How does the sun cut his hair?

Eclipse!

Sorry. Over the last few days, the weather has been good enough and the evenings just long enough for Rufus and I to head out to Cefn Bryn after work for a stroll. Every time, there has been a beautiful sunset. I love sunsets (I love sunrises even more). In many photographic circles, they are considered cliched and unworthy, but I don’t move in those circles and so I keep taking my cliches, and enjoying them too.

At sunset, things start to calm down.  Apart from traffic noise, which isn’t intrusive on Cefn once you are out of sight of the road, it gets quiet, and usually still as the wind drops. The light is less intense, shadows are longer and the orange glow makes things appear warmer than they really are. There has been a haze on the last few evenings which has the effect of softening colours and turning everything into pastel shades. And when the sun finally reaches the horizon, it is a deep red colour.

Staying with the sun, there was an eclipse on the 20th, and where I live the moon covered around 90% of the sun. With the help of a welder’s mask and a variable density filter (thanks Pete), I was able to view and get some photos. It was eerie as the skies slowly darkened and when I went to the window in the office, there was a great mix of people all standing to witness the event using a variety of filters, some of which seemed distinctly dodgy. But more importantly, it brought a load of people of all ages and roles together more effectively than any scheduled meeting.

Outside, it was chilly and the shadows were odd. Being used to sunsets coming from the west, it was odd to see the different direction of light as it faded. I can just imagine what the people from thousands of years ago must have thought when their source of heat and light disappeared. And the relief when it started getting warmer and brighter again.

Today, as a reward for behaving at the vet when he had his vaccinations (he always does, but today he had a couple of compliments on how well behaved he was and how healthy he looked), Rufus had two walks. We started off at Broadpool where we were watched intensely by a solitary Canada Goose, who called over and over again. But Rufus didn’t want to play. Then we headed on up to the River Tawe, where despite my best efforts to fall in the river while jumping across between rocks, we climbed up to the waterfalls on the west side of the valley. Compared to last week, when I could barely move from the sofa, I felt so much better. Add to that the warm sun, which made it feel like a summer’s day, and watching Rufus bounding between and over tufts of grass or paddling in the water, and it was a most enjoyable morning.

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Early morning

I’m up at the crack of dawn for work. Most mornings, it’s dark. Recently it’s been dark and wet. But this morning, there was a little more light in the sky than there has been of late. I was intrigued and when I looked out of the window I could see the sky was cloud frees, and there was a faint glow on the eastern horizon.

But better than a clear sky, there was the moon and Venus close together. I abandoned thoughts of breakfast and grabbed my camera. I spent 10 minutes snapping away.

After breakfast, and just before I left for work, I took another series of photos. The difference in the brightness of the sky was dramatic.

I varied the exposures on both sessions. The moon is a sunlit landscape so I manually set the exposure to record that. But in one photos, you can see I’ve exposed for the earth shine – the glow of the earth’s reflected light on the moon. The crescent lit by the sun is over exposed, as is Venus.

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Road Test

I picked up my new car last night. It was sad to see the Audi go but I’m looking forward to having new adventures in the Freelander.

I only drove it for a short time last night – I picked Rufus up for our lads night in and took him home – 30 minutes at the most. Even a short detour to add some driving minutes wasn’t enough. So this morning, early, we set off for Cefn Bryn and a walk in the pre-dawn gloom. The car was covered in frost, but after two minutes of faffing (trying to set the Bluetooth reciever for the phone) the windscreen was clear and we set off.

It’s great. My 7 year old’s excitement was justified. It handled differently to the Audi – as you might expect, as the Audi was a sport model. But it was firm and positive on the road, not bouncy like a tall vehicle can be. The driving position is nice and high giving a great all round view. Rufus seemed comfy in the back – another important element as he’ll be in it a lot I expect.

On Cefn Bryn, I even took it off road. Well, slightly off road, on to the car park where other people take their normal cars. Still, it was off the road and that qualifies in my mind.

We wandered off towards Penmaen along the ridge, the moon shining brightly and Jupiter and some of the brighter stars shing in the sky. All the while we were watching the sky lighten in the east as the sun neared the horizon. It was cold but not excessively so, and Rufus was happy that there were a lot of new smells to investigate. A lot of sheep and horses were nearby.

By the time we reached the high point, the deep red top edge of the sun had just popped into view and I stopped for a few minutes to watch it climb above the sea. Then it was time to turn around and head back to the car. By now a chill wind had risen blowing out to see and I was heading into it. Over Broadpool, a low ribbon of mist hung, making drivers on the nearby road turn their headlights on.

We drove home through the mist and, taking a short cut through a small village, we hit large patches of ice on the road. It gave me a chance to legitimately change the terrain response control to the slippery conditions settings. I’d like to describe the instant change in handling and grip, but to be honest, I didn’t notice anything. After a small adventure in the petrol station, where I misjudged the size of the car and had to reverse twice to get to the pump (in my defence, it was a very tight turn), we got back safely.

I’m a happy 7 year old!

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Cold and Clear

Driving home last night, I was conscious that I was following Jupiter and Orion for most of the journey. The sky was clear and the temperature was close to freezing. I decided to have another go at getting some images of the Andromeda galaxy.

I was using my 150-500mm lens and it’s notably heavier than the set up from last time. This came over in the blips as the telescope mount motors tried to smooth out the tracking motion. I must have spent over an hour taking photos ands this time I set up a second camera to take a long exposure of stars circling the pole star.As a result of the blips only a few frames were usable.

I’m really pleased with the image of Andromeda. In the picture on here, you can make out two almost parallel dark dust lanes in the bottom part of the galaxy. The slightly fuzzy ‘star’ at about 11 o’clock is the companion galaxy M110 (proper stars in this image have a more defined edge). Further away at about 7 o’clock is M32.

I think this is the limit of clarity I can get from the back garden as there is a significant amount of light pollution evident in the final images – hence the conversion to black and white. The next move will be to find a dark sky site and start again.

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Astronomy

When I was a kid, I was interested in all things to do with space. In particular, I loved looking up at the night sky and seeing the stars. I would get books out of my local library to find out what these things were. A large part of what i read I couldn’t understand but by persevering and reading everything, I taught myself about astronomy and the universe.  I ran out of books at the library, so I started getting the same ones out again and again.

My dad bought me a pair of binoculars for a birthday present – we had read that as a beginner, binoculars were better than a telescope for general viewing, and they were much cheaper than telescopes at the time (it was the late 70’s). I would spend ages gazing at the night sky, looking at the nebula in Orion’s belt and the Pleiades cluster, the double star Mizar and the moon. I even used them to project images of the sun onto card to look at sunspots.

Then, Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos was broadcast, I think in the early 80’s, and I was hooked. He made it all more accessible. Around the same time, a neighbour allowed me to use his telescope to look at Venus. I remember seeing this tiny disc resembling the moon, in that it showed a phase, move across the field of view. I had to keep adjusting the telescope to keep it visible for more than a minute. It was fascinating.

Things moved on, I got into photography and while I often looked up into the sky and wondered about the sheer scale of it all, I never really did more than look. I took photos of the moon in various phases and the occasional long exposure of the night sky to show star trails. While I was in college, I spent evenings after the pub staring at the sky looking for meteors and satellites with friends. But no serious astronomy.

Two years ago, I was in a position to buy a decent telescope. I’d been thinking about it for a while and I took my hard earned cash to a local telescope dealer (no, realer, there was one) and ended up the proud owner of a shiny new 5” reflector. Of course, as is the way, the skies were cloudy for the first few nights but suddenly, on the first clear night, I was able to set it up and look again at the sights I’d seen as a child.

Orion’s belt showed a faint but discernable glow (hence the term nebula) as opposed to the blob of light my binoculars revealed. I could now see that Mizar was a double double – that is a double star system revolving around another double star system.

There were far more stars in the Pleiades than I’d ever seen and I started to see more things that my binoculars couldn’t show. The Beehive Cluster – an open grouping of stars held together by mutual gravity.

Faint and fuzzy smudges that are actually galaxies thousands of light years away.

Mars, the red planet and out closest neighbour, was prominent in the sky when I started observing. My first view was stunning – a red disc with faint shading on it. With recently purchased eyepiece of higher magnification, I could make out a large desert feature and the faint hint of a polar icecap.

Venus was visible in the evening sky and showed its disc and phases just as I remembered it. I caught Mercury one evening, too, just as the sun had set.

Detail on the surface of the moon was fantastically clear. At certain times of the month, the some of the mountains near the terminator (the shadow line) form a bright ‘X’ which was clearly visible when I knew where to look. With the aid of a moon map, I was able to spot all of the Apollo moon landing sites. I could spend ages exploring the surface from my back garden.

But the most magnificent sight of all was Saturn. When it appeared in the night sky I trained the telescope on it and my first glimpse was breathtaking. There was this planet, more than a billion kilometres away, easily recognisable with its rings and satellite moons. I was so surprised at how clear and crisp the image was that I couldn’t keep away from the telescope.  The state of the atmosphere determined how much magnification I could use to view it and on nights when the seeing was good, I could make out the gap between the rings and Saturn and the faint bands of cloud on the surface of the planet. More often than not I could see at least two moons and up to five were clearly visible on the best nights. When I showed friends the telescope, I would go through a few things and leave Saturn until last. There was always a ‘wow’ when they first saw the rings.

I still get a thrill from looking up at the night sky. I still have the binoculars my dad gave me and despite having the telescope, I still use them. The sense of scale of space – looking at galaxies that are so far away that it’s impossible to really understand the distance – and the sense of wonder – what really is out there – have never left me. More often than not, when stargazing, I feel like a kid again.

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