Sunday, 8 August 2010
My, oh my.
We very rarely get clear skies where I live in west Wales. Also, although my county is supposed to be one of the UK's best for darkness, and I live in the country, our best view is to the south - slap into the very bright oil refineries.
If I was a more competitive person, I'd say that was my excuse for being such a hopeless stargazer; but actually I'm just calmly and gloriously incompetent. Which detracts absolutely nothing from the sense of peace and wonder I get from looking at the stars. I smile at them. They twinkle back. They're hundreds of light years away. But they're my friends.
They made us all, and we rotate around the centre of the Galaxy together.
Playing around on Twitter and Scrabble, a good way to enjoy a weekend in a not-very-exciting area, it vaguely entered my mind that #meteorwatch, a project initiated by VirtualAstro, is here again. In August we get the Perseids, an annual meteor shower due to us passing through an old tail of the comet Swift-Tuttle (what a great name!), and which get their name by appearing, apparently, to come from the constellation Perseus. (I have no idea where that is.) Stephanie suddenly tweeted just before 2am that she'd been out and seen two meteors - in a clear sky. I hadn't realised there was one of those out there tonight. Excited, I leapt up and grabbed socks and a thick jumper.
I turned the kitchen light right down, so as to avoid spilling light out onto the drive, and unlocked the front door - and gasped. Although the sky looked pale, it positively tingled with stars. I crept out onto the flagstones and there were hundreds more behind the house. I realised I'd have to lie flat, and slightly away from the house, to appreciate this properly. I crept back inside and looked for our foamy groundsheets. Having banged and crashed around and hopefully not woken everyone else up, I finally located them behind a load of displaced furniture in the porch not by the front door. Grabbing a torch, I turned off all the lights again and laid it on the driveway in front of the car.
I felt a little dizzy, as if I was going to fall into that glittering array. As I got used to the sensation of lying flat, the stars seemed to grow odd tails or form nebulae around themselves that vanished when I looked again. They were most spectacular to the north-east, brighter and harder somehow, but fewer; directly overhead they seemed more crowded, but almost dissolved in a sea of soft sky. Brighter patches, I guessed, were the Milky Way.
I remembered a friend telling me how to locate Andromeda from Pegasus. I did see the square of what I surmised - correctly (really!) - was Pegasus, but couldn't remember where to go from there. When she showed me Andromeda, I saw a dot through binoculars tinier than any star. That was two years ago. Since then, I've read that across our sky it covers six full Moons. So I suppose it was too faint for me to see anything. Speaking of the Moon, it had the courtesy to have left the sky to the stars tonight. That's the first time since 2007, I think.
A very bright, yellowish point, which I was sure was a planet, stood in the East. I saw a W-shape that I assumed was Cassiopeia. I made mental notes to look them up. The most time-consuming part of my recent Open University course (introducing astronomy; very little that was new, but a good grounding in the bits I didn't!) was learning how to use stellarium software. I got back to discover that I was only 180 degrees out with Cassieopeia, and what I saw was probably Lyra; the bright yellowish point was Jupiter.
I stayed out there until I started shivering. At that point it got less pleasant, and the delight and calm and concentration had gone. When I got up, I felt very dizzy, which is disconcerting in the dark with your hands full. On the steps back up to the front door, I saw some white furry paws. It was my beloved Cassie. She had probably been sitting there watching me all that time, wondering what on Earth I was up to.
Once inside, I locked up, switched the lights on, and made myself a clear Earl Grey tea! Then I rushed upstairs to get back to Twitter and look at stellarium software. The exact patterns I saw are already streaming out of my head, which is sad. I don't think I'll ever get very good at the practical side of astronomy - though I haven't given up trying.
Seriously, if someone as rubbish as me can enjoy stargazing, anybody can. Just dress up warm.