Spotting Comet Lovejoy

At long last, I’ve spotted a comet!  I’ve tried and failed before, thwarted by weather conditions, sunrise,  moonrise, stupidity and no doubt many other factors.  I’ve been looking for a chance to have a squint at Lovejoy ever since Christmas, but the weather has been appalling – wind, cloud and rain are not the star gazer’s friends – or else the moon has been inconsiderately bright.  Tonight though things were perfect, and I reckoned now or never.

I’m somewhat nesh and having moved to a house with big windows that open wide, I thought I’d try indoors at first.  Sadly, the eaves kept getting in the way, so I reluctantly accepted I’d have to go outside.  (One of the first things you read when taking up astronomy is that it’s not an indoor hobby.  True.)

Now here’s the bit where you might want to question my credentials.  Looking in what I thought was roughly the right area of the sky, I kept coming across this hazy blob.  I wonder what that is, I wondered to myself.  Must be a globular, or maybe a galaxy.  Don’t remember seeing anything on the charts though.  Hmm.  It took a moment or 10 for the penny to drop.  Then I remembered that a comet is, in essence, a dirty snowball.  And it dawned on me that I was finally looking at Comet Lovejoy!

Folks, it’s really easy to see with ordinary binoculars.  Take a 45 degree line, 4 o’clock from Pleiades, and you’ll find it within two fist spans (a fist span?  Hold you’re arm out in front of you with your fist clenched and it’s the amount of sky you’re covering).  Said beasty looks like a big fuzzy round blob, maybe a bit brighter in the middle and fading outwards. It won’t look green! With my eyesight I couldn’t make out much in the way of structure, but if you have better eyes or better binoculars, you might see the tail.

Comet Lovejoy before a Globular Star Cluster  Image Credit & Copyright: Dieter Willasch (Astro-Cabinet)

Comet Lovejoy before a Globular Star Cluster
Image Credit & Copyright: Dieter Willasch (Astro-Cabinet)

Happy Hunting 🙂


Not a long post about lengthy stargazing, but perhaps a more typically British approach of pragmatism and making the best of things.

Last weekend, a lovely time with a bunch of OU astronomy students and a couple of kind tutors who went to the trouble of bringing along assorted telescopes to our revision weekend. Naturally it tipped to down most of the time, but we were not deterred and seized on a break in the daytime clouds to look at the Sun (standard warning applies: NEVER look directly at the Sun unless you have the proper equipment.). Lisette’s kit showed several sun spots & clear limb darkening. She also showed us how to rig up a spotter or one tube of a binocular with card to project an image that was safe to look at. Must have a go – nephews would love it. That was it though – clouds back.


Last night turned out to be one of those lovely early Summer evenings where it feels like you can smell everything growing. Such evenings are not generally appreciated by your average astronomer – far too light, greatly reduced viewing time. The moon was full and really bright too. No good unless you are wanting to look at it – & even then it was so bright that you’d need a good set of filters to avoid being dazzled. Luckily, I’m more of your average Joe who likes pretty stuff. Also I’m a glass half full kind of person, so naturally inclined to make the best of things.

The best of things included:
– the approach of summer
– the beauty of the moon
– the lack of midges
– the relative warmth


– the presence of Saturn, Mars & Jupiter all at once (and had we had a clearer western horizon, Mercury could have been added to the list)

The planets are nice naked eye objects, especially Mars as I find I lose the redness when I use Dob, and he’s not powerful enough (in our skies at least) to pick up detail like the polar ice caps. Saturn on the other hand is on everyone’s bucket list to see through a telescope, & I haven’t seen it yet this year. So, despite the lightness of the sky it seemed like it would be rude not to spring Dob & take a look.

Last time I looked at Saturn it must have been more or less edge on, and I got a view a bit like a chad (80s reference), this time it had rotated such that there was a nice view of the rings and the space between them – the Cassini divisions.  (I could only make out one ring and one division with Dob – but that was pretty cool).   So there I was, standing on my front terrrace in Marsden, a tiny pin prick on the Earth, looking at another planet about 8 AU away (rough distances, and I think Saturn’s orbit is about 9.2 AU). 1 AU = 1.50 x 10^11 m – so do the maths.  That’s a heck of a long way away.  I could also definitely see three moons – having looked it up just now, I saw Tethys, Enceladus and Titan.

A few minutes later, all the planets were obscured by a bank of cloud from the west.  So the lesson there is to take what you can and like it, especially if you live in the Pennines!



Of Mars and Moon … with a little Joviality

BabyDob hasn’t seen much action for a while, what with one thing and another.  Last time he was out was a gloriously dark night (freezing cold of course), which I spent searching for a hazy blob in deep space.  I was partially successful (I’ll need to check my notebook to remind myself which hazy blob it was, one of the galaxies), but stymied by the death of the battery in BD’s red dot finder, swiftly followed by the death of the red dot finder itself.  The new finder has been sitting in the cupboard for a few weeks, but today seemed a good day for a bit of a spring clean.  So, new red dot finder fitted, tested (look, sorry, neighbours across the valley, I’m not really spying on you I promise) and ready to go, and mirrors checked, it seemed a shame not to have a small excursion.

The night is not great for star-gazing.  Convenient though it may be, having enough moonlight that you can see what you’re doing is generally not a good indicator.  Mars however is very close to us just now, and easy to see glowing redly (redly??) in the south.  Mars is a funny one with BabyD – it is so inviting and red, but as soon as I look at it through the telescope, or even binoculars, it’s just another bright blob.  I don’t have enough power, resolution, aperture, whatever, to make out any detail (I keep getting tantalised by other people’s photos showing the polar ice caps), and all the colour is lost in the brightness.  So, my message folks, is enjoy Mars with the naked eye unless your kit is bigger and better than BD.

Jupiter looked great though.  One of these days I’ll remember to go out at a time when either the great red spot is visible and/or when a moon is casting its shadow on the planet.   Speaking of moons, our own, rather bright one, is worth a look.  Anyone with binoculars – ever thought of using them at night?  Start with the moon – but be careful, as it approaches full you’ll find it surprisingly dazzling.  You can see loads of detail and it’s really quite awe inspiring


The Great Northern Lights Display of 27 Feb 2014

Anyone want to know more about Aurora – and there’s a 50% chance of seeing them tonight too …

Dark Sky Diary

Last night, Thursday 27 February 2014, the UK was treated to one of the best displays of Northern Lights in the past twenty years. Twitter erupted with excitement, and then pictures, which my good friend @VirtualAstro and myself @darkskyman RT-ed and commented on throughout the evening.

Aurora over Aberdeenshire, by Mark Tait @marktait78 Aurora over Aberdeenshire, by Mark Tait @marktait78

Below is just a sample of some of the best images that came in last night, but before that let’s look at why this aurora display was so good.

Two days previously a large sunspot on the surface of the Sun erupted with a huge X-class flare, rated at X4.9, the strongest of the year so far. This flare blasted off material from the Sun’s surface in what’s known as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). We knew that this material wasn’t aimed straight at us, but last night, two days after the eruption, it sideswiped the…

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Astrofest Report

A combination of bad weather and more bad weather has limited observing opportunities since New Year, so it was great to be able to visit Astrofest at the weekend. Let’s gloss over the 4am alarm, eh.

I easily resisted the temptations offered by the exhibition, except for checking the dome stand was still in the same place – and trying to convince DrK that ‘in our next home’ a dome would be a practical alternative to a shed and could easily offer bike storage, honestly.

The lectures were of a high standard. The thing I love about Astrofest is that the presenters are generally established professionals and active researchers. They speak about their actual research, and discuss the underlying science, in a way that is accessible assuming some basic scientific literacy. It makes me feel included in ‘science world’ which is wonderful.

This year we covered the Chelyabinsk meteorite impact, and I found out why Russian drivers tend to have dash cams – which had been a puzzle. (To provide evidence in the likely event of fabricated accident and injury claims on the roads). As well as footage of incoming meteorites, this circumstance offers all sorts of other ‘amusing’ input for You Tube. This was followed by a discussion of gamma ray bursts – primarily how to spot them and look at them in the very short window they offer. After that we joined Curiosity on the surface of Mars, learning more about the types of evidence that may point to the presence of liquid, and peering closely at the rocks of the Gale Crate. So far, they’re sedimentary.

Afternoon highlights were Lucie Green on Solar Max – are we heading for a mini ice age? – and Chris Lintoft who, when I left, seemed to be about to try and get away with murder. He presented an argument that our Milky Way Galaxy is in fact at an atypical phase in its evolution. This being the case, it might be possible that recent consternation that the Universe is expanding at an increasing rate can be discounted. This would allow cosmologists to stop scratching their heads about dark energy which, currently (to account for the increasing rate of expansion) must comprise about 90% of the Universe but for which they have no explanation – or even description. As I said, I had to leave before the end … Great talk though!

So, next year maybe I’ll be able to consider a dome / bike shed. I’ll try and stay longer too, to avoid the punishingly early start. And I’ll only buy one amazing cake from Cafe Concerto!

As the year fades – a Northumbrian tale

In amongst the wild wet, what luck to have a break in the weather and one of the most beautiful skies that I’ve had the privilege of laying eyes on. And how pleased I am that I did in the end find a corner in the car for Baby Dob, in amongst logs, presents and Christmas Cake.

Our current home from home is a cottage on a knoll overlooking the coast at Low Newton by the Sea in Northumbria. It is like a mini castle, surrounded by a stout stone wall. The wall encloses a lovely flat piece of grass with clear views to all horizons. It is a perfect observatory. Given that the cottage dates from the 19th century battles with smugglers and now also performs service for the coastguard, perhaps this is not a surprise.

I had a go Sunday evening, after a glorious day, but the weather quickly closed in, and Monday was proper wild. However, there was a gap between weather fronts on Monday night, as I realised when I had to go out to the loo (so there is an upside to external facilities!). It was a bit blustery so at first I left BD inside and just used binoculars. The first sign that seeing was good was that I was able to see Jupiter’s moons with only my binoculars, a first for me. Sweeping through Auriga it was easy to see several open clusters, and when I realised that, albeit with averted vision, I could also detect the Crab Nebula, that was it. Both BD and DrK were dragged outside.

DrK stunned himself with the view through the Binoculars whilst I viewed Jupiter. One of the moons was very close to the planet, but I was able to resolve it, and it was amazing to be able to see that they were solid objects, not stars, by being able to see their light and dark sides.

The Crab Nebula is the sort of thing that would normally require some patient star-hopping and more than one attempt (see my earlier efforts with the Dumb Bell nebula), but not in these skies. Tick, another fuzzy blob accounted for – this time a supernova remnant that can be identified with a supernova spotted by Chinese Astronomers in 1024. It’s a mere 6,500 light years away.

Into Auriga, the clusters M38 and M37 were ridiculously easy to find. It’s a bit plebby to say so I’m sure, but looking into a cluster is like staring for too long at that windows star field screensaver – but much prettier. M36 was a bit more troublesome – I could see it easily in the binoculars but kept overshooting with BD. Got there in the end though. I also saw M35, another open cluster in Gemini.

Saving the most keenly anticipated until last, I put in an 8mm eyepiece, giving about the most magnification I find manageable with BD (80x) , and turned to the Orion Nebula. It took my breath away. I’ve never seen so much detail, and it can only be described as ethereal. Even DrK was in awe, pronouncing it a ‘bit spesh’.

All in all, a fabulous treat. Now, if we could just have a quick burst of Northern Lights?

(Not) Spotting a Comet Part 3

I have this theory, right, that persistence will be rewarded in proportion to effort.  This is distinctly unscientific and is perhaps underpinned by the principle of ‘what goes around, comes around’.  So I have faith in some unspecified force that, eventually, I WILL see Comet Ison, just because I have now got out of bed at or before 5am 3 times.  I also see this input as a means of trying to ensure that Ison survives its trip round the Sun – this on the basis that if I bother to get up and see it before Sun, then the law of sod says that it will definitely be visible much more easily (both in terms of brightness and timing) after Sun, but if I don’t bother then nor will it and that’ll be that.  Also, I sense that having once voiced this thought, it becomes reality.

Well, I do hope this turns out to be true.  Today I got up, got in the car and drove over the hill to the Huddersfield Astronomical and Philosophical Society (of which I am a member) observatory, there to meet Robert, HAPS president and enthusiastic amateur astronomer.  Robert had promised to be there so it seemed churlish not to turn up, even though it was cloudy and gave no impression that the cloud was likely to disperse in the next 2 hours.  Thus me, Robert, a chap called Lawrence and his primary school-aged daughter Daisy, hung around outside the observatory swapping stories of astro travel, dark skies and successes, occasionally peering at the sky.  When we agreed we were able to discern colour we headed home.  We didn’t even get a nice dawn, although it was interesting to observe that the lights of Huddersfield and Manchester were more prominent due to being reflected off the low cloud.

Tomorrow is pretty much last chance saloon for me, as Ison gets nearer the Sun and rises later.  The forecast isn’t bad, and Robert will be there again so perhaps I’ll get my just reward.  I feel obliged to try whatever – having come this far, if I fall at the last hurdle, that Comet will never survive the Sun.

Perhaps this blog should be subtitled?  ‘The happy marriage of science and superstition’?

To be continued …