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Looking back at Huygens

Big space anniversary today which will probably go unmarked by the media, as they scrabble to fill pages and airtime with the latest Trump stories and reports of NHS misery: twelve years ago today the Huygens lander, carried to Saturn by the Cassini space probe, set down on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Titan was the classic enigmatic, mysterious moon, one of the most mysterious places in the whole solar system. The size of the planet Mercury, Titan is big enough to be visible from Earth through a small telescope or even through a really good pair of binoculars, looking like a tiny “star” close to the Ringed Planet.

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Photos taken by the Voyager 1 space-probe as it whooshed through the Saturn system in 1980 showed the moon’s surface was hidden beneath an opaque atmosphere of thick, orange, smoggy gas, so the Huygens team had no real idea of what Titan’s surface was like, and the probe was designed to cope with various possibilities. In the end, after floating down through Titan’s atmosphere on a parachute and sending back breathtaking images of what were obviously – and unexpectedly, the channels of rivers of some sort, and the shorelines of lakes – Huygens  touched down on fairly solid ground, and before it perished in the unimagineable cold returned images from the surface showing it was surrounded by rounded pebbles of water ice, on a gritty beach-like surface.

I remember the day well. I was up in Cockermouth, visiting my mother who lived and still lives there. and I had arranged to go and give a talk on astronomy and space exploration to a class of kids at the junior school which is – literally – a stone’s throw away from my mother’s house. It was a “Tour of The Solar System”, looking at each planet and major moon in turn. I was a bit distracted during the talk, to be honest, because my head was full of thoughts of Huygens – would everything go ok? Would it take images on the way down as planned? Would it land safely? Would we get to see Titan’s surface? – but it was exciting to be able to tell the kids during the Saturn section of the talk that right then, at that very moment, a space probe was dropping down through Titan’s atmosphere and taking photos which would be on the news that evening. History in the making, as they say, because this would be the most distant landing every attempted by us. We’d landed lots of hardware on the Moon, and on Mars, but never on anything as far away as Titan…

It was a long and very frustrating wait for the images to appear online, and in those days ESA was nowhere near as generous or speedy with its image releases as it is now, so I spent a lot of time with my laptop on my knee, checking, re-checking and re-checking for images until finally, FINALLY, one appeared…

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At first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at… the horizon was blurred, out of focus, and those objects in the foreground looked like stones, or rocks of some kind, but without any sense of scale, or colour, it was difficult to get too much from the image. But that didn’t matter – that was TITAN! That was the surface of Titan, the largest moon around the Ringed Planet, the moon I had seen through my own little telescope so, so many times, as a “star” close to the rings… It was a genuinely moving experience, being able to see those images as they were released. Titan would never be the same again for any of us who were “into” space or astronomy. It truly was a world, not just a moon, not just a speck of light in an eyepiece.

Later, a colour version of the image appeared, and that was when many of us fell in love with Titan…

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It looked a bit like Mars, or Venus, but was obviously not either of those worlds. It was a world in its own right, a world that, from that day on, would call out to us from across the solar system like a siren.

Amazingly it was clear that night, I remember, so I got out my telescope, set it up, and looked at Saturn, which was well-placed for observation, already above the eastern horizon at sunset, and obvious to the naked eye as darkness deepened, shining not far from the stars Castor and Pollux. Lining up on Saturn with the finder scope I looked into the eyepiece.. and there it was, Titan, a speck of light close to the planet itself. And yes, it was genuinely thrilling to see it on the same day it had been “conquered” by Huygens, and looking at it I remember wondering what the little probe looked like those hours after its historic landing. Was it now covered with dust or sand, blown on the wind? Had it sank into the soft ground? We’d probably never know. But to be able to stand there and see Titan through my little telescope’s eyepiece, and look at a photo of its surface taken just hours earlier, was quite something.

Since then Cassini has revolutionised our view and understanding of Titan, using its cameras and radar instruments. We now know that Titan has huge lakes, and winding, meandering rivers – not of sparkling water, like Earth, but chemicals such as methane. We know it has vast plains of dark sand dunes, blown and sculpted by the winds, and bright clouds swirling in its atmosphere. We know that, contrary to what science fiction illustrators had imagined in the years before Huygens’ landing, the moon’s atmosphere is too thick and claggy to allow Saturn to be seen from the surface, which is shame, because that had always been one of the most thrilling and romantic views thought possible from “out there”.

Today we know that Titan is essentially a planet in its own right orbiting Saturn, and there is a huge demand from planetary scientists for a return to Titan as soon as possible, so we can properly explore its lakes – perhaps with a boat, or even a submarine – and map its surface in greater detail, studying its mountains, valleys and lake shores with a dedicated orbiter or even a balloon which would drift around the moon, carried on its winds. We will return to Titan one day, that’s for sure, it’s just a matter of when.

But today is the day to cast our minds back to events twelve years ago, when a little probe landed on the most exciting, most bizarre moon in the whole solar system. There’s a fantastic video of the landing here, made from actual images taken by Huygens as it dropped through Titan’s atmosphere and settled on the surface.

If the sky is clear before sunrise where you are tomorrow morning (in the northern hemisphere, that is), you can see Saturn for yourself, looking like a yellow-white “star” very low in the south east at around 6.30am. And if you have a telescope you’ll be able to see Titan, looking like a tiny star next to the beautiful ringed planet. If you see it, spare a thought for Huygens, and all it achieved, a dozen years ago, and marvel at the thought that we have landed one of our machines on a world so ridiculously far away that it just looks like a tiny star through a telescope.

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Gazing at sand…

Weird title for what is generally an astronomy- and space-related blog, I know, but bear with me…

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There’s a fascinating exhibition at the Brewery Arts Centre here in Kendal at the moment. “Sandgazer” features magnified images of sand grains gathered from around the world, taken by artist and photographer Jenny Natusch. Stella and I went to have a look on Thursday, and I couldn’t wait to see it because I’ve been fascinated by this topic for as long as I can remember. And the exhibition didn’t disappoint. Some of the photos are absolutely beautiful – portraits of tiny etched fragments of glass, minute shells, miniscule shards of stone, all photographed through a high-powered microscope and their images blown up to allow every tiny detail to be seen. A lovely touch is the way that each of the sand grains photographed is actually mounted on the wall next to its photo, in a tiny display box, which really gives a sense of scale.

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What really caught my eye was how one ridiculously tiny grain, when magnified, looked spookily like Mars as seen from orbit… the contrast in scale there was quite mind-spinning..!  It inspired me to make this image of my own…

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If I had one criticism/frustration viewing the exhibition it was that there are no descriptions of what each object is – is this one a shell? is this one a piece of glass? I wondered as I wandered around – but I did also wonder if maybe that was the point, and maybe they’re on display purely as objects of beauty, not there to be classified or labelled?  Turns out I was right: Jenny kindly explained the reason for the lack of labels in a reply to me on Facebook…

To answer your question……you guessed right…..I am not interested in labels, there are so many scientists doing that already, and some how it takes away the magic of it all to know what something is! Likewise, instead of giving the magnification I would rather display the grain next to the image.

Fair enough! Probably just me being my usual over-inquisitive science self. The lack of labels doesn’t take anything away from the exhibition at all; it really is fascinating, and the images themselves are beautiful, and, I’ll be honest, far more to my taste than some of the exhibitions the Brewery hosts. I know, I know, art is a very personal thing, not everyone can (or should) like the same thing, and every artist sees the world in their own unique way, but personally I can’t appreciate anything too abstract or “out there”, and sometimes I wander around the exhibitions at the Brewery in a state of bemusement, disbelief and utter confusion, not “getting” at all how… that… is “art”. This gripped and inspired me though. Maybe it’s because I’m someone who appreciates the beauty of rocks anyway; seeing these teeny tiny objects seemed very real to me, much more real than a few wispy brush strokes on a canvas that are supposed to represent the angst of modern existence… or something… 🙂

Walking around the photos you’ll think you’re seeing alien monsters, huge chunks of rock, glittering shards of magical gems, even a huge glowing nebula seen by the Hubble telescope… but every image is a portrait of a speck of matter, some less than a millimetre across, picked up off a beach somewhere in the world, just like the countless millions you’ve walked on or kicked into the air or patted into castles while on your holidays in Blackpool, Benidorm or Bali.

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“Sandgazer” is currently on display at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, and is free. Go see it while it’s there!

More information: “Sandgazer”

A “star crash” in 2022…?

Ok, so this epic “star crash” predicted for 2022… sounds fascinating, and if it happens it will be a) very interesting to see, and b) a great success for the scientists making the predictions. But there is SO much hype about what it will look like! If you read some reports online it will be “dazzling”, or “blazing”, or “as bright as one of the brightest stars in the sky!” But if you take a moment to read the actual predictions, the astronomers are predicting a maximum magnitude of 2… which makes it as bright as Polaris… which is not really that bright at all (although many people think it is the brightest star in the sky) or one of the stars in The Big Dipper, which are all roughly around magnitude 2.

Now, that means that IF this star suddenly appears in Cygnus it will be very noticeable to astronomers and sky-watchers, who know the patterns the stars make up there so well they will instinctively realise that Cygnus looks… wrong… But non-astronomers will not have their gaze drawn to it, it won’t be bright enough to do that (although if it is a “red nova” as it’s being predicted that will help people spot it, because there aren’t any other red stars in that part of the sky). They’ll have to have it pointed out to them. But that’s ok… astronomical societies and individual astronomers will be able to use this as a great outreach opportunity, I think. And we have plenty of time to prepare! But it will be very important to manage expectations: we have to be stressing from now that this is only a possibility, a prediction, and making sure people don’t expect too much, i.e. they don’t believe the hype and expect to see a new Venus blazing in the sky. And it will be important, when 2022 rolls around, to help people see it if it appears, because it will be something very new and exciting – and handle their disappointment if it doesn’t.

I think we need to handle this very carefully. If you listen you can actually hear the ghosts of Comet Kohoutek and Comet ISON stirring out there in the dark depths, reminding us what happened with them when they promised so much but ultimately let us down. But we’re up to it, as a community, I’m sure!

Below – a couple of images I’ve made showing how the “red nova” MIGHT look if it appears as is being predicted. The background image is a Milky Way panorama taken at Kielder starcamp back in October, and I’ve added the nova in the **approximate** position where it could appear. I’ve made it about magnitude 2, as predictions are suggesting, and you can see it’s not going to be “blazing” or “dazzling” at all. Fascinating, yes. But not slap-across-the-face obvious.

Discuss by all means, but please note this is just a bit of fun, I’m not passing judgement on the prediction, or predicting this is exactly what we might see

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A Very Busy New Year “Up There”…

There’s a LOT going on “up there” over this New Year weekend… here are the three pieces I wrote for the Society for Popular Astronomy Facebook page, describing how you can see the Moon passing a pair of planets, a binocular comet AND Mars and Neptune passing each other…


 

MOON AND PLANETS

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If you have clear skies after sunset during the coming New Year weekend, there’s a chance to see a very striking line-up of celestial objects in the south-west. Over several nights you’ll be able to see the Moon – growing from a fingernail-clipping thin crescent which might need binoculars to pick it out from the bright sky, to a more obvious crescent – hopscotching up and along a line formed by Venus, Mars and Neptune, although Neptune will be too faint to see with the naked eye and will only be visible through binoculars or a small telescope. To add even more interest, there’s a faint comet in the very same part of the sky too – but so you don’t get too confused and try to see too many things at once we’ll tell you about that in a separate post…

So, let’s start on New Year’s Eve. As soon as it starts to get dark you’ll be unable to miss Venus shining brightly up there. If you wait a little while longer, until around 5pm, you’ll notice a very thin crescent Moon to the lower right of Venus, and a fainter but still pretty obvious “star” to the upper left of Venus. This is actually the planet Mars. If you can’t make out the Moon straight away don’t worry, you can either wait for it to get a little darker, or sweep the area to Venus’s lower right with binoculars until the Moon pops into view. The Moon won’t be very obvious on New Year’s Eve, but if you have a good view in that direction, and a clear sky, this line up of the Moon, Venus and Mars will look quite pretty.

…but it will look more striking on the following evening, after sunset on New Year’s Day, because by the the Moon will have skipped further to the east and be much closer to Venus and a larger, brighter crescent too. So, if you have clear sky on Sunday evening, make sure you take a few minutes to go out into the garden, look west, and take in this lovely view.

The next evening – Monday January 2nd – will see the best arrangement of these objects. By then the Moon will be sitting between Venus and Mars, and it should be a beautiful sight, with the dark portion of its disc illuminated by faint purple-blue “Earth-shine”. If you have a camera please try and take some photos of this. Don’t worry about being too technical, just snap away, trying different exposure times and ISO settings until you take something you like! (It will really help if you can steady your camera on a tripod, but if you don’t have one just improvise by propping it up on a coat or something scrunched up on a wall or the ground..)

Finally, on Tuesday (January 3rd) the Moon will have hopscotched to the top of the line, and will be to the upper left of Mars. By now the Moon will be a lot bigger and brighter than it was on New Year’s Eve, and will probably overpower Mars with its brightness, but it will still be worth a look.

We mentioned Neptune earlier on, and yes, that planet will be visible too. Over this coming weekend it will appear to “pass” Mars as seen from Earth, but you’ll need a good pair of binoculars or a telescope to see it. The charts given in the comments below will help you figure out where to look. Just be aware that there will be background stars visible around Mars too, so the only way you’ll be able to tell which dot is Neptune is to compare the view on different nights.

Fingers crossed for clear skies over the coming weekend – the Moon shining close to bright planets is always a lovely sight, and it will be a great way to begin 2017.

A BINOCULAR COMET

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In the previous post we told you how you can enjoy looking at a gathering of planets, and the Moon, in the sky over this New Year weekend. In fact, there’s something else worth hunting for after dark – something which will require a bit more work on your part…. ok, a LOT more work… but it will be worth it if you succeed…

There’s a comet in the evening sky, coincidentally in the same part of the sky as the Moon and planets. Its full name is “Comet 45P/ Honda-Mrkos-Padjusakova” but we’ll just call it 45P from now on.

You might even have heard about this already; many newspapers and websites are breathlessly telling their readers about “the New Year Comet” which is “blazing” in the sky as 2016 drifts into 2017. Unfortunately this hype is both misleading and unhelpful. For a start, the comet isn’t “blazing”! That suggests it’s a) very bright, and b) moving swiftly across the sky. It’s actually neither. Comets don’t ‘blaze’, they glow very softly and serenely in the sky. And they certainly don’t move swiftly across the sky; they change position a small amount (often a really tiny amount) from night to night, and so they linger in the sky for weeks, sometimes even months.

And 45P is definitely not bright, not as non-astronomers understand that word anyway. It is a relatively bright comet as far as comet observers are concerned, but it is still too faint to see without a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, so, unlike the Great Comets of the past, 45P is not something you can find in the sky just by looking up and having it jump out at you! But that just means that if you do manage to find it you’ll have achieved something really special – so why not give it a go?

Many newspapers and websites are also proclaiming how rare comets are, and suggesting 45P is a herald of the New Year and perhaps even momentous events to come. Again, all those things are untrue. On any night of the year, if you know exactly where to look with a telescope, you can see at least several comets, but they only look like tiny out-of-focus stars. A comet bright enough to be seen with the naked eye is rare, but 45P is not a naked eye comet right now and probably won’t get any brighter than it is now, although predicting the behaviour of any comet is unwise.

As for heralding future events… no. Just, no. We stopped believing in that kind of thing a long time ago. So any earthquakes, deaths or disasters that occur while 45P is in the sky were going ti happen anyway, there’s absolutely no link.

Right – where is 45P, and what does it look like?

As far as comets go, 45P is relatively easy to find, simply because it’s in roughly the same part of the sky as the planet Venus, which is a bright object in the south right after sunset. And to make 45P even easier to find, the young Moon will be close to it over the next couple of evenings too. The problem is, at sunset 45P is already low in the sky, and getting lower every minute, so we only have a short window in which to look for and find it before it sets. The best time to look for it will probably be between 5.00 and 5.30; before then the sky will be too bright, after then the comet will be too low. So, if you have a clear sky in that window, that’s when you want to be getting out there and starting your comet hunt.

To improve your chances of success, you should be somewhere with an uncluttered and low horizon in that direction, because any trees, buildings or hills will probably hide the comet from your view. And, very importantly, get away from as much light pollution as you can: 45P is so faint that its soft glow will be overpowered by any streetlights or artificial lights in its part of the sky.

The charts given as Comments below will help you pin down the location of the comet over the next few nights. It basically comes down to finding the right area of the sky – to the lower right of Venus – and very, VERY slowly and patiently scanning around that area with your binoculars, or small telescope, looking for the comet. GO SLOWLY, don’t sweep your binoculars or telescope back and forth like a machine gun… take it easy, move your binoculars or ‘scope at an absolute snail’s pace. If you think you’re going too slowly, you’re not. Slow is good. Slow will help you catch your comet!

What will 45P look like? Well, you’ll have seen lots of beautiful photographs of comets, with bright heads and long glowing tails streaming away from them like silvery-blue banners fluttering from the top of fairy tale castle towers… unfortunately, comets don’t look anything like that in binoculars or a telescope, not even the really bright ones, and certainly not 45P. Why? Because those photos were all taken using a combination of either a long lens or a telescope, a very long exposure time, and a very high film speed, all of which work together to enhance the brightness and colours of a comet and bring out the fine detail and structure in its tail. The eye isn’t sensitive enough to see those colours or detail, so all we see through binoculars or a telescope is a less detailed, grey-white trail, like a small detached section of airplane vapour trail. In fact, most comets don’t even develop an obvious tail, and only ever look like a smudgy, out of focus star.

Photographs taken of 45P by experienced astro-photographers show it has a tail, and a beautiful slim one at that, but too faint to be seen with the naked eye, and probably too faint to be seen with binoculars and a small telescope, unless you are observing from somewhere really dark. What you need to be looking for as you slowly sweep your binoculars across the sky to the lower right of Venus is something that looks like a star, but not *exactly* like a star… something a bit bigger than a star and a bit smudgy, a bit out of focus, maybe even a bit elongated, and with a hint of blue-green about it too. If you spot something like that, congratulations, you’ll have found Comet 45P!

If you *don’t* find it, don’t worry. Because of its low brightness and its low altitude in a twilight sky, 45P won’t be easy for beginners to find. You can always try again the next night! And if you still don’t find it, you can try again in February when it will be better placed in the sky.

Finding 45P will be a challenge, no doubt about it, but it is doable if you take your time and put some effort and thought into it. Tonight (New Year’s Eve) and tomorrow night (New Year’s Day) the Moon will try its best to help you, too. And what a way to say goodbye to 2016 and welcome 2017 – spotting an ancient, dusty iceberg, far, far out in space…!

Good hunting – and whether you find 45P or not be sure to let us know; we’d love to hear about your experiences.

MARS AND NEPTUNE IN A CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE PLANETARY KIND

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As if having a line-up of the Moon and a pair of planets in the evening sky *and* a binocular comet to look for wasn’t enough, as 2016 drifts into 2017 we also have a chance to see a rare, very close encounter of the planetary kind, as the planets Mars and Neptune appear to move past each other – at their closest, close enough to both fit into the same low power telescope eyepiece! Of course, the two worlds aren’t actually passing each other – they’ll be separated by 4,311 MILLION kilometres, but because they lie on the same line of sight for us here on Earth they will appear to move past each other over the next couple of evenings.

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How do you see this?

Start by looking south after sunset, and you’ll spot Venus shining brightly in the sky in that direction. After the sky has got a little darker you’ll spot Mars – fainter, and a more orange hue – to the upper left of Venus. Neptune will be very close to it, but your naked eye won’t be able to see it because it is much, much fainter than Mars and is below your eye’s detection limit. You’ll need help to see it, a pair of binoculars or a telescope.

Zooming in on Mars with your binoculars or telescope you’ll see Mars looks much brighter and more obvious than it did to your naked eye. You’ll also see quite a few stars around Mars, much fainter. One of these “stars” is the planet Neptune – but which one? Experienced observers will be using detailed star maps to pick out the planet from the dots around Mars, and they’ll be able to use those charts to tell exactly which “star” is really the distant world. If you;re a less experienced observer – and that’s not a derogatory term, everyone has to start somewhere! – the only way you’ll know for sure which dot is Neptune is by checking which one of them moves in relation to the others, and that means checking on more than one night. The charts given as Comments below will help you pick out Neptune from the background stars.

If you have a camera with a zoom lens, why not have a go at photographing this close encounter? After putting your camera on a tripod to keep it steady, zoom in on Mars with a lens of 200mm focal length or so, set your camera’s ISO on a high figure (1600 ISO or higher) and take some exposures of different lengths (say between 5 and 10 seconds). Mars will look like a bright “star” on your image, with lots of fainter stars around it. Then you can use the charts below – or maybe an astronomy app on your phone – to identify which “star” is Neptune.

Why should you take the time to drag yourself away from your New Year’s Party to go and look for this? Is it scientifically useful? No, not really, it’s just a chance alignment of planets as seen from Earth. The appeal lies in seeing something rare with your own eyes, rather than just witness it through the photos taken by others. And when you look at those two dots it will be humbling and exciting to think that they are actually two planets: Mars – a next door neighbour, “only” 247 million kilometres away, and Neptune, a very distant cousin, 4,558 million kilometres away, more than eighteen times further away than Mars… that beats sitting by the TV waiting for midnight to come and go, surely?

To all you planet-watchers, comet-hunters and stargazers out there, a very Happy New Year!

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! 🙂

 

 

Review: “Rogue One”

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So, I finally went to see “Rogue One” last night, at the Brewery Arts Centre here in Kendal. I was, to be honest, scared stiff about seeing it. Would it be ruined (like films today so often are for me, because some selfish, ignorant *******s go to see films now, don’t they?) by a chatty chav talking through it behind me, or by someone scrunching and crunching their way through a huge bag of crisps or popcorn next to me? Would it be as good as all the reviews were saying it is?

Would it be as good as I wanted… as I needed… it to be?

Thankfully the answers to those questions were “No”, “Yes” and “Oh my god, yes”…

Rogue One is actually two different films. If you’re not “into” Star Wars, Rogue One is a brilliant action film in its own right, with likeable heroes, boo-hiss baddies, thrilling spaceship dogfights and lots of edge-of-the-seat suspense. It’s a modern day space age “Guns of Navarone” or “Dirty Dozen”.

But.. if you are into Star Wars – if you have beloved memories of watching the original films, and still have nightmares about sitting through the godawful “prequels”… if the opening notes of the main fanfare always make you grin like an idiot… if the Imperial March makes you start breathing raspily like Darth Vader… if you look at toys of X Wings and TIE Fighters and have to stop yourself from buying one – then Rogue One is wonderful, just wonderful. It looks like Star Wars, sounds like Star Wars, has as huge a heart as Star Wars. I genuinely left the Brewery Arts Centre last night shaking, but grinning too, just as I did in 1977 after watching Star Wars as a kid.

I’m not going to post any spoilers here, don’t worry. I know how much I would have hated having the film ruined for me before seeing it so I absolutely will not do that to anyone else. But I will say that he way it links visually to “Star Wars” – making it look as if it is set in the same universe at the same time as Star Wars by using very familiar technology and locations, costumes, etc – is superb; unlike the prequels, which were just too shiny, too glossy, with technology that looked like it was centuries ahead of that seen in the original trilogy instead, “Rogue One” is very definitely set at the same grubby, troubled time.

And there are lots of lovely visual nods to the original films too, which instantly connect it to those films. Again, not going to say what they are, I want you to experience them for yourselves and have those “That’s just like…!” moments come at you from nowhere. But you will smile. A lot.

And it is a beautiful film to just look at too. There are so many beautiful scenes, so many sighs of wonder as you see something breathtakingly beautiful on the screen that it should come with a warning for people with weak hearts. The views of planets from space are just jaw-droppingly lovely. And the appearance of familiar Empire technology – already seen in the trailers – is deliciously jolting.

As for the characters…. they are all very well written, very grounded, unlike most of the characters in the prequels. As with all good war movies – and at its heart Rogue One is a good old fashioned war movie – it is the story of real, everyday people forced into a fight and forced to do desperate things at a desperate time. Jyn Erso is a kick ass heroine with a  heart, and her war buddies all feel like real people with real histories.

And there is, thankfully, no Jar Jar character in Rogue One. In fact, this film will go a long way towards exorcising your ghosts of the prequels. It will help you forget that “What? You’re having a laugh!!!” gumpf about ‘midochlorians’. It will help you forget a young, mop-topped Annakin shouting “Yippee!” It will help you forget how R2D2 could suddenly and very conveniently fly, and forget that there was as much chemistry between Annakin and Padme as there is between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. And yes, I know some people like those films, and I can find some good things in them too – the last half hour of “Sith” is brilliant – but if you’re at all worried, don’t be. This, THIS is a Star Wars film.

It’s not a perfect film, obviously – no film is perfect. Some scenes go on too long, some plot holes are big enough to fly a Star Destroyer through… but so what? I didn’t care! This is the film I desperately wanted it to be – a genuine Star Wars film that, with the way it looks and feels, picked me up and took me back in time to 1977 when I was 12 and sat in the cinema and was carried away, for the first time, to that galaxy far, far away.  It breathes new life into the whole saga, and made me want to watch Star Wars again right away.

You know what? I actually envy the kids who will be introduced to the Star Wars saga through Rogue One because it will be bigger, grander, nobler because of it.

Sometimes you want something to be good so badly it can’t possibly live up to your expectations. Rogue One did. And I can’t wait to see it again.

Review: “Night Scenes 2017”

…and so we come to my final review of the guides to the night sky during the year ahead…

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The guides and yearbooks I’ve reviewed so far have all been commercial, professional publications – glossy and lavishly-illustrated, and available in every town’s newsagents and/or bookshops. “Night Scenes” is very different. It’s an amateur-produced publication, written by astronomer, writer and Outreacher Paul Money, who many people will know from “Sky At Night” magazine (he is their Reviews Editor) and the astronomy society guest speaker and lecture circuit.

That’s NOT to say “Night Scenes” isn’t professionally produced by Paul and his team. It certainly is. I’m just making the point that it’s not a mass-market publication like the other guides available from, say, Astronomy Now, Sky at Night magazine and Collins.

“Night Scenes” is, I don’t think he’ll mind me saying, a real labour of love for Paul, and reading it is like listening to one of his talks – there is so much crammed into it, so enthusiastically, it leaves you a little breathless! As you can see from the pic below, essentially it follows the same basic format as the other guides: each month has its own section, with an “all” sky chart showing the stars, constellations and planets, complemented by additional charts – Stellarium-generated with additional labelling – showing notable planetary conjunctions, eclipses, occultations and the paths of asteroids and comets. Unlike the other guides, tho, “Night Scenes” features monthly fold-out spreads…

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As you can probably tell from that pic, “Night Scenes” is a lot busier than the other publications; there’s not a spare centimetre on any page, with the text going tight up to the edge of the charts and diagrams, flowing around them like water, showing – in a good way – how it is more like an amateur-produced desk top publishing production than a professional one. and that’s not a criticism, just an observation. In fact, there’s so much on its pages you feel like you have to shut it very quickly in case everything slides off them and comes pouring out, like That Cupboard everyone has at home..!

But don’t let that busy look fool you. It’s busy in a good way. The guide is very informative and once you’ve got the hang of what its charts are showing and how to use them it will help absolute beginners and more experienced amateurs alike identify things in the night sky, and plan in advance when to look out for attractive gatherings of planets and close encounters between planets and the Moon…

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But they ALL do that, I know. So what makes this guide different, if indeed it is different?

Well, for a start there are no filler articles or features, and no adverts. It’s just a big bottle of freshly squeezed night sky watching with the pulp left in. And this guide is clearly written by a genuine sky-watcher, someone who stands out in the cold on those oh-so-rare clear UK nights and actually LOOKS AT STUFF UP THERE. As I have said many times before, the test of a good guide of this kind is to hear the author’s real voice when you read it, and “Night Scenes” passes that test with flying colours.

I asked Paul about his guide…

How long have you been producing the guide?

First one was for the year 2000, originally for my WEA classes, so I printed the first two years myself with my poor inkjet printer which finally went on strike! It was commercially printed the first time for the 2002 edition.

What made you start producing your own when there were already so many available commercially?

At the time there weren’t many available at all. The main rivals were actually the ones produced by the Times and FAS. Both did not feature full colour charts and with modern desktop publishing becoming available to anyone, I wanted to produce something different to the mainstream.

Who is the guide aimed at?

Anyone interested in looking up at the night sky with naked eye, some binoculars sights and a few that need a modest telescope. No experience required, just curiosity at seeing things like conjunctions between moon and planets/ stars etc.

Why do you think guides such as yours are still useful when there are phone and tablet apps that do the same thing?

It doesn’t require batteries and if used at night in the field, a red light torch is just the job compared with bright screens. Also, not all apps have an option for predicting in advance when something will happen, forewarned is to be prepared and NightScenes can be picked up and browsed easily to the month needed rather than messing about with time settings in an app.

So… if you’re looking for a big, glossy, luxurious guide to the night sky in 2017, lavishly illustrated with photos taken by “amateur” astronomers with kit so big and so expensive you will only ever own it in a dream, then follow this guy’s advice…

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But if you’re looking for a no frills practical observing guide to 2017’s sky events, written by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable observer, and don’t mind that it has typos on many pages or that most of its commas have gone absent without leave, then this will do you very well over the coming 12 months. Highly recommended.

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Night Scenes 2017

£7.00

Enquiries to ASTROSPACE PUBLICATIONS paul@astrospace.co.uk

Sky At Night 2017 Yearbook

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Yes, the Sky At Night 2017 Yearbook has finally appeared on the shelves in Kendal’s WH Smiths, so I can complete my annual review of all the various yearbooks/guides available in newsagents.

In previous years the SaN Yearbook has been sold as a stand-alone publication, like a special edition of the magazine. Popular with newcomers to astronomy and more experienced amateurs alike, it features what you’d expect from a yearbook – a guide to the sky for each month, plus articles and features to help you get the most out of the astronomical year ahead. This year the SaN team has done things a little differently by making the yearbook part of a “Bumper Value Stargazing Pack” – obviously aimed at the ‘the perfect gift for Christmas’ market just as much as the existing amateur astronomer market – which looks like this on the shelf…

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As you can see from the cover of the big envelope, and from the photo at the top of this post, the package comprises the yearbook itself, a planisphere and a Moon phases chart. (it doesn’t include the cute sleeping cat, by the way, before anyone asks…)

I have to be honest, I had mixed feelings handing over my £13 when I bought this. One part of me – the “I’m already an amateur astronomer” part – was rather grumpily thinking “Hang on, I just want the Yearbook, I don’t need another planisphere and I don’t need a chart of Moon phases because I can get those on my phone…” I always enjoy reading the yearbook, and find it useful, but the two “extras” were things I personally neither wanted nor needed, and seemed rather unnecessary to me. I felt a little bit pressured into buying them as part of this package. Having said that, of course I could have bought the Yearbook on its own by post, but it’s been a part of my “look for and buy the yearbooks and guides” ritual for years now, and I was rather annoyed to not be able to do that this year.

But… looking at this from the point of view of someone starting out in the hobby, or from the point of view of someone looking for a gift for someone starting out in the hobby, this is a great package. A newcomer – especially someone not savvy (yet… they will be, oh, they will be…) with the world of astronomy apps for phones and tablets – will find this package the perfect front door to go through into the world of stargazing. The planisphere will be very useful to them as they learn the sky and how it works, and the Moon phases chart will be a handy quick-look guide too.  So, I can see both sides. I guess the “package” wasn’t aimed at me as a buyer, and that’s ok.

So, what’s the actual Yearbook like?

It’s a classy product, for sure. The heart of the Yearbook is, of course, its guide to what will be visible “up there” in the year ahead, and this year’s “Month by Month Guide” really is very, very good. Written by Pete Lawrence, in the same warm, friendly, refreshingly hype-free tone he uses on the TV show, reading it really is like standing in your own garden and having your very own personal stargazing tour from a knowledgeable amateur astronomer. The monthly charts accompanying Pete’s text are very detailed and “busy”, with lots of features and targets labelled, with notes at the bottom re the visibility of planets, the Moon etc.

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This year the “events” illustrations – the images showing planetary conjunctions, eclipses, things like that – look really nice, better than in previous years I think, and I am sure they will be much more useful to newcomers than the main charts.

Around the Yearbook’s Month by Month Guide are various other sections, providing lots of great observing and technical advice for amateurs and beginners alike, plus some interesting projects to get stuck into in 2017. There are equipment reviews, photography guides and more. One of the highlights of the Yearbook is a section written by Will Gater: “Secrets of Selene” focuses on the Moon, and picks out twenty lunar features for amateurs to find and enjoy.

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This will be really useful for beginners – especially those who got into the hobby because of the whole (yawn) “Supermoon” thing – and more experienced observers alike, especially. It could only have been improved if it had included some of Will’s gorgeous lunar sketches… (not-too-subtle hint for the next Yearbook there!) And on a purely selfish, personal note, it was great to see the crater “Eddington” (named after the great astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington who was born in my town) getting some love, as it’s often overlooked in Moon guides and books.

As you’d expect for a modern astronomy publication the Yearbook is lavishly illustrated, with some gorgeous photos. One thing that struck me is the amount of exposure (sorry!) given in the Yearbook to the “Insight Astronomy Photographer Of The Year” contest. 32 of the Yearbook’s 116 pages are covered with entries to the contest, which is almost a third, and that seems a bit excessive to me.

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I know they’re gorgeous photos, and the winners will all be as proud as parents watching their child dressed as an angel or a wise man in their first school Nativity Play when they see their images used in the Yearbook, I would be too, but I am wondering now if the magazine isn’t using these photos a bit too much..? Don’t get me wrong, the photos are lovely, and each one represents a great achievement by an individual. I just worry that they might intimidate as many people as they inspire, as some of them are taken with such expensive, high-tech kit that they are way beyond the capabilities of all but a few of the publication’s readership. Personally I would have preferred that 8 page section of the Yearbook, or at least some of it, to have been used for something more useful to an absolute beginner -maybe a feature on phone or tablet astronomy apps or websites (which I am asked about all the time), observing the space station and Iridium flares (both of which are very popular activities for sky-watchers now) or book recommendations, something like that. But maybe that’s just me thinking as an Outreacher who spends a lot of time helping absolute beginners get “into” the hobby. Others will find this section very useful and inspiring, I’m sure.

So, after all that do I recommend the 2017 Sky At Night Yearbook? Absolutely! There’s genuinely something in it for everyone, bright-eyed newcomer or weather-weary veteran. If I had one major criticism it would be this: as this is a publication produced by The Sky At Night, which has always had a kind of “mission statement” to help absolute beginners see things without lots of equipment or technology, and although Pete gives great basic observing advice in his monthly notes,  I would have loved – and I expected – to have found a section dedicated solely to absolute basics stargazing: what you can see just standing in your garden, looking up on a clear night, explaining the very basics about star brightnesses, the constellations they appear to make in the sky, what meteor showers and aurorae really look like, and how to tell planets and stars apart, etc. That’s missing from the Yearbook, and I think that’s a shame. Maybe something to bear in mind for the 2018 Yearbook, guys…

The 2017 Sky At Night Yearbook is available on newsagents now, and by mail order from the magazine too. With only those few reservations about some of its content I can definitely recommend the “Bumper Value Stargazing Pack” to you if you’re just starting out in the hobby, or looking for a gift for someone who is.