Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Stargazing

I meant to write this post like a month ago, but I sort of forgot about it until I was reminded by the solar eclipse this morning, and some pretty decent photos of it that Peter sent me:

 


(As usual, click for larger size, albeit still not that big because I got them via email)

At the end of last term myself and Nick cycled to Peter's house. The cycle itself was pretty fun because we took various bridle paths and farm roads which were a fairly interesting mix of ice and thick mud. I'm surprised that none of us actually fell of at any point, despite a number of fairly close calls.Anyway, we spent the afternoon and most of the evening at his house in the middle of nowhere, and we did some stargazing in his back garden.

My first real surprise was just how many stars there are when you get into a place with not much light pollution and just look up at the sky for a few minutes and let you eyes adjust. I live in a fairly built-up area and this was the first time I've ever seen stuff like the milky way across the sky. I've never really considered that where I live would have that much light pollution, but I've never been able to look up at the sky and see anywhere near that number of stars before (the fact we rarely get a clear night here probably doesn't help).

Even at college, if you go out into the paddock on a fairly clear night and just give yourself a few minutes out there, you can see a shitload of stuff in the sky. A shitload of stuff that I can't usually see back home :\

I also looked at Jupiter through a telescope for the first time, and was pretty amazed at just how clear the moons are, and how far away they are from the surface of the planet. It's fairly impressive stuff.

So in the interest of pursuing this sort of thing, and perhaps having a greater interest in astronomy, I went looking for a sky map program and found Stellarium, which is a pretty damn impressive piece of software given that it's free. It's easy to use, to set your location etc, and there's plenty to play with in terms of features and view options. It also has plugins for various things, such as showing real-time information on where you should be able to see satellite traces in the sky.

Satellites are something I've actually watched for a while, because even in light-polluted skies you can usually see iridium flares. There's a site called heavens-above which allows you to enter your location, and it'll give you details about any iridium flares you should be able to see for the next week or so (though -6 to -8 ones are usually the only ones worth bothering with the naked eye). It gives you the time, and the position in the sky you should be looking at. They're pretty cool - usually you can see a faint dot moving fairly quickly through the sky, before it gets epicly bright for a few seconds and then fades away again. Given how bright they get it's a bit weird to think it's just sunlight reflecting off a fairly small satellite.

It's slightly more obvious to me now why ancient cultures have so much mythology and interest in stars and constellations. Aside from that fact that there was very little else to do back then, the sky must have been completely astonishing to them because there would have been no light pollution whatsoever. I feel slightly bewildered that I've been able to spend twenty years of my life before properly being able to see and appreciate the night's sky. And that was just from looking from the fens - I'd imagine from the Scottish Highlands things look even more amazing.

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