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The rolling hills of Barsoom…

The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity is seeing some outrageously gorgeous scenery at the moment… She’s sending back raw images of the hills on the horizon, which look like this when stitched together…

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…but if you spend some time on them, and really work on them, you can get them to look like this… (click on it to enlarge it)

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Anyone fancy a hike?:-)

Looking back at Hyakutake…

Hard to believe that it’s twenty years since Comet Hyakutake was gracing our sky, but countless Tweets, posts on Facebook and the pages of every astronomy book I own are all telling me it’s true. Twenty years since that comet unfurled its ridiculously long tail out behind it and stretched it across the northern sky. Twenty years since I stood in my backyard in Cockermouth and saw it shining next to Polaris, visible even through the saffron glow of the surrounding streetlights. Twenty years since I walked half an hour out of town on a beautifully clear night, found a country gate and stood there for at least an hour, just looking up at it, drinking in its beauty. Twenty years. That’s insane.

Comet Hyakutake is often called “the “warm up act” for Comet Hale-Bopp which blazed in the sky a year later. Many more people saw Hale-Bopp than Hyakutake because we had a lot more advance warning about it, and were well prepared. It was also more obvious to the naked eye than Hyakutake, brighter and with that now legendary v-shaped tail which slapped you across the face as soon as you stepped outside and looked in the comet’s general direction. You didn’t need a star map to find Hale-Bopp, or your local amateur astronomer to point it out for you, if you went outside and looked in its direction as twilight was deepening it was just… there, hanging above the trees and rooftops, glowing next to the silhouetted church steeple, a curved, misty “V” hanging in the sky as if painted on it. How many millions of people around the world saw that comet? We’ll never know, but it must be a huge number…

Hale-Bopp lingered in the sky for what seemed like an eternity, there night after night. I remember that that Spring the UK was blessed with quite a long spell of good weather, allowing comet watchers and the public alike to see the comet night after night after night. In the end we probably got a bit blase about it, and took it for granted. “Oh look, there’s Hale-Bopp again…” as we pottered about in the garden or came back from the shops. Today, having been denied anything even remotely as beautiful for all these years, if I could go back in time I would squeeze every glorious, rare second out of of every minute of every hour of every evening Hale-Bopp was in the sky..

But Hyakutake was really a comet for sky-watchers and astronomers. It was a brief visitor to the sky in comparison to Hale-Bopp, and wasn’t as immediately obvious to the naked eye either. Ironically, its long, long tail made it less obvious to the public, because it just looked like a long, faint vapour trail in the sky, not bright enough to slap you across the face as soon as you saw it, and not bright enough to draw your eye to it if you didn’t know it was there. But for astronomers it was a wonder, so beautiful that twenty years after it graced our skies even hearing someone say its name, or coming across its name in a magazine or book, makes us smile wistfully and drags us back in time to when we gazed up at it.

My most vivid memory of Hyakutake is from when it was just about at its very best. One night, despite the weather forecast not being very promising at all, I went out into the Cumbrian countryside with a fellow member of the Cockermouth AS, Linda Davison, one of my best observing buddies, in pursuit of Hyakutake. we wound our way out of town and out into the fells, looking for a place to escape the streetlights and hopefully see Hyakutake at its best. When we arrived at our farm track, out in the middle of the back of beyond, the sky was totally cloudy, not a hint of a star showing, but we decided, having come all that way, to wait it out.  Time dragged on, and the cloud stayed thick and foul above us. Finally, an age later, we started to see a few stars, just a few, but enough to lure us out of the car with our binoculars and crossed fingers. More stars popped into view through gaps in the cloud, and then in a large gap we saw… something… a glowing ball of.. something.. with a kind of misty beam stretched out behind it. But it was too long to be the comet’s tail, surely? No, that was stupidly long, ridiculously long…

Really? Was that Hyakutake?

I know what you’re thinking – how could you not know?? Well, remember, this was an age before you could just reach into your pocket, pull out your phone and use an app to check what you were seeing. This was in Ye Olden Times, long before Brian Cox first stood on a hilltop with his hair blowing in the breeze like a dark unicorn’s mane, long before you could buy a kick-ass digital camera for the price of a DVD boxset, back when a 6″ telescope could cost you £1000. This was The Past. Things were different then.

So it took us a while to realise that we were actually seeing Hyakutake. But when we did, boy, you could have seen our grins from orbit. It was a beautiful sight – a smudgy head, a pale turquoise-green-ish colour, with a long, long, long tail stretched out behind it. It genuinely did look like a WW2 searchlight stretched across the sky. And it just went on and on and on…

If Hyakutake appeared now, of course, I would photograph the Watney out of it, with my Canon 1100D DSLR on my beloved iOptron Skytracker mount. I would stay out from dusk til dawn taking images of it, filling one memory card after another with pictures of it taken through half a dozen different lenses, and I would post them on Facebook and Twitter for all the world to see. But I didn’t have a decent camera then, just a very basic, chunky clunky Practika SLR (or had I moved on to a fancy streamlined Centon by then? Can’t remember…) so my precious memories of Hyakutake are all in *here*, in my head, and in my heart too.

But you know, that’s ok. I truly believe that some sky sights – a glorious sunrise, a meteor shower, a breathtaking aurora, or a perfect view of a bright comet – aren’t meant to be photographed or seen through a camera; they can’t be photographed in a way that does them justice. A camera simply can’t capture the whole experience of seeing them, they have to be seen through eyes that are wide with wonder, so I’m okay with my personal memories of Hyakutake all being internal.

In the past twenty years (excluding Hale-Bopp, of course) no comet which has shone in the northern sky has come anywhere close to being as impressive as Hyakutake. Oh yes, we’ve had quite a few comets to look at, but they’ve been poor imitations of the Greats of 96 and 97. Down South, of course they’ve enjoyed several decent naked eye comets, with long tails, broad tails, multiple tails, the works. This past week or so our friends below the equator have been enjoying an unusually large comet in their sky, not an obvious naked eye object but more impressive than most comets we’ve seen “up here” since those heady Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp days. A few have been naked eye objects, but only if you could get to somewhere with a truly dark sky. A few have had tails too, but little stubby stunted things compared to H and HB. Most of the comets we’ve had up here in the past twenty years have been little more than smudgy tadpoles in the sky, quite easily visible in binoculars and small telescopes, and pretty enough on long exposure photos taken with our modern, light-gulping DSLRs, but really, pale imitations of proper comets seen in years and times past. We keep getting one okayish LINEAR and PANSTARRS after another, but we are so long overdue another Great Comet, it’s infuriating.

When will it come?

Well, it’s probably already on its way. We just haven’t found it yet.

Almost certainly, right now, as you read this, out there, far far out in the black there is a comet coming towards us destined to be the Next Great Comet, maybe even a comet large, bright and beautiful enough to put Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp to shame, to make us forget them. It might not reach us for another decade, or for several decades, but statistically it must be out there, its future already written. One day someone, somewhere – an amateur peering into a telescope eyepiece or an astronomer looking at images taken by one of the automated surveys – will spot a distant speck of light moving against the background stars, and computers will work out its orbit, alerting us to the act that finally, finally we have an inbound comet that will pass close to the Sun at the same time as passing close to the Earth, with the geometry of its tail and everything else being perfect to give us a spectacle in the sky..

Then all we will be able to do is wait impatiently until it finally graces our sky, and then there will be a feeding frenzy as after being starved of a beautiful comet for so long we devour it. And oh, the photos we will take with our 21st century equipment, our star trackers, CCD cameras and every other box of tricks! Just imagine what we will be able to do with a second Hale-Bopp or Hyakutake! Just think of the detail we will be able to capture in the tail with our zoom lenses and refractors! Just imagine the breathtaking images we will take of it glowing in the sky before sunrise or after sunset, tail stretching across the heavens. Imagine the beautiful scenes we will capture –

One day…

One day I’ll stand in my yard and see that comet. One day I’ll trek up to Kendal Castle and take photographs of that comet shining above the ruins, as I’ve dreamed of doing ever since moving here more than a decade ago. One day I’ll show that comet to a huge group of people at an observing event organised by my astronomical society and will love seeing the same looks of delight and wonder on their faces that I wore when I gazed up at Hyakutake what seems like a lifetime ago.

One day.

The next Hyakutake is out there, right now. Bathed in cold starlight, with the golden Sun ahead of it, pulling at it, beckoning it, it is waiting to hypnotise and delight us. I can feel it. So can you, I think.

Let’s hope it’s found soon.

 

Occator in close-up

Ever since Dawn sent back those first tantalising views of a “bright spot” in the centre of the crater “Occator” on the dwarf planet Ceres we’ve been looking forward to proper, high resolution views. Well,  they’ve finally been released, during a big astronomy conference over in the US, and they’re every bit as jaw-dropping as we hoped they would be.

I won’t put them in this post cos they’re too big, but you can find the latest images on the Planetary Photojournal’s page of “new” images, here

I’ve been playing about with/cropping, processing and enhancing them to make some unashamedly artistic and not-scientifically-valuable-in-the-slightest images, which follow. I think they show just what a bewildering, beautiful, dramatic world Ceres is…

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Walking on Mars…

…will not be as safe as Mark Whatney made it out to be in “The Martian”, the latest images sent back the Mars Science Laboratory rover CURIOSITY show… look at those blades of ancient rock, carved and sharpened by aeons of wind… imagine the damage they could do to a space suit….

Be careful, future explorers…!

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The beauty of Barsoom…

…meanwhile, on Mars, safely away from all the craziness and lunacy on Earth, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity is enjoying a breath-catchingly beautiful view..

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Small… Far Away…

Was out taking astrophotos last night and managed to get a nice view of one of my new favourite objects, the “Leo Triplet”, and it reminded me of something…😉

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2016 Kielder Spring Starcamp

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Well, we survived another!:-) In fact, this year’s Kielder Spring Starcamp was one of the most enjoyable we’ve been to, despite the wind, rain, sleet and snow, all of which could pretty much have been guaranteed to be honest after the suspiciously brilliant weather at last year’s Autumn star-camp, when we had barely any rain and enjoyed starry skies almost every night. At the time I warned people “Oh, we’ll pay for this in March…!” and I was right: it felt like the Northumbrian weather gods sent us all the wind and rain they didn’t use in October along with March’s allowance. But you know what? That’s what you have to expect when you go to Kielder. There are clues about the weather, you know? Look where it is on the map; look at all the trees; look at the rivers; look at the great big reservoir close by. Where do you think they get all their water from? A tap?? No, you go to Kielder expecting “challenging” weather, and rain… a lot of rain… and you have to accept that; you have to be prepared to see no stars at all the whole time you are there and to just have a great camping holiday instead, and spend several brilliant days chilling out with astro mates, enjoying the talks on the Saturday, maybe picking up a bargain or two, learning a lot of things, and just getting away from it all in one of the prettiest places in the UK at one of the prettiest campsites in the UK, a short walk from a fantastic pub that serves excellent food, which itself is just a short walk away from a castle with a cafe which serves scrummy breakfasts. If you can’t enjoy yourself somewhere like that it’s a bad job.

But when the weather eased we DID see stars, LOTS of stars,  and a beautiful display of the northern lights too – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Stella and I (and Peggy, of course!) set off good and early on the Wednesday morning, the plan being to pick up our folding camper early enough that we would be up at Kielder by lunchtime, to have the longest time possible at the campsite, which we love and just about consider our second home now. We made great time to the farm where our camper is stored… only to find it stuck in the mud, literally. Thankfully the site’s ever-helpful owner was there to assist us with freeing our camper, pulling it out with a trike, and then helped us put some much-needed air in its tyres too, but by the end of all that we had lost an hour. Still, we were on our way soon, and made great time up to Kielder, which was bathed in glorious sunshine when we rolled down the hill and stopped at our hard-standing pitch. Amazingly Peggy wasn’t sick on the way – usually she throws up like a Kendal chav retching in a park after glugging three bottles of White Lightning – which was a great start. After greeting and being greeted by the Starcamp organisers, Lynn and Kevin, and saying hi to a few more familiar faces, we got the camper and its awning set-up pretty quickly, and then Stella went in to decorate it and make it into our proper “home” for the next five days.

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By teatime everything was ready – and we settled in to our “hab” just as the rain began. Nasty rain. Very hard rain. Curtains of it driven across the campsite by strong winds, and it was the I noticed strange bright spots on the ceiling – areas of the camper canvas which had somehow lost their waterproof qualities and were now ready to leak. Oh, great! Luckily one of our neighbours (coincidentally a fellow Eddington As member!) kindly loaned us a big blue tarpaulin, and after that was lashed to our hab with bungee chords – in a repair job strangely reminiscent of Mark Whatney’s struggles in “The Martian” – everything was well. But the rain and wind (the next day the met office reported we had had gusts of over 50mph!) continued, and got worse. I fell asleep at around 8pm, absolutely shattered after several weeks of next to no sleep, with the camper shuddering and shaking around me in the gale –

– and woke at 11pm to absolute silence.

Figuring that either a) the camper had crumpled in the wind and I was dead, or b) the bad weather had passed, I peeked out through the window…and saw our poor awning had collapsed like a souffle. The right side had just given up and fallen inwards, leaving its legs askew like a toppled martian war machine. I went out to fix it, shivering in the now-brutal cold, and lifting up the frost-coated awning material I looked outside … and saw an inky black sky strewn with diamonds, and Jupiter blazing like a lantern above the campsite.

YES!!

After fixing the awning as best I could in the dark I set up my star tracker in record time and started taking photos, wandering around the campsite, setting up here and there, getting as many pics as I could in the knowledge that that might be the only clear night of the whole star camp. I kept taking photos until the Moon rose gloriously at around 4am, going through a whole set of batteries in the iOptron and a whole battery in my camera too. I fell into bed at half four, VERY cold, with Peggy complaining loudly, but I didn’t care. I knew that my camera card had at least a few nice pics on it, ready for processing the next day. Here’s how the best of them turned out…

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That’s CASSIOPEIA in there… I know, hard to make it out with all the fainter stars around it…

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Jupiter blazing in the sky…

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Jupiter shining beneath Leo…

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Pleiades trees

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North America Nebula with a 300mm lens on the iOptron tracker…

One of the reasons I love Kielder so much is that it;s dark skies give fantastic views of the Milky Way. Unfortunately, Spring and Autumn aren’t the best times to see the Milky Way from the UK (Summer is) but it’s still a stunning sight, and by 2am on the Thursday morning it was hanging over the treetops like smoke from a forest fire…click to enlarge the next two pics to see what I mean…

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Thursday was a bit of a “chill out” day, just getting our bearings again, saying hi ti star-camp regulars and first timers as they arrived, enjoying watching the campsite slowly fill with astronomers, all eager to enjoy the legendary dark skies of Kielder. Gradually the hard pitches filled up with mobile homes, camper vans and folding caravans, and the place got busier…

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By teatime the weather forecast was confidently predicting cloud through the night, so Stella and I headed off down to the Anglers Arms to treat ourselves to a light snack in the restaurant there…

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Coming back to our camp, our red torches flashing in the darkness as we crunched up the gravel path and then sploshed through the muddy track back to the campsite, we saw no hint of stars, and that was still the case by midnight, so I didn’t even look again that evening. I hoped there would be more starry nights ahead, but knew that wasn’t guaranteed. Oh well, it would do what it would do.

Friday dawned misty and chilly, and all day more and more people arrived, so by teatime the campsite was buzzing, and everyone gathered in the warm room for a “meet and greet” and to enjoy free mulled wine courtesy of Richard Darn, one of the event organisers. By now several other members of the Eddington AS had arrived and we all got together in the warm room…

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By seven pm I’d had enough mulled wine, so went to look outside – and saw the clouds had started to part and stars were shining in the gaps! So, hared it back to the camper and grabbed the iOptron, setting it up in what must have been a new record time, and it was time for more astro-photography. The sky didn’t ever clear completely, it was a case of grabbing views of the sky in short periods, and it was a little hazy when it was clear, but I still managed to get some (I think!) great pics before giving up in the early hours…

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VERY pleased with that one… M42, Flame Nebula AND the Horsehead!

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Oh, and here’s what you get when you set up your iOptron skytracker on mud rather than hard ground..!

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Saturday is “Talks Up At The Castle” day, so Stella and I headed up there for breakfast and then just stayed – well, she stayed; I came back down again to fetch her book and tablet, which she’d forgotten. Disappointingly there was only one vendor at the castle (understandable tho, it is a long way for people to come) but the talks were as enjoyable as ever, with Kielder stalwarts Richard Darn and Robert Ince both giving excellent presentations about astrophotography, observing the night sky and setting up a a home observatory, oh, and some other bloke talking about the NEW HORIZONS mission to Pluto, too…

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Walking back from the castle through the rain it was no surprise to hear that Saturday night’s forecast wasn’t brilliant, so we settled in for a night with “Astrocat” Peggy in front of the DVD player…

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Outside our camper the weather was being an absolute pain, clearing for a while, then clouding over again, only to clear again a short time later. Being the optimistic glutton for punishment that I am I kept going out to take photos before fleeing back inside again,  chased back indoors by the return of the cloud and hisses of rain, but I managed to get something…

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Sunday is traditionally “mass exodus” day, as people who have to be at work on the Monday pack up and head home. We always stay the extra day, heading home on Monday, not just to get the most out of our break but because, quite cruelly, the Sunday night sky is often one of the best of the whole star-camp, as if the Universe is rewarding the people who make the effort to stay. The weather forecast looked promising, so Stella and I treated ourselves to a now-traditional Sunday Roast down at the Anglers (HUGE in the past, but much smaller portions this time, I though… grrrr….)  but as we headed back to the hab the sky was black with thick cloud. Again, being an optimist I set up my tracker AND telescope, but had to cover them and head back inside when snow began to fall, to wait and see what the weather did.

When I came out at around 8pm the sky was half clear and half cloud… and over in the north, visible through a gap in the trees, was what looked to me rather like a green glow..? As Robert Ince came down the path to tell me he thought an aurora was beginning, a not-very-well-focussed test shot with the camera showed we were both right…

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Now, this wasn’t a complete surprise; we’d been hoping to see an aurora during the Sunday night because all the aurora-watchers, monitoring the space weather dials and charts had been tweeting and Facebook-posting “Looks promising for Sunday night!” comments for days, so seeing that green glow wasn’t too surprising. But maybe that was all we were going to get..?

Oh no. Within twenty minutes pale pink beams were stabbing up from behind the dark trees, and the northern sky was showing a LOT of green, so we knew we were in for a good show. By now there were maybe only a dozen or so people left on the site, but we all gathered up at the top of the field to watch the northern lights dance and shine above the trees, with cameras click-clicking away as we ooh!ed and aah!ed as each new beam, curtain or ray appeared.

The photos I took make it look a LOT more vivid in colour than it appeared to the naked eye; modern cameras with their amazing light-grasp and sensitivity to faint colours DO lie, in fact they lie through their back teeth to be honest, making pale greens look as bright as ectoplasm and pale pinks look like crimson death rays. This next image shows how the aurora appeared on the back of my camera, and how it actually looked  to me…

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But it was still a very pretty show, and it went on for hours, ebbing and flowing, brightening and fading, over and over. At its height there was a spray of white and pale pink beams and rays right painted across the sky the NW to the NE, as if a dozen logging trucks were shining their headlights up into the sky from beyond the horizon. Stella and I both took lots of pictures, and here are the best of them. Note: some are processed/enhanced to bring out the colours and structures of the display, others have been “turned down” to more accurately show what the aurora looked like to the naked eye. You’ll spot which are which quite quickly..!

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Photo: Stella Coxon

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Photo: Stella Coxon

At one point when the aurora sank right back into the night, surrendering the sky to the stars again, I actually used my telescope – yes,  got it aligned and everything, and for an hour or so I toured the sky with it. By now the temperature had plunged to around -4 or maybe -5 degrees C, and my telescope’s tube was coated and glistening with hoarfrost, but it worked perfectly, and I enjoyed lovely views of the Double Cluster, The Crab Nebula, M51, M35 and many other things (frustratingly the Orion Nebula had sunk behind the trees by then) before I noticed the aurora kicking off again so threw a cover over it and went back to photographing the free light show.

I’ve seen bigger and brighter displays, but none from somewhere with such a dark sky or with so many other sky-watchers, so it was a lovely experience. A couple of people who had always dreamed of seeing the aurora actually shed a few tears, they were so delighted by it, and I understood that. That’s how I felt the first time. It was great just being in such a beautiful place, watching the sky painted with those shapes and colours. I kept watching and photographing until around 2am, then the aurora seemed to die right down, so I whispered a hushed “Thank you” to the sky (as I always do whenever it allows me to witness something special, it only seems polite) and then turned in…

Monday dawned deliciously clear and frosty, with a silver-gold Sun blazing over a campsite glistening with iced-over puddles and frost-covered grass…

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As we started to disassemble the hab word came in of a major road accident at Kirby Lonsdale… which is where we store our folding camper, so we didn’t rush – there was no point if we were going to get stuck for hours in the traffic queues being reported – and didn’t set off until 6pm. We then did get stuck on the traffic, and didn’t reach home until after midnight… six hours before I had to get up again to go to work…

So, yes, it was a fantastic time, again. Sure the weather was “interesting”, but that’s part of the experience. If you’re going to wail and gnash your teeth at a cloudy sky then you’re always going to risk frustration and disappointment at Kielder. In the end, there was more than enough clear sky to keep me and my trusty iOptron busy and to fill my memory card with photos, so I was more than happy.

I didn’t quite manage to “see a lot more things in the sky” as I had vowed to do, because Kielder is a very astro-photography-heavy starcamp, most (but not all) people there are taking long exposure photos through their telescopes instead of looking through them, but I did have fantastic views of Jupiter and M13 through a beautiful telescope, and my own performed well, so no complaints there. As usual, everyone there was friendly and helpful. Special thanks must go to Kevin, Lynn and Richard for organising things so well (and for making sure first-timers were fully involved and looked after, which means a lot to newbies, I know from when we went to Kielder for the first time, when we were the “fresh meat” all wide-eyed and enthusiastic as we put up our tent!!), to campsite warden Steve for making us and everyone so welcome (and for the loan of the stepladders I used to get up on the roof of the hab to effect my Whatneyesque repairs!) and, as ever, to Rob Ince for his limitless encouragement and support and for just being a great spacey mate to be with for a few days. But of course the biggest thanks go to Stella for getting us there in the first place, and for making such a warm and comfy home for us in the middle of Northumbria’s most faithful recreation of the Somme.

Starcamps aren’t for everyone. Some people prefer to do their observing or photography alone, and that’s fine. Other people can’t face the thought of going all that way and not actually seeing anything, which is always a risk. But if you’re someone who can go and just make the best of it, who sees a star-camp as a chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones, to learn new things about the hobby and to be inspired by people and MAYBE see some stars too, well, they’re an absolute joy – and that’s exactly what this year’s Spring Kielder Starcamp was, from start to finish, a joy.

We’ll be back in October for the autumn star-camp – hope to see you there!

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