peace we enjoy now. The beautiful stars of the Plough, Orion and other constellations would become just a backdrop for “look at me!” satellites. The night sky would have become just a wall for “artists” to tag with their graffiti…



And if everything I’ve said so far still doesn’t worry you, if you’re still not convinced this is a big deal, think of it this way. Light pollution is a huge problem now because for a long time it just wasn’t taken seriously. I remember back in the early 80s when the first concerns were raised by a few astronomers who saw which way the wind was blowing. We convinced ourselves it wasn’t that bad, that we could live with it. Now look where we are. While modern LED streetlights are quite good at reducing light pollution, and have made a big difference in some places, the cheap security lights you find stacked to the ceiling in Home Bargains and Aldi etc – the blindingly-bright £4.99 searchlights people mount above their garage doors, pointing straight out, that come on when a midge flies past are ruining the night sky for many town and city dwellers. A recent survey showed that despite old sodium streetlights being replaces with modern LEDs, light pollution is growing year after year and shows no sign of reducing. That’s not news of course to us amateur astronomers who now need special filters on our cameras and have to flee to special dark sky reserves to see the sky properly. But they’re not solutions – not everyone can afford to spend hundreds of pounds on filters, or can take a weekend off to travel to a star-camp like Kielder, can they?

If we’d taken a stand against light pollution earlier on, before it got out of hand, if we’d educated people properly, perhaps we could have prevented it becoming as bad as it is now. Well, this is our opportunity to get in early and prevent the night sky itself from becoming polluted – deliberately or otherwise – by companies and individuals.

If anyone who is serious about astronomy, or who just loves being under a peaceful night sky, is OK with that, well, we might as well just give up now and all take up stamp collecting.

Because we won’t deserve a dark sky.

The “Humanity Star”


Yesterday Rocket Lab, a small, private New Zealand-based company that recently launched a rocket into space and deployed several small satellites into orbit, revealed that one of those “satellites” was a project called “The Humanity Star“, a 1m across ball covered in highly-reflective triangles of material. The purpose of this “space disco ball” – which the company says will look like a “shooting star” in the sky, flashing as it goes, and was inspired by the flares produced by Iridium satellites – is to get people looking up at the night sky, to inspire them, to make them contemplate their place in the universe, and it has created a lot of interest online. Some are for it, most very much against it.

Me? I have very mixed feelings about this.

As someone heavily involved in astronomy outreach and education I spend a lot of what I laughingly call my “free time” encouraging people to get up off their sofas, go outside and look up at the beauty to be seen in the night sky. And at first glance this “star” would appear to help with that, just as the bright “flares” from Iridium satellites do. Like many people I have enjoyed looking out for bright Iridium flares over recent years, and have pointed them out at stargazing events to others too. They can be both fascinating and beautiful, especially the really bright ones, and are a valuable and useful Outreach tool. So, isn’t this “Humanity Star” going to be just like having another Iridium satellite up there?

If you believe the Humanity Star’s website then yes, that’s the case. It was inspired by the flares produced by Iridium satellites. Indeed, the website goes even further, declaring that the purpose of this new “star” is to “inspire” people and get them to contemplate their place in the universe etc, etc. All very commendable.

However, if you look past the flowery New Age language, and dig a little deeper, the “Humanity Star” isn’t perhaps quite as innocent or inspiring a venture as the website or publicity suggests.

For a start, there’s the issue of light pollution. We – astronomers, sky-watchers, the public in general – now find it very hard to enjoy being out under a truly dark sky because of light pollution from streetlights, advertising signs, pub and hotel signs, factories and offices etc. For a long time there has been concern about light pollution spreading up into the actual sky itself, as companies have wanted to place illuminated signs in orbit advertising themselves or their products. There have been a few proposals over the years, but none of them ever got very far. Now we have this “Humanity Star”, a man-made object with no scientific purpose, which will be visible in the night sky as a “bright light”. Many are concerned that this is not just a source of light pollution in its own right, but that it launch sets a dangerous precedent, which will lead to other companies placing bigger, brighter objects in the sky in the future.

I share these concerns, which might seem a little hypocritical seeing as I’ve been a fan of Iridium flares. However, the difference is those flares are an unintentional bonus – the satellites are up there to do a job, and it just happens that if you’re beneath one when the sunlight hits its arrays you will see it flaring brightly in the sky. This “Humanity Star” was put up there purely to create an artificial light in the sky, and that means it is light pollution, of a sort.

A lot depends on how bright this new “star” is going to be, and the website descriptions are really not much help here. They just say it will be “bright”, and also say this…


However, the things they say on the website are VERY misleading, bordering on hype. The website says this about the “Humanity Star”…


Now, any novice sky-watcher knows that shooting stars are gone in the blink of an eye, whereas satellites take a couple of minutes to cross the sky. So this throwaway sentence suggests that the website was either written by some well-meaning PR person with very little knowledge of astronomy and the night sky, or the descriptions are deliberately over the top.

As much as I support these “New Space” companies cutting the costs of rocket launches, and “opening up” space to more people, I have come to the conclusion that for all the New Age wiffy-waffy words about inspiration, etc, the main purpose of this “star” is just to promote the Rocket Lab company behind the rocket that launched it. It is an orbital advert – the first in history to actually work. If the company was open about that it would be a clever achievement in its own right. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to dress it up as something to inspire people.

But again, the impact of this new “star” on the night sky, and on the people who enjoy looking at it, will depend greatly on how bright it will be, and how much it will flash as it crosses the sky. The website suggests it will be a bright object that will look like a “flashing shooting star” in the sky. True?

Using the Heavens Above website I’ve looked at when I will be able to see the Humanity Star, and how long it will take to cross the sky. The results – for my location, at least – suggest that it will absolutely, definitely NOT be a bright object in the sky, and it will look NOTHING like a shooting star, because it will, as is the case with other satellites and the space station, take minutes to cross the sky.

Note: I only found this out by checking things for myself; the company has refused to answer my Twitter enquiries.

Using Heavens Above I checked when the “Humanity Star” will be visible from Kendal, Cumbria, where I live, and it turns out I won’t be able to see it until the start of March, and from then it will be visible in either the morning or evening sky until the end of May. Looking at the month of March, the “star” will be visible on 60 different occasions, each “pass” across my sky a little different to the others. Some will be high, some will be low. Some will be brighter than others –


Looking at March, only 15 of those 60 passes will be bright enough to be visible with the naked eye. and none of them will be as bright as the space station, a bright planet or a bright star. In fact, if the Heavens Above predictions are correct then the “Humanity Star” will only just reach 4th magnitude for me during March, which is nowhere near as bright as any of the stars in the Big Dipper, a star pattern most people can recognise in the sky and are familiar with. The other passes will only be visible through binoculars or a small telescope.

Of course, this initial prediction might turn out to be wrong. I have no idea of what info the Heavens Above website is using, they might not be taking into account the highly reflective surfaces of the “star”. It might well be that the star will be a lot brighter than this initial check suggests. ( It will definitely be brighter from other locations; I know that because people I know have done the same as me and checked observing details from where they live, and are getting magnitudes as bright as +2, about as bright as Polaris, the Pole Star). If I’m wrong about any of this I’ll happily re-write this with the correct figures. But at the moment it looks like the “Humanity Star” will be quite hard for the non-astronomer to spot in the sky, and a lot less impressive and inspiring than the company is making out.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m NOT trying to be a killjoy about this, I’m really not. I think Rocket Lab has done an amazing job with its rocket, and the more companies putting payloads into space, and reducing the cost of access to space, the better. And I’m all for projects that get people looking up at the night sky, so if everything the company behind this “Humanity Star” says is true then yes, it might do that, for some people. But I think the website is at best inaccurate and at worst badly misleading. Deliberately misleading? Hmmm. I wouldn’t go that far. But they definitely need to be a bit more honest about what their “star” will actually look like.

This kind of thing is going to happen again and again as the “New Space” revolution gathers pace. Elon Musk is sending one of his cars into space when the first Falcon Heavy rocket launches next month, and while some people think that’s a cool thing to do others think it’s a rich playboy being stupid and immature, and a complete waste of resources and money. Now we have another company launching a “space disco glitter ball”. Cool or crazy? You decide. At the end of the day these are privately-funded missions and the entrepeneurs behind them can do what the hell they want with their – and their Shareholders’ – money.

So, where are we at the end of this discussion? Best case scenario: this is a lot of fuss over nothing. It will just be a faint “star” in the sky for a few months, a curiosity, nothing more, nothing less, and then it will be gone, hopefully after inspiring people to look up at the night sky. I hope so. Worst case scenario: this project might lead to professional PR and advertising people casting a beady eye at the sky and wondering how they can use the night sky to promote their own or their clients’ products. I’m sure the people behind it mean well, but this “Humanity Star”, launched and deployed in secret, to my knowledge without consultation with any astronomical bodies or experts, will set a precedent for others to follow.

I guess I see it this way. The night sky is already full of wonderful sights – glittering star clusters, misty nebulae, gracefully-curled galaxies – which can inspire people around the world if they are shown them. I don’t personally believe people will find a faint star, blinking as it drifts across that sky, anywhere near as inspiring as anything that’s already up there. But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.

And as for the light pollution issue… we’ve enough light pollution already. There’s absolutely no need for anyone to add to it, whether it’s by pointing another floodlight at a pub sign or flinging a flashing disco ball up into space. Any light pollution is wrong. And this new “star” will add to light pollution.

But worst of all, the “Humanity Star” is taking us a step closer to turning the night sky into something to be used and exploited by a few instead of a natural wonder to be enjoyed and treasured by all.  Please, please, let’s not turn the night sky into an advertising billboard.