CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Observing session on Thursday 9th November
Added on 11 November 2023
Two unusual things to start the day; first was the occultation of Venus by the Moon and the second, that there wasn't a cloud in the sky! Yes, the day dawned calm and cold, a thin frost sparkled on the golden leaves of the trees, hanging precariously from the branches in defiance of the winter to come. A robin who had ceaselessly sung all night finally ran out of breath and took off down the street as I set up the telescope in the backyard. High in the baby-blue sky above and almost due south hung the silver scimitar of the waning crescent Moon and near beside it as if hung by a thread from the lower horn of the Moon was the planet Venus shining like a diamond that catches the Sun. As the minutes ticked by the gap between them was closing; like a spider climbing a cobweb Venus came nearer and nearer to the Moon. The quiet of the breathless dawn, accompanied only by the sounds of the fleeing robin and the faint whirring of the clockwork gears on the telescope was now replaced with the roar and whoosh of motor cars rushing to work, speeding past the 20 MPH signs like foxes pursued by hounds and oblivious to the wonder in the sky above them. The relentless pinging of the WhatsApp Nebulous News made me wish for another pair of arms and ten more fingers as I tinkered with the focus on the telescope and checked all the camera settings. Like Pavlov's dogs, I am a slave to WhatsApp and cannot ignore each new alert bell. That said, it was great to acknowledge all the other Club members who were there at the moment of impact exchanging photos and exclamations of joy! As Venus succumbed to the mountains of the Moon it was suddenly gone from sight. The vast swirl of the Solar System plain to see in broad daylight! Quite simply, amazing.
Several cups of coffee and an hour later at 10.33am Venus reappeared still clearly visible even now that the Sun was up. It is amazing to see how bright Venus is in daylight and how easily seen it is, yet without the signpost of the Moon like today you could search for hours and never find it. So this astonishing event was over. The Moon must pass in front of hundreds of stars on a daily and nightly basis and we take little note yet today when it is a planet in our Solar System we come out in droves to witness it! Perhaps Astrology and the influence of the planets is not so dead as we like to believe?
So many Club members took photos of the event and in every case they were remarkable and they will doubtless feature at the next meeting in the gallery. I say in every case, but there was one unfortunate (who am I kidding?) who was in Marrakesh and due to the parallax of distance from our latitude meant that it was a near-miss and not a contact. (Still a beautiful photo though Kim!)
So that was 'Close Encounter' number one for Thursday the 9th of November and the next would be a night with the stars at the Observatory. The weather looked great for the rest of the day and evening so we posted on all the media we have that the Observatory would be open from 6pm and everyone was welcome including 'the public' and, true to the weather forecasts, the evening approached calm, cold and sparkling clear! I arrived early to get things set up to find Paul Moffett already there and aligning his telescope with the north celestial pole. I wondered for a moment that he had not grown roots from his feet and was in fact a permanent feature of the landscape, as familiar as the trees in the corner of the field, always there and in the same spot! As fanciful as that sounds, it is true that if the stars are out then so is Paul; first to arrive and last to leave.
I took the 12 inch Dobbin out into the yard and along with my Celestron 80mm refractor they would be our eyes for the night ahead. Let me say this straight off; the recently modified Dobbin is a real pleasure to operate now!! Gone is the frustration of it swinging past the thing you are trying to find because of the wheels hanging unevenly over the path or catching on a wee stone so it won't budge until you push it and it jerks 30 degrees across the sky! Gone too is the neccessity to keep it in the yard; now it can be wheeled outside to access so much more of the lower parts of the horizon without the fence getting in the way. The motions in altitude and azimuth are now smooth and sensitive and can be pushed around the sky with just one finger! It is fitted too with setting circles to help with locating those pesky galaxies of the 10th magnitude and more. Collimated to split the most inseparable stars and I could go on, but instead I will just thank Paul Moffett profusely for his endeavours to produce an instrument transformed! The skill and cunning of his hands is hard to overstate.
Now with everything tested and ready we had not long to wait for our company to arrive. Sally Moore and Norma Duncan were first to get there and soon followed by Kristina Petkova and family. Yes that included her 3 year old daughter Jane and husband David!! For Sally it was her first visit to the Observatory and I gave her a 'tour' of some of the November night sky wonders. The rings around Saturn of course, the Ring Nebula, the glorious spectacle of Alberio and its partner, Andromeda Nebula, and who can forget M13 in Hercules! Then the mighty Jupiter with those enigmatic bands of colour that swirl around the globe. When you see these things for the first time through a telescope it is a transforming moment. Look up in the sky and you see what appears as a bright star, but then look with a telescope and it is like opening a portal with a magic spell! Now there is a huge spinning orb surrounded by tiny moons all in motion and plain to see in motion if you simply wait and watch. A single star to the naked eye becomes two or three hugging so close to each other that you have to squint your eye to see the gap. Flaming with colour like amber and emeralds, sapphires and rubies scattered on a black velvet cloth they start out from the gulf of space and leave you awe-struck at the immense beauty of it all. Of course, we all had a look at these amazing objects and more besides, even wee Jane shrieked with delight at seeing a galaxy for the first time. The biting cold of the early evening eased as the night wore on and we were able to stay out for ages at a time searching out fresh wonders at every swing of the telescopes to a new part of the sky but still, from time to time we retreated to the warmth of the shed for a cup of coffee and a chance to share our discoveries. Just after we had come out again from our second coffee break, Sally and Norma said that they thought they could see a faint aurora in the North just under Callisto the Great Bear! Indeed they had! Ok it was not like the last outburst of aurora when Lisa Pattenden had stood outside her house directly under an auroral corona! but it was visible to the naked eye and guess what? Kristina had never seen an aurora of any sort! Screams of amazement rang out as we stood on the platform next to the dome and watched the green spires rise up from the horizon.
No one ever tires of seeing the Aurora Borealis but for someone seeing it for the first time it is a milestone on their journey through time. I was so thrilled for Kristina, David and wee Jane.
We continued for a while longer after the aurora subsided but by 10 o'clock a frost sprang up. Eyepieces were fogged and the marrow in our bones began to set; it was time to go home. In only a few hours we had seen M31, M33, M57, M101, M51, M97, M74, M15, M1, M13, M27, not to mention some remarkable double stars like Gamma Delphinus (a mirror to Alberio) and Gamma Aries (Mesarthim) a stunning blue-white matched pair and more that I simply can't remember.
What a day, what a night! A celestial cornucopia, shared by the enthusiastic members of the Highlands Astronomical Society. Occultations, shooting stars, galaxies and aurora all in a day.
These nights at the Observatory are such fun and I would encourage anyone who thinks that astronomy might be a stuffy affair to think again; we 'wowed' and shrieked with delight at the wonders we saw, we howled with laughter at stories shared and above all we glowed with that comradeship that comes from spending hours together in a common endeavour.
Clear skies everyone and hope to see you all soon.
P.S. Orion was above the horizon just as we were leaving! The winter nights to come!