Category Archives: Observations

Watching Saturn at Opposition

The ringed planet Saturn is at opposition – ie it is at the part of its orbit that brings it closest to the Earth. This in turn makes it a good time to have a look at this most stunning planet.

Global Astronomy Month has also begun and they started things off with a live view of Saturn. For those wanting to look at how the professionals do it, Tom Stallard and Henrik Melin of Leicester University are presently stuck up Mauna Kea in Hawaii measuring the aurora with the Infrared Telescope Facility and have also put that online.

They’ve blogged about what they’re doing here and will be broadcasting 11am-5pm BST every day of their observations at this page.


Quick Observing report

The cold air tonight reminded me that there actually sometimes is a starry sky above my head. Seeing the clear, star pricked night, I assembled the Celestron 130SLT and eyepieces and quickly set it up outside. Not quick enough as a band of fast moving cloud headed between me and the targets. Defeated, I returned inside.

Not too long afterward, I returned and set up under a clearer sky with slower clouds. I took with me the Greenkat spotting scope as well. My three intended targets for the night were Jupiter, Uranus and the Comet 103P Hartley, which is breaching the magnitude 6.5 according to Heavens Above (finder chart here). My intention was to direct the main telescope straight onto Jupiter and Uranus and use the spotting scope’s wider field of view to scan for the comet before zooming in on it later, as I have done with previous ones.

This didn’t go quite to plan as a combination of the strong light of the Moon and neighbours popping by for a look meant the comet hunt was eventually called off. Although I did get a glimpse of Hartley, it didn’t seem quite good enough for a swing round of the Celestron.

Instead I concentrated on the brighter objects, taking in the turquoise Uranus before showing off Jupiter and the four Galilean moons to four neighbours. Three of the satellites were arranged in a similar way to the handle of the plough, all on one side of the planet. The fourth, Io, sat just off the limb, easily resolvable in the 9mm and 4mm eyepieces, but too close for the 24mm one to pick out. Just passed opposition, the giant planet is enormous in the eyepiece. As well as the remaining equatorial band, detail could be seen of the zones and caps, which is quite unusual for me to spot.

After this, a neighbour wanted to look at the just passed full Moon, so we swung onto that, with views of shadowed craters on the limb to see. With that done and the cold biting into everyone, the session was wrapped up and we headed back into our houses.

Report on the Kendal Solar System Scale Model

A quick admission to make, due to the weather rather spoiling my plans, I never did a walkabout of the solar system scale model held in Kendal on Waterside. I did see bits of it getting set up, all the way up to Uranus – where I was stationed. I had decided I would go walkabout at around three o’clock, but part of my duties involved showing people the Sun through a Coronado Personal Solar Telescope, kindly donated for the day by Robin Leadbeater, and as luck would have it from about half two until half four (thirty minutes after the official end of the event) I was deluged with people either wanting to watch the Sun, or standing at the ready for when the next break in the clouds came.

Instead, my time was spent by the bridge over the Kent, next to the Abbot Hall playground alongside volunteer Neil Wheeler and a sign indicating Uranus. As Neil took charge of delivering quick bursts of information on the planet formerly known as Neptune George III Great Britain (snappy, why did they ever rename it?) amongst other things, I stood forlornly by a telescope pointed at the clouds.

Then there was a small break – just enough for me to point the telescope towards a bright light not often seen. Then another crack in the clouds, just enough to tune the telescope to show the bright regions, granulation, prominences and a filament. Another crack and the focusing was adjusted.

One o’clock seemed to spark off the first real wave of people coming through, following the sporadics in the first hour. After this point, more and more people flowed steadily through, many stopping to try and catch the Sun in one of the rare breaks in the cloud. Eventually, larger areas of blue sky started to filter through and rather than taking a quick walk to Pluto, people elected to wait until one arrived, providing a good dozen or so people queuing at a time. Old hands, mothers with babes in sling (at least two of those), young children (for which the telescope was lowered) and everyone in between. Even a member of the Cumbrian Skies group of the Stargazer’s Lounge found time to drop by.

Several people had their fears about looking directly through a telescope at the Sun calmed with a quick chat about how the Coronado rejected 99.9% of the light coming into it and selected only a tiny fraction to see. As a result, they got their first views of the solar surface magnified by around 40x and for those who were able to focus on the detail (for some, it took some time, for others it was instant), the views were memorable. One young boy called the Sun ‘creepy’ when he saw the feathered edges and sinuous detail like the filament (called variously, ‘the tadpole’ and ‘the wiggly thing’) and the brighter glowing regions. The Sun is coming out of the deepest solar minimum for a century, making the views even more special. The reasons behind that apparently lie in a conveyor belt of plasma that has been spinning round faster than normal in recent years, but not stretching as far down in previous cycles as it does now. But the activity (measurable through new techniques such as using the polarisation of light to detect the magnetic field structure), and the resulting auroral signals, provided some talking points for visitors.

But dragging myself away from the solar viewing (by the shorn tips of my fingers), going both on the account of the happy faces arriving at Uranus and the official event write-up by organiser Stuart Atkinson, the day went well with people by the dozen flowing through and seeing just how big things in our tiny corner of the galaxy are and getting in most cases their first filtered look at the thing that holds the entire solar system together. The Sun.

Entering Night Three of #meteorwatch

The 2010 twitter Meteorwatch is moving into its third night after the peak night saw such a volume of traffic, the coordinate website’s server went down. The Royal Astronomical Society and have stepped in as new hosts and in the interim, the interactive bits such as the Map and Gallery ran on Scibuff’s website.

In the meantime, images like this, this by the Pleiades and these still came through as well as videos like this. The IMO activity profile suggests the peak hit the expected 80 meteors an hour. Media coverage of last night includes Channel 4 news and the Sun. Tangentially relevant stories released in the past day include this one on the meteor man Alexander Stewart Herschel by the Science Museum and this one on Meteor Crater by NASA Goddard’s Blueshift Blog.

My own perspective included lots of typing on twitter with one eye on the satellite picture of cloud cover over the UK. At some point, I was dragged outside by my mother, just as the cloud was clearing and we, with the help of the cat, saw twenty or so meteors, including a few bright ones and many with persistent trails. The film camera clicked and whirred away, but the results will need developing later. Then back in with the cloud before in and out repeatedly to catch another five meteors in total between smaller, later gaps.

Tonight’s efforts are already underway with images like this and this of the same fireball coming in from a star party. Another star party is the subject of a broadcast on and the fun continues on the twitter #meteorwatch too.

The Sun today

The so called bear claw sunspot 1089 appears to have evolved significantly in the two days since I was last able to take a photo of it. Both through the eyepiece and on images taken with the digicam, through the Celestron 130SLT using 25mm and 9mm eyepieces, only the ‘upper’ part of the paw print shape appeared to be retaining its strength. All the straggly bits in between these two feet appear to be lining up and showing interesting complexity, but the lower part of the display appears to be fading. As well as the photos I got today, I’ve also reposted the photos from the 21st for comparison. The reason appears to be that the various sunspot pairs making up the 1089 group have differing lifetimes.

Today’s sunspot

After the disappointing rain of the past while or so, the sun has finally come out, allowing me to take out the Celestron 130SLT, astrozap solar filter cover and my digicam to take a picture or two. During the course of the rain, I watched on as sunspot 1087 made its slow way from one side of the solar disc to the other. It was bigger than sunspot 1085, which was the last one I observed, and would’ve shown more structure at the eyepiece. It vanished as the clouds broke today. However, another sunspot – 1089 – came round as the last one went and this one is far, far larger and far, far more complex. Nicknamed the ‘bear claw sunspot’ it looks a little like an animal print on the side of the Sun. It is in fact a region where the solar magnetic field has become kinked and loops of it are breaking through the surface, causing magnetic cooling in the areas they pass through. This cooler, darker area is still very bright, but compared to the unaffected regions of the Sun, look dark. I viewed the spot in the 25mm and 9mm eyepieces.

Clouded out at Abbott Hall

With it being the usual stunning mid summer in the ever dry English Lake District, we at the Eddington Society were to hold a public observing session at Abbott Hall park, where many had been held before (along with the Brewery, the Castle, the Helm, Bowling Fell and Kendal Cricket Club).

Sadly the clouds had other ideas. Ignoring our pleas, they must’ve read the July edition of the Sky At Night to know just when to turn up. As we gathered at ten pm, they held sway in the West, blocking our view of Saturn, Mars and Venus, all shining relatively close together next to the slender crescent Moon – or so we’re told, there was certainly no evidence from where we were.

The event still proved something of a success, a couple of dozen people turned up to chat astronomy in the light summer evening and it did stay dry. By eleven, when we were preparing to pack up, the clouds had begun to also break and revealed the occasional star, starting off with Vega and then Deneb, slowly revealing the Summer triangle and then the whole of Cygnus, while the east also started to show off pinpricks of light.

As well as the natural light show, there was something of a less natural one too. Chinese lanterns swooped low over us, coming from the West, borne by strong winds rippling over the town. The first one or two I saw in the distance over the castle, seemingly headed north east from somewhere south of us, but then there was a spate of the things from the West. As I get several emails complaining of strange lights, I’ve taken a photograph or two and even a video to give an idea of the colour (from the photos) and the speed (videos) of the thing – though the flickering and colour changing in the videos owes more to the compression software than the things themselves. All have been added to my 2010 public observing flickr album.

As well as those, we also had two naked eye satellites passing through gaps in the clouds, one of which was quite bright and vanished into the shadow of the Earth partway through the gap. Just two more ufos over Kendal to spook people. Incidentally, our next public event needs no clear skies and no late evenings. The Great Kendal Solar System Scale Model 2 will be along Waterside on Saturday August 14th from 12-4pm.