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Highlands Astronomical Society

Night Owls

Night Owls

Added on 07 August 2023

       How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here we will sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony. Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold. There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st, but in her motion like an angel sings.

I thought of these words last night and the timeless wonder of being under the stars and moon on an almost cloudless, mild, late summer night. August the 7th, and though it had rained about eleven o'clock, by the time Paul Moffett and I arrived at Culloden the clouds were drifting away and the stars were coming out. Paul had been listening to ClassicFM on his car radio on the way up so we just left it going and it provided the most beautiful soundtrack to our stargazing. Honestly, the 'moonlight sonata' was playing as the first golden rays of the last quarter moon began to show in the East. You couldn't make it up, I know, but that's just how it was and it was so harmonious with our surroundings.

We decided to use two telescopes, one of which was Paul's ED 102 on an AVX mount, the other being the Club's 12 inch Dobbin. The 102 is a remarkable instrument and gives pin-sharp views of the stars, high contrast and surprising detail for such a relatively small aperture. The 12 inch Dobbin is difficult to describe without using expletives! Looking at the Moon with this thing is something that you should do even if you have only a passing interest in astronomy! No photograph ever taken will compare to what you will see in the eyepiece of this monster. It is the next best thing to actually going to the Moon. The astronauts described the Moon as "magnificent desolation" but that's not what I see when I look at the Moon close up with this telescope. Here is a land of wonder and breathtaking beauty. Silver spires shoot up from edges of vast, terraced craters casting needle-like shadows on the grey plains below them, tiny rivers meander across the desert-like flatlands, bright-lipped towers that look like cones arrayed in arcs with unfathomable blackness at their cores, the tops of mountains lit by the sun appear to float in space detached from their enormous bulk which lies in darkness and above all, a serene timelessness that pervades wherever you look upon the face of the silver globe. Don't take my word for it, come and have a look yourself, it's free and available on any dark night when the stars are out.

Then there is Saturn. OMG! To see this wonder of the night sky in such detail surrounded by 4 of her moons in close consort, words just fail here. Saturn is my favouite planet, next to the Earth of course. As autumn progresses into winter the two giants of solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, will be on spectacular display in the southern sky and high enough to be beyond the 'wobble' of the atmoshere's turbulence. They will be visible much earlier too so you don't need to be a 'night owl' to see them.

It was after midnight now and the night was dark save for the golden glow of the Moon. Looking up, we could see the faint, gossamer web of the Milky-Way and ever and again, a Perseid meteor would pierce the void with a bright streak of red and green, some leaving a thin trail to mark their passing. Of all the things to see in the sky, a shooting-star is one of the most magnificent, ending its epic voyage in a blaze of light and fire in a moment of thrilling startle to the onlooker. It is a good omen to be seeing a few before the peak on Saturday night and we so hope that the clouds stay away for that!

As the clock ticked on toward 2am the air became cooler but not in that deep winter chill way that we are used to in the astronomy season. This was just a cooler air that it had been earlier. One of the great things about starwatching at this time of year is the sheer comfort of the warmer conditions; just a fleece after midnight will do and you can sit out for hours without getting cold. How unlike the winter months when testing how long you can survive is uppermost! Sure, the skies might be darker and for longer but there is a price to pay for that. We looked at so many things tonight; the great spiral of the Whirlpool Nebula, the eyes of the Owl Nebula, the Little Dumbell (first time I've seen that), the Big Dumbell in the fox, and most wonderfully the Cigar Galaxy. With the 12 inch telescope this is truly a sight to bring out the 'wows'! And we did a lot of 'wow-ing' tonight. The relatively short darkness soon passed however and by 4am the sky was brightening as dawn approached. In the East, standing like a pillar, were Castor and Pollox just above the horizon. Over to the right was Taurus the bull and just below that the mighty shoulders of Orion behind the distant hills.

It had been another awesome night under the stars. So remote from the world of commerce, television, and the mundane that makes up so much of our lives. Here there was only that timeless connection to the Universe and Nature that the old astrologers saw when Kepler and Tycho Brahe were around. For all our lamps of science it is still a dimly lit path that we tread and there is still mystery and romance out there when we take the time to look.

Finally, a big thanks to everyone who came to the 'Astrophotography workshop' on Sunday evening and hope to see you all at the BBQ on Saturday.

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