Familiar stars

Jun 11, 2014 in Brazil 2014

Familiar stars

On the beach, appreciating the equatorial view of the whole sky with the Plough in front of me and the Southern Cross behind

After the rain

Apr 14, 2012 in Chile

After the rain

After my interrupted sleep I wasn’t looking forward to my first night unsupervised at the controls, but in the end it was postponed again. Early the next afternoon the decision was taken that the telescopes would not open at all that night, to avoid any possibility of water getting in. The “domes” have flat tops and any standing water could spell disaster for all the sensitive mechanics and electronics.

So we went up to the control room anyway but no astronomy would be done tonight. It was a pity, because the skies after the storm were stunningly clear. With the luxury of having no observatory work to do, I went out on the platform late in the night to appreciate the view.

I moved here in October, at which time the centre of the Milky Way is setting and can’t be seen very well. Now, for the first time, I got a good look at it. It’s stunningly bright and you can only see it well from the Southern Hemisphere. This is a real shame for the 90% of the world’s population who live in the Northern Hemisphere – their view of our home galaxy is completely inadequate in comparison. I hadn’t really seen it properly since I was in Zambia, 11 years ago. So I was really happy to see it again tonight, rising behind the telescopes in the small hours. It will be visible for the next few months, and I will be taking a lot more photographs of it.

Bad weather at Paranal

Apr 09, 2012 in Chile

Bad weather at Paranal

I’m at Paranal right now, undergoing my final training before they let me fly solo at the controls of the world’s premier optical observatory. My training so far has been seriously affected by weather – of the 11 nights I’ve done, five have been completely lost and most of the rest have been partly lost. Last night the telescopes were closed a couple of hours early, and tonight we didn’t open at all. The telescopes have to be closed when the humidity goes above 60%, and tonight it was nearly 100% and there were clouds right on the peak.

Before the clouds came in, though, I went out to take a photo of the night sky. The moon was rising, and Orion was setting. When I took the photo, I couldn’t see the shadow the moon was casting, so I was pretty amazed when I looked at the camera screen to see the shadow of the telescopes, cast on to the clouds below.

ALMA

Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011

ALMA

Paranal

Nov 01, 2011 in Chile

Paranal

Part of my job here in Chile is to assist in the running of the world’s premier visible light observatory, the Very Large Telescope. A couple of days ago I made my first journey here from Santiago, flying up to Antofagasta and getting a bus from there up into the savagely dry Atacama desert, to the observatory at Cerro Paranal.

What a place Paranal is. I’ve been to several observatories but none have been anything like this. The residencia is an awesome piece of architecture, the scale of the operation is immense, the level of activity is impressive, and the unbelievably harsh desert is terrifyingly beautiful. I will be coming here about once a month for the next three years so perhaps I will get bored of it. But on this first visit, I’m feeling impressed.

Observatorio del Teide

Oct 27, 2010 in Tenerife 2010

Observatorio del Teide

Icing on the cake

Apr 12, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Icing on the cake

The orange glow receded. Árni reckoned the eruption was much smaller now than when he’d last seen it a week ago, but it had been awesome to see it nonetheless.

Our return journey was much slower than the outward leg. The trail had got icier, and the gale was getting stronger. We bounced around so much that I felt seasick, climbing back up to the heights of the Mýrdalsjökull. At one point, another car in the convoy got stuck, and Árni had to jump out to attach a towrope. The icy blast as he opened the door was breathtaking. It took a little while to extricate the other car, and I wondered if we would need to get out and push. I didn’t much fancy that.

Luckily we got going again, and pushed on. As we descended, I started to become sure that I could see the northern lights. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we stopped to reinflate the tyres, and here there was no doubt. The wind was whipping up a fog of blown snow, but through that I could see that the sky was full of dancing green lights. We carried on down, the wind began to drop and the lights got brighter.

We reached sea level at about 3am. I was beginning to get a tiny bit worried – my flight was leaving Keflavík at 8am and it was going to take a few more hours yet to reach Reykjavík. But if I missed my flight, then so be it. Right now I was just concerned with feeling awestruck. We stopped at Skógafoss, reinflated the tyres a bit more, and here the lights were stunning, flying overhead like curtains billowing in a colossal breeze.

We drove on, stopping in the middle of nowhere briefly to pick up some people whose car had broken down as they were trying to get to the volcano. The lights seemed brighter than I ever remembered them and at the end of a spectacular day of travelling, this was almost too much to take in. I was having a natural wonder overdose.

We headed on. The small hours grew larger, and I fell fast asleep. I woke as we approached Reykjavík, where we arrived at 5am. I had just enough time to brew a painfully strong coffee before heading back to the airport as the sun was rising. My weekend had been perilously close to turning into an appalling waste of time and money but we’d snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. I could not have been happier as I headed back to the UK. Later it turned out that just a few hours after I’d been there, the Fimmvörðuháls eruption stopped. After a day of calm, a new and much bigger eruption started a few miles away, causing massive disruption to European air travel as a huge ash cloud drifted over the continent. Much as I’d have loved to see that, my timing was pretty good. If I hadn’t left when I did I might still be there now.

Snæfell is still calling me. I’ll be going back to Iceland before too long.

La Silla alternative view

Jan 06, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009

La Silla alternative view

Seen from a flight from Arica to Santiago via Iquique and Copiapó

Still trailing

Dec 22, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

Still trailing

Control room

Dec 21, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

Control room

Rotation

Dec 20, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

Rotation

La Silla

Dec 19, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

La Silla

ESAC

Mar 26, 2009 in Madrid 2009

ESAC

European Space Agency ground control centre at Villanueva de la Cañada

Potsdam

May 19, 2008 in Berlin 2008

Potsdam

Up to the top

Jun 24, 2007 in La Palma 2007

Up to the top

Seeing stars

Oct 27, 2006 in La Palma 2006

Seeing stars

Bad weather

Oct 26, 2006 in La Palma 2006

Bad weather

Wet nights

Oct 24, 2006 in La Palma 2006

Wet nights

Eclipse

Mar 29, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006

Eclipse

A composite of images taken using a small digital camera and a butchered pair of 2-lira eclipse sunglasses

Observing

Aug 01, 2003 in La Palma 2003

Observing

La Palma

Jul 31, 2003 in La Palma 2003

La Palma

Moonlight

Aug 04, 2001 in La Palma 2001

Moonlight

Kalima

Aug 01, 2001 in La Palma 2001

Kalima

Saharan dust covering the sky

La Palma

Jul 31, 2001 in La Palma 2001

La Palma

Eclipse!

Jun 21, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001

Eclipse!

Eclipse day. During the night, I had a succession of horrible dreams in which I was in Cornwall again, watching the clouds cover up the crescent sun, or I was waking up in Zambia to find that it was cloudy. And when I woke some time before sunrise I thought my worst nightmares were coming true. I looked out the window to see dull grey skies casting a lifeless light over the land, and my heart leapt into my mouth. Surely this was all wrong! It took a while to realise that this was just the very early pre-dawn light making things look odd, and as the sky tinged blue with the oncoming day I relaxed, just a little bit.

We got up and went down to the river to watch the sun rise. Two years earlier I’d watched the Sun rise over pools of mist from a Cornish hilltop, and I’d listened to Mute by Porcupine Tree. I did the same here on the banks of the Zambezi as I watched the sun sliding inexorably towards its rendezvous with the moon, lurking unseen next to it in the sky. There was not even a hint of a cloud in the sky, so my paranoia began to work on other possibilities. Perhaps the calculations were wrong and we would only see a partial eclipse? Perhaps there’d be a dust storm? Perhaps I’d get food poisoning from my lunch?

In the middle of the morning, we heard a drum begin to beat outside our hotel. It turned out to be a band with dancers, playing the traditional Makishi music which is common in this part of Zambia. We watched the dancing and listened to the singing with a large audience of locals against the stunning backdrop of the river and plains.

After a quick lunch of nshima and meat, we were ready to find an eclipse spot. We headed down to the river to get a boat across to the other side. Horror! There was not a boatman or a boat in sight. This was not what we expected. The local authorities had told the people to stay indoors unless they had a safe way of viewing the eclipse, and clearly a lot of people had decided to take a day off. Eventually a boatman appeared, and found a canoe in which he ferried us across to the other side. As we waited on the east bank, the first bite was taken out of the sun by the encroaching moon, and the eclipse was underway.

We walked along the west bank for a little while until we found a good spot to set up. The sun was now about a quarter covered up, but I knew from Cornwall that things wouldn’t really look any different until the sun was at least three-quarters gone. I tried to keep from panicking as I ran through my photographic plans once again.

And as the predicted time approached, we began to notice that it was getting cooler, and the light was beginning to take on the strange quality of an unreddened sunset. Gradually at first but ever faster, the light was beginning to drain away. I felt like I was going blind. The sun was a breathtakingly slender crescent now, and getting smaller by the second. Darker still and darker, and then – the sun was gone and in its place a great black hole appeared, surrounded by the unearthly, astonishingly beautiful, glowing corona. From all up and down the river there came the sound of shouting from the villages. I uttered some urgent profanities. We could see Jupiter near the sun, and a few other stars as well. I took photo after photo after photo, and managed to find a few seconds in which to stare at this utterly startling sight.

Far too quickly it came to a rapid end. With a sudden brightening, the first rays of sunlight appeared from behind the moon, producing a brief but brilliant ‘Diamond Ring’ effect, before the corona was drowned out by the return of the day. Bands of shadow briefly rippled across the landscape. Within a few seconds it was daylight, and a few minutes later it was like it had never happened. Two small planes chartered by high-rolling eclipse chasers had flown in just before the eclipse, and within ten minutes they were off again, and Zambezi was well on its way to normality. Most of the sun was still covered, though, and we sat on the riverbanks until the moon was clear of the sun once again.

After two years of planning and expectation, the end of the eclipse was a bit of an anticlimax. A herd of oxen was driven by into the river to swim across it, and we followed them in our canoe. It was just after 5pm. We decided to pop into the Riverside bar for a ‘quick post-eclipse drink’. Feelings of anticlimax soon went away as it turned into a raucous eight-hour party, quite by accident. The locals were in the mood for celebrating, and we celebrated with them, dancing energetically and outrageously to thumping Congolese pop, causing hilarity by trying to learn the local languages, and playing pool and chess. A combination of me being a teetotaller and most of the locals emphatically being no such thing gave me a protracted run of success on the pool table, and for some time I reigned as the Zambezi Pool King, to delighted rapture from those who had decided to support me, and some grudging respect from the backers of the local heroes. I began to think of how I would tell the story of the evening when I returned home (“…and after my seventeenth straight victory, they asked me to become their chief!”), but sadly in the eighth game I came up against a more sober opponent, who ended my impudent run with a narrow victory. John, meanwhile, had been battling for the title of Zambezi Chess Prime Minister, with varying success.

The night wore on, more crazy dancing was done, much fun was had, and I really didn’t want the day to end. A magical eclipse experience in a marvellous part of the world, followed by a legendary evening in a superb bar was really beyond my best expectations.

Photo experiment

Feb 24, 2001 in OHP 2001

Photo experiment

To kill some time while waiting for clouds to clear, telescope operator Didier rotated the dome of the 80cm telescope while I took a photo from on the roof of the control building

Sunrise

Feb 21, 2001 in OHP 2001

Sunrise

Star trails

Feb 20, 2001 in OHP 2001

Star trails

First night

Feb 19, 2001 in OHP 2001

First night

Up above the streets and houses

Sep 12, 1999 in Iceland 1999

Up above the streets and houses

The next day, we went to the airport, two miles out of town, to find out about flying over Surtsey, the famous volcanic island fifteen miles to the south-west of Heimaey. We followed what appeared to be the right road, a rough track leading over a hill, but when we got over to the other side, we found ourselves on the runway. This clearly not being desirable, we went into the terminal through the arrivals door, and found out what we needed to. This done, we went for a walk by the southern end of the 1973 fissure.

The eruption from this part of the fissure stopped after a few days, so there are only some very low lava hills, which we climbed up. Once again, we had the disconcerting knowledge that what we were climbing on was not much older than we were. After a little while spent looking around here, we decided to climb Helgafell. This is an ancient volcano, about 5000 years old, which is very close to Eldfell, and is a virtual twin of it. Its slopes, though, are covered in grass, which makes it a lot easier to climb. We reached the top in about 20 minutes, and appreciated the fine view over the island. It was a sunny day, and the brightly coloured roofs of the town contrasted strikingly with the greenery on the rest of the island. Eldfell steamed calmly nearby, and the string of small islands to the south-west stood black against the glistening sea. After a rapid scramble down the slopes, we went back to the campsite.

And that evening, in perfect clear skies, the aurorae were magnificent. For the first time, they covered the whole of the sky, in shimmering green curtains. They streamed across the sky, rapidly appearing and disappearing, and mingling with the green sweeps were flickering blobs of red. Some of the photographs show purple bits as well. It was quite literally breathtaking, and we were utterly captivated until three in the morning.

Observatory by night

Feb 28, 1999 in OHP 1999

Observatory by night

For the first couple of nights of observing, we were pretty busy learning how to use the telescopes. We struggled bit on the 80cm telescope, to the amused disgust of Didier the technician. “What do you call ze school for ze little people?” he asked, as we struggled with the setting circles. We did a lot better on the largely automated 1.52m telescope. Once we’d got the hang of things and could set long exposures going, I had time to get out under the awesome skies and take some photos.

Night skies over Uluru

Aug 01, 1998 in Australia 1998

Night skies over Uluru