I have been blessed with that rarest of astronomical phenomenons these past two weeks-clear skies on nights when I can stay awake long enough to see something! Praise be! (Normal service has now resumed, I might add. As I type a thick layer of cloud has rolled across the entirety of the sky, and seems well and truly here for an overnight stay. Ho hum.) This past Saturday was, without doubt, the clearest sky I have seen since brining Herschel home, so I was pretty excited to get all the kit out and get set up, then waited patiently for the first stars to begin a-twinkling. Which they did. And boy, did they look beautiful, so inviting and twinkly and generally ready to be magnified through a telescope.
So, I set up Herschel, loaded up the tablet and began to align my three bright stars. I focussed the eyepiece dead centre on them, chose three as far apart as I possibly could, and set to work, ready to view the wonders of the cosmos. Then, that little message appeared on screen. “Alignment failed.” Drat. Try again, making extra sure that I had the right stars and that they were properly centred. And…go. “Alignment failed.” Fine. Astronomy is teaching me nothing if not patience. And so, again, I sent Herschel roving across the sky, in pursuit of different stars this time. “Alignment failed.” In fact, quite a few more of these messages followed suite. At this point, my astronomer’s patience was running out, and I was donating frequently to the swear jar once more. For whatever reason, be it user error (highly likely) or the fact that it was a full moon, which was throwing out a butt-load of light (technical term there), I don’t know. But it was not my night. So the stars twinkled enigmatically above me, as I heaved my telescope back inside in disgrace, flicking a select finger or two at the moon as I went.
Thankfully, I had a second shot last night, with beautifully clear skies once more and a late moonrise meaning that I had perfect conditions gifted to me once more. So, putting last week’s misstep behind me, I set myself up again. As if she were trying to make amends, Herschel gave me that glorious message “alignment successful” on her first attempt, meaning that we could get straight on with the business at hand. Where I live we are extremely lucky to have some of the darkest skies in the county, if not the entire country, in fact we’re currently trying to get my local area designated as Dark Sky Reserve. So clear nights afford the most spectacular opportunities for a bit of deep sky observation. I haven’t dabbled too much in this yet, either because conditions haven’t been right (still not ideal with light levels at this time of year, but possible) and not having the confidence to know what I was looking at. I had a bit of modest success a few weeks ago, a few smudges here ad there which were Messier objects, and a nondescript smudge which may have been a blown out bit of the Andromeda Galaxy. But nothing concrete. Well, last night, as both Jupiter and Saturn were being unhelpful in their positions, I decided that it was as good a chance as any I was going to get in the foreseeable future to do a bit of deep sky hunting.
It took me a while to get my eye in. I went searching for nebulae and galaxies and Messiers, without much luck. It was only when I really took time to closely look that I began to see that somethings looked just a little bit different. At one point I was trying to polish an annoying smudge off my eyepiece, and when it wouldn’t go, realised that the smudge was actually something a few thousand lightyears away. This might sound a little underwhelming, but I don’t mean for it to, the realisation that I was viewing something with my own eyes that I had only before seen in textbooks (in this case it was the Dumbbell Nebula) was a real ‘wow’ moment, and once I knew what I was looking for, it turned into quite a fruitful night.
Long after the clock had ticked over into a another day, and I put my Herschel away, I sneaked back out for one last look at the sky which had been so kind to me that night. What I saw took my breath away. I had been so focussed on looking at the little things, individual star and deep space wonders, that I had forgotten to look away from the eyepiece and look at the stellar canvas as a whole. It was truly beautiful. i know I overuse that wok, but it was. There must have been thousands of stars visible to the naked eye, like diamonds glittering against deep blue velvet. I have never seen the sky so full. Needless to say, it was another few hours before I made it back inside. Everyone should look at our night sky, see our universe in motion.
If there is a more humbling, awe inspiring experience to be had, I don’t know what it is.