Probably the stars have been there all along, but time has lapsed since we visited. At sunset I waited impatiently in the porch, out of the wind, until they began to pop in the deepening blue. I watched the Summer Triangle down into the west as if for the last time. Orion was rising in the east, holding open the sky to let the cold air in.
Reading time has been rather gobbled up.
I may have selected this based on a subconscious connection with grass and the breaking of impenetrable sod:
Somehow I have managed to miss reading it down all the years; meeting as an adult, it raised quite a few questions. One concerns the apparently reckless way the father takes his family off on a dangerous journey. We have gone soft now. Or perhaps it didn’t seem as dangerous, when any life was dangerous – even staying tucked into the most secure and prosperous home could not protect you from the epidemics of infectious disease which cut swathes through many a family. Or perhaps pressure of poverty was strong enough to drive the migrants on. Then there’s the way Ingalls apparently makes the decisions without input from his wife (ah the good old days – ‘she for god in him’ etc.) And worst, of course, are the passages dealing with the native Americans. Ingalls is portrayed as liberal, humane, but assumes that the western country is his to take because the inhabitants “weren’t using it”, and he is furious when, having illegally moved into Indian reservation land, he and other settlers were required to leave “their” farms. Ugly.
Then there is this delicate little sippet of a book.
Ah, the pure sensory pleasure of its satiny dust jacket, the smooth crispness of the coated paper, the careful balance of text and image, the reposeful colours, the spine coherent without wilful springiness, the clean smell rising from every page turn. This made it quite difficult to concentrate on the actual subject matter, but it too was charming in its miscellany of science, technology, art and history, and although the coverage is very slight, there’s a further reading list handy at the back.
One phrase, though originally intended to be satirical, spoke truth to me as an observer: Thomas Tomkis in 1615 characterised a telescope as “an engine to catch starres”. Out in the darkness with the Dob, that’s just what it feels like.
It all started so promisingly.
The baby 5″ is quick to set up and I took a couple of snaps for the fun of it, before the sky was properly dark.
I even managed to catch a little of the earthshine, though it needed a time long enough to over-expose the lit crescent of the moon.
The 5″ was, however, not giving a good image of Jupiter, and I lugged out the 10″. Given that we’re talking astronomy here, no surprise that the clouds came up in a moment, and wiped the sky like a sponge across a blackboard. At this point everything began to go wrong, a maddening saga involving collimators, flat batteries, lost screws, and the impending disintegration of the whole primary mirror assembly on the 10″. And it wasn’t even April Fools yet. I secured the primary before sulking off to bed, but it’s going to be a vile job to realign everything.
This afternoon was bright but it was the mist in the downs which was making me happy.
Driving home, I could see four complicated sky layers, all apparently doing different things. By the time I could photograph, only two of the layers were obvious: the low grey layer which was the one sitting on the hills, moving quickly to the right, though there was almost no breeze at ground level; and the high white cumulus, drifting almost imperceptibly to the left.
Made me think of Jupiter all over again.
Because I didn’t have to get up at seven I woke at four. As I blearily tweaked the curtain, Jupiter glowed in a frosty sky, and I could hear it even when I tried to tuck back under the quilt: “You’ll be sorry if you don’t… you’re awake anyway … you’ll be sorry if you don’t.” Luckily the thermals were to hand in the darkness. And the essential fluffy feet.
It’s quite a while since I’ve been out at this barbarous hour. The Plough of course; Leo; Virgo arranged around the beacon of Jupiter; Hercules; Lyra rising. I fail to like Boötes, whereas my cockles always warm to Corona Borealis and Serpens Caput (as if they cared!), and Draco provokes tragicomic nostalgia. In the still air, each wave was audible, growling onto the remote beach, the seventh waves thundering and dumping with suppressed energy.
I took out the 5″, but it had decollimated itself so I could barely pick out the belts of Jupiter, though it was pleasant to see the four big moons in a row. So I stuck to eyeball and binocular, working to ‘see’ the squashed house of Cepheus, which for some reason my brain never identifies even when I know I’m looking straight at it. Cygnus came up in the east, and at last Aquila began to appear, and the whole summer triangle was absurdly simultaneous with the icy car and crunching grass. A shred of the waning moon rose at six, and through binoculars the earthshine was awesome.
One planet; one meteor; one satellite; the moon; and a thousand stars. As I came in I dropped the 5″ on its head, poor thing, and made it more woggly than ever. So now – if you can – collimate THAT.
Managing the diminishing days requires the exercise of moral courage. Some possible approaches:
1. Tackle the Caesars. I could feel Suetonius chuntering at one shoulder, and Robert Graves smiling ironically at the other. Tom Holland has the same problem as historians writing about mediaeval England: once we have read their stuff, Graves and Shakespeare will always compel our view of Augustus and Richard III (and the rest), whatever the historical evidence. Lots of goodies in the book though, and very good contextual stuff to help one understand the familiar-yet-totally-alien principles of Romans as they negotiated the huge changes of their times.
3. Tackle theology. Sitting in the window ‘like the picture of somebody reading’, I frequently found myself sleeping like a baby. This was due not so much to boredom as to the physical relaxation caused by heavy duty thinking. Must have something to be said for it – the book is now full of pink notes-to-self.
Actually don’t bother with this one. It’s just as bad as I thought, even with lashings of butter and seasoning. Should you have the facilities to do so, just give Fluffers some exercise by throwing breadcrumbs up and down the kitchen floor, and put Bagpuss on the television. The Bony King of Nowhere comes up as fresh as paint.
… from my usual. (Click a thumbnail for the gallery)
I abandoned my companions with indecent haste, raced home for the binoculars and the grab-and-go scope, and was out the front door in time to catch the infant moon before it dipped into the trees. Its horns were as fine as threads. I could see the disc of earthshine they embayed, while the sky darkened, and the air began to bite.
The revelling won’t last, though I daresay the cold will. So I nipped out with the 10″ to take a quick look at the Moon, as everything else was wiped out by it.
I always like the waxing gibbous phase, which conveniently brings some of my favourite features to the terminator. I took a lot of snaps through the eyepiece; always frustrating to find that while one segment is pretty good, other areas come out blurred. And the Moon image in the eyepiece was surprisingly zizzy considering it isn’t warm, which won’t have helped to get a sharp image. I’ve turned the pictures upside down to make them right way up, and now they look peculiar to me.
There’s something very satisfying about Clavius, with its arc of smaller craters diminishing gradually in size like Russian dolls. The camera managed to pick up the central peak in Rutherfurd (on the southern rim) and the smaller craters D C N and J (running away from Rutherfurd in an arc). The unevenness of the crater walls is obvious, and I see there is a tiny hint of the rather mashed down central peaks (inboard of C, as it were) and hints of some of the other minor craters in the interior. I haven’t attempted to identify all the surrounding craters – this part of the surface is a bit busy.
And I have a fondness for Gassendi. I think it was one of the first craters I learned by name, with its very distinctive shape where Gassendi A breaks the main crater wall. This image caught some of the detail – the long ridge leading away to the east just catching the sun, the slump or depression in eastern wall, the break in the wall to the south, and just a hint of the concentric ridge which lies within the south wall. Also a hint of the raised material inside the northern rim where Gassendi A intrudes. It would be too much to expect to image any of the rimae with my feeble equipment.
Pavilioned in splendour, the stones stood, lay, leaned, balanced, indifferent, sometimes fretted to lace and sometimes rugged as the day the stone was quarried.
Later, disorientated by a new latitude, I tried to find stars through the glare of the poolside lights and promenade, while Venus shone below a young moon in the west. Later still, patience picked out Orion in the south eastern sky, lying, familiar yet unfamiliar, on his starry back.
10th November: the gallery
Standard warning for non-astronomers:
Never look at the sun with your naked eyes, and especially not through any optical instrument such as binoculars or telescope as this is likely to cause permanent blindness. The photos were taken through a specialist solar telescope which filters out almost all the sun’s light – never attempt to make a filter yourself.
Today there was enough sky, which was just as well, as I fiddled with the feeble tripod, trying to make minute adjustments with knobs which were only designed for coarse movements. Even using a 35mm eyepiece the sun soon roamed off and away, and with a short eyepiece I spent more time chasing the image than observing it. And it was hot. And things were biting me.
Of course if you could get a straight look, it was wonderful. The hydrogen alpha emission line is in a beautiful red part of the spectrum, and in the eyepiece it shines. In that moment when the focus was fine tuned, and the tripod stopped wobbling, the tiny image revealed a huge prominence, looking simultaneously as delicate as a veil and as monstrous as an apocalypse, rising and flying above the sun’s disc. Then the image moved off, and it was back to the twiddling and wobbling again.
And the pictures. Not astrophotography; that suggests something technical, planned, managed, processed, stacked. With my basic equipment, it’s a challenge even to get the camera focused and steady. Nor are these snaps. The images do not look like what I saw in the eyepiece, because the camera can’t render the perfect vermilion the eye translates; and to make any of the detail which the eye saw appear on the photographs, they have been tweaked using the primitive capabilities of iPhoto. So here they are: pictures, anyway, artificial in any sense of the word.
One tweaked to reveal a hint of the delicate complexity of the largest prominence:
and one fiddled with to show something of the active sunspot areas and even, I am amazed to see, some of the filaments crossing the disc:
If you want to see what the prominence ‘really’ looks like try this link, and then click on the image to see it breathtakingly full size:
But of course it doesn’t ‘really’ look like this. Even in hydrogen alpha.