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Highlands Astronomical Society

Allegory of the cave  -  Jan 5th & Jan24th

Allegory of the cave - Jan 5th & Jan24th

Added on 27 January 2024



Guy Consolmagno, co-author of 'Turn left at Orion', once said that truth is a moving target and of course he is right; we think that we see it and then it is hidden again; kind of like looking for the 'Horse's Head' nebula with a telescope which we tried to do on the 5th of January 2024 at the Observatory!
It was the perfect night for trying to see what is likely the 'Holy Grail' for amateur astronomers. The sky was clear and dark and the stars of Orion were shining brightly in the south east quadrant, sparkling blue and white with that jewel-like quality that cold and calm January nights are famous for. Only a dedicated and well-equipped handful of people have had the opportunity, to see with their own eyes, what must be one of the most beautiful and enigmatic objects that reside in the night sky. The 'Horse's Head' also known as Barnard 33 is a dark nebula embedded in the vast, luminous clouds of IC 434 that surround it and silhouetted against that background, it closely resembles the head and neck of a horse.



I previously described what is needed as a minimum in terms of equipment and conditions so I won't go into that again; sufficient to say that we had all the necessary parameters nailed.

Paul Moffett and I started the search while we waited for the other hunters to arrive; they being Pauline, Eric, Gerry, Warwick and daughter, Janine Cade and family, Rhona and Mike.

Now, 'Horatio', there might be stranger things, but how the evening proceeded left me a little perplexed. Nobody but Paul and I seemed at all interested in looking for the horse and instead set off to do their own projects, which included fixing the telescope in the dome, identifying constellations with a laser beam, and other non-asscociated pursuits. All laudable pursuits, of course, and who am I to tell people what to do with their time, I was just a little surprised that's all. Even if it was no more than a fool's errand to search for such a thing, I kind of expected some curiosity.

Paul and I stared long and hard into our telescopes. Sometimes we thought there might be something there but then, in an instant it would be gone and in the end, like brother Guy's truth, it eluded us and we had to conclude that neither of us saw anything remotely resembling a horse's head! We shall try again some other time. It is not impossible to do this, just very difficult.

It was a beautiful night though and we all took the time to appreciate the gift that is a starry winter's sky with no Moon and it seemed portentious for the weeks ahead with more frosty nights to come. Unfortunately, we had not foreseen that Paul would buy a new telescope a day or so later and it would be the 24th of January before the stars came out again!!

Wednesday the 24th of January.


The full Moon rose out of the East into a violet sky that was peppered with racing clouds driven by a stiff wind (storm Jocelyn). The air was cold and damp and as I stood at the front door of home, contemplating whether or not to go stargazing at the Observatory, the fretful gusts of wind swirled around me like the icy fingers of an invisible giant. Had I planned to be alone up there on that lonely moor I would have had an easy choice to make but Paul was desperate to try out his new telescope and had insisted to me earlier that the clouds would clear away later and the stars would come out. What could I say ? ?  Well, "NO" would be the obvious answer! It's cloudy, cold, windy and there is a full Moon glaring down from near the zenith, but instead I had said "yeah, I will see you up there in half an hour or so".



So I had sealed my own fate and like a soul being dragged into purgatory or like watching the last lifeboat leave the Titanic, my heart sank further as each mile passed under the car on the way to Culloden. My mood did not improve when I finally got there and the 'vibe' of the place would be best described as eerie to say the least! The trees groaned and swayed in the wind, the scudding clouds seemed alive with malice as they rolled and tumbled across the hazy sky and the fence around the compound vibrated and rattled with an unworldly resonance. No, I'm not making this up! It really was as unpleasant as anyone could imagine.

Undaunted, or simply immune, Paul had set up his new telescope and was trying to find some stars to align it with; no easy task as only a few were visible momentarily between the clouds, but perseverance won in the end and he was finally ready for when the conditions predicted by him would arrive.

So we waited.

Now I'm not going to lie, if I could have thought of a valid excuse to leave Paul by himself I would have readily jumped in the car and gone home. I was cold, irritable and in no mood for looking at stars since even if the clouds departed you would be lucky to see more than just the brightest of them. So I went around the corner of the Observatory to be out of the wind and take a moment to compose my thoughts and sort of meditate I guess and after a while this seemed to work; I felt less stressed and annoyed as I tried to find a way to connect with something good from the chaos around me. I called out to the Muse of the night for help and she answered thus.

As I went back to where Paul was, the wind started to drop and the clouds began to slow to a serene drift across the face of the Moon. Swiftly, and imperceptably, I now found myself quite at home in these changing surroundings; like the turning of a dial, the previous horrors dimmed into obscurity.

The phone rang and it was Carl saying he was on his way to meet us, then, moments later, I got a message from an old friend and fellow stargazer..... Nathalie Fabre, to say she was coming to visit for a few weeks at the end of March. I haven't seen her for years! Now it was not so cold either; the wind continued to fall away to a mere whisper and just as Paul had foretold, the stars came out and the clouds just seemed to evaporate. I could scarcely comprehend what was transpiring and, weird though all this seeming sycronicity was, I embraced it and from there on, the whole night changed into something that was almost magical.

Wait... No, not almost... very magical!


Carl arrived shortly after and we all decided that looking at double stars would be our best bet since the Moon was now turning the landscape into an almost daylight clarity and our first visit was to Cor-caroli in Canes Venatici with Paul's 6 inch monster of a refractor.

WOW   does not even come close to describing this gem of saffron and sapphire! The view that you get with the big refractor is almost three dimensional. Heaven alone knows what it would be like on a dark and moonless night where the dense background of tiny stars would set these jewels apart with startling resolution! It was breathtaking enough as it was, on such a night as this. Next we looked at Sigma Orionis and the same thing; rich clear and sharp stars jumping out of the royal blue backdrop, just astonishing! Eager to continue, I suggested we try to split the stars of Beta Monoceros; the huge unicorn that stands to the left of Orion. (Our left, his right). Thank goodness for Paul's GOTO mount because this star would have been nigh impossible to find in the bright moonlight. Our quest was halted here; there was no point in searching beyond this wonder and we spent the rest of the night just looking at the mesmerizing conjunction of the three stars. I Googled synonyms for 'breathtaking' and there are 81 of them, yet none worthy of Beta Monoceros! The uncanny beauty of these three stars is only matched by the difficulty of separating the two small ones. 'They' say that you can see them with a small telescope and high magnification, and I daresay that might be true, but they would be tricky to focus and would be pretty blurred. But we had the gargantuan aperture of Paul's 6 inch, and the image in the eyepiece was as clear as a chalk stream and bright as a newly minted coin of silver. With every passing minute, the night just got more and more beautiful and we seemed to grow into it as if we were one and the same thing. Like crossing a Rubicon into another dimension. I, for one, was reluctant to leave when the time came for departing. A pole-shift from when I arrived!



We continued like this until a veil of cloud began to drift in from the West around 10 0'clock just as a huge meteor streaked across the sky making the most of the remaining clear area above us.
Ok, so it was not 'the miracle of Fatima', but when I say magical, it is in the truest meaning of the word. There was something else at work tonight, beyond the co-incidence, like a wish had been granted by a benign entity and we had stepped out of the shadows, like the prisoner from Plato's cave, to see the wonder of the outside world. Whether anyone would believe us, as in the allegory, well that's up to the reader.

Maybe you just had to 'be there' as they say.

Dark skies forever.


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