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Highlands Astronomical Society

Saturn, and a brush with the 'Woo'.

Saturn, and a brush with the 'Woo'.

Added on 21 July 2023

It was Friday the twenty first of July and it was cloudy at dusk with just a few holes to see into the blue void of space. I was sitting in the garden watching the sky as the colours changed from pink to grey then orange and blue as the Sun said goodbye to the day and nightfall crept up from the south. From behind a crimson cloud the thin crescent Moon poked a golden horn into the blue and I made a wish. A little later I saw the sparkling red star Arcturus and I made another wish, well, the same wish actually. I always wish on the new moon and the first star I see at night. If you don't believe in magic then magical things won't happen. It was eleven o'clock now and the clouds were forming all across the sky. The moon was sinking serenely behind the trees to the West and I went in to get some coffee. The phone rang. "Hi Paul, what's new?" I said.  "Well..." said Paul "It is supposed to clear up a bit later according to the weather forecast and I was thinking of going up to the observatory". Now 90% of all sane astronomers would have said no since at that moment there would be nothing to see but clouds but Paul and I are in the 10% category and though not entirely 'insane' we are rather insanely optimistic. So off we went.

At the observatory we set up our telescopes and waited. The clouds that earlier had tiny holes to peer through were now closing in on each other to form a grey blanket stretching all the way from every cardinal point! So we waited some more. The night around us was silent and still, without a breath of wind; cool but not cold. Far off in the distance a tawny owl called out with a tremulous hooting sound and was answered by the sharp 'ke-wick' of another from the woods toward Clava. In the West a thin azure band which was clear of clouds could be seen and the faint wisps of noctilucent clouds glowed along the horizon. Half submerged behind the distant mountains the setting Moon shone red amid the haze. So we couldn't see any stars but the breathtaking beauty of the night made up for our loss and we were content to just be witness to the surrounding darkness.

Then the first of some remarkable things occured. We looked up in profound disbelief as the cloud cover literally evaporated! Within minutes there was not a cloud anywhere and the fabulous vista of the heavens was revealed. Above us now was a gigantic bubble of royal blue dotted with the myriad jewel-like sparkling stars. The air seemed charged with electricity and it was no longer dark but rather glowing with an ether of silver and we could now see the hills to the south etched against the sky. Speechless but thrilled by our good luck we turned our telescopes to Saturn which was riding high in the south east approaching the meridian. Now imagine that someone had taken a photograph of Saturn and taped it to the front of your lens! That was how steady the image of the planet looked! I have never seen a planet that did not wobble to some extent when viewing it with a telescope and especially when using high magnification but here was Saturn as if you were floating in outer space far from the Earth's atmosphere; perhaps as it would be if you were sitting astride the Hubble telescope piggy-backed with your tiny refractor gazing out into the pristene darkness of the universe. We could see everything there was to see on Saturn; the rings clearly defined against the yellowish globe, the divisions of the rings, the shadow cast by them on the surface of the planet and several of the nearby moons. We could just not take our eyes from it so amazing was the view we had. We were down to 3mm on the eyepiece and still it would not waver! You could live an entire lifetime and more, and never be given a chance like this so we just kept on looking, awe-struck at this wonder in the night sky.

As we were adding a filter to Paul's eyepiece to further enhance our view (if that were possible) it was then that we encountered the  ' Woo ' . Just to the right of Saturn two bright lights appeared. Like stars but brighter than even Venus, stationary and close together. "What the heck is that?" we exclaimed almost in unison and we watched in amazement as the upper light started to move toward us followed shortly after by the other one. As they approached high overhead the front one stopped and the other gradually caught up. At this point the front light intensified and the following one broke off to the East and then they both disappeared in an instant. The whole event lasted for about four minutes. Now to be clear, they were high, like in space high and they looked like they were shining with reflected light, like a satellite; soundless and brighter than any satellite I have seen and they were not aeroplanes and helicopters don't fly that high. There is an old saying in the 'helicopter world' that only bats and twats fly at night so I think we can rule that out! Maybe you guys out there have an explanation for this phenomenon but at this moment for Paul and me it was more 'woo' than it was natural.  What else can I say? That's what we saw and we remain as mystified now as we were on the night.

We did look at a few other things in the sky as the night wore on toward dawn such as the beautiful Pleiades star cluster low in the east and the harbinger of autumn but we kept going back to Saturn simply because of the unique conditions that prevailed.

The word 'magic' would seldom be found in an astronomical report I guess but sometimes it is the only word that will describe what is out there. Words are 'spells' in a magical sense; after all when we write words we try to 'spell' them correctly and 'spelling' is the only way to turn the word into the imagined thing it signifies. So this night was magic in every way that it could be. There is a deep connection with the universe that sometimes can only be had from being there to see with your own eyes what wonders are all around us. Wonders that are hidden most of the time. If we had seen elves and fairies dancing in the dew of the dawn we would not have been that surprised given what we had already encountered on our magical journey in time and space on this remarkable, unforgettable and life-changing night under the stars.

by Dave Davidson

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