Posts Tagged ‘weather’

Frozen Britain or Winter Wonderland?

11 January 2010 Comments off

Icicles on the roofWe’ve certainly had some interesting weather here in the UK for the last 3 weeks. The week before Christmas we had a hefty snow dump of the kind I’ve not seen in my almost 9 years living here, and it disappeared enough to be able to resume normal activity just in time for Christmas Day. It required just a few minutes of digging to make two wheel ruts to enable me to be able to park again when I got back from visiting family.

Then last week we got another dump that was easily double that of the earlier one. It was forecast for Tuesday evening, and I made it home just in time to still be able to drive up the spur incline to my house and into my garage. If I’d been 15-20 minute later, I’d either have had to dig my way in or park on the street somewhere and risk the car being battered by one of the two nutters on my street who refuse to acknowledge adverse weather conditions (normally because a couple of people will always go outside to dig him out of his predicament). I had 30cm of snow in my back garden following Tuesday’s snow dump and, although it got as high as 4°C yesterday, it hasn’t really budged. The 30cm of fluffy snow has reduced to 10-15cm of crystalline iciness (a bit like an Icee) with a few centimetres of solid, compacted ice underneath.

If you think I’m being melodramatic, the BBC website has created Special Report: Frozen Britain to cover the event, as it’s such a rare occurrence — particularly in the southern half of the country — and it’s being compared to the previous worst cold-weather event almost 50 years ago. Road grit is running out, gas for heating is running low, snow chains and snow shovels are sold out, and the local shops have empty shelves as the delivery lorries can’t reach them (it’s a hilly area).

The plus side is that my freezer is gradually being emptied of older food that would normally have newer stuff placed on top of it, the cupboards are having a good clean out, I’m saving 50 miles of fuel and up to two hours each weekday, and I’m able to be just as productive from home as I am in the office thanks to stable power and Internet, VPN access and voice-over-IP (VoIP) telephony.

And the neighbourhood kids have been loving it. They’ve been sledging like mad for the last week, the valley has resounded with their laughter and fun, and down by the bridleway, someone had built a huge snowman complete with snow sofa and footrests, giving people something (albeit chilly) to sit on and admire. In this age of parents locking their children indoors for fear of bogey men: good for them!

Categories: misc Tags: ,

Another evening looking up and out

18 March 2009 Comments off

Orion Nebula & Trapezium (from Astropix)As I checked the evening’s weather forecast before leaving for work I was delighted to see that both MetCheck and Astroforecast were forecasting clear skies, making the evening’s activities a given. I was very keen to get out again as I took delivery of a moon/atmosphere filter and 6.3mm eyepiece earlier this week, the latter stretching my telescope’s magnification ability from 273X to 476X (with 2X Barlow) – silly amounts, but nice to have.

Once the sun had set and I’d submitted this evening’s GLOBE at Night 2009 observation and watched the scheduled ISS pass (it was brilliant!), I setup outside. Blissfully, the neighbours weren’t using the back of their houses, so house lighting washing over me was at a minimum. The light pollution was still pretty ugly, but the particulates in the air must be low, so there wasn’t the obscene scattering I experienced last time. In all, clear skies making for fantastic stargazing conditions. First up I decided to try to zero the scope on Polaris itself, rather than use a compass, and this seemed to make the tracking motor work better. It was certainly a lot easier and less prone to error my nearby metal objects (including the batteries in the red LED torch I hang around my neck).

Still with the Messier Marathon challenge in my mind, I wanted to see how many Messier Objects I could see—it turns out that it wasn’t many (timing, valley wall, other light sources, etc)—and give the new eyepiece and filters a run for their money.

The Pleiades (M45) were beautiful at low magnification, and with my Mak at 60X I was just able to contain them within the one view. Increasing magnification gave so much more detail, but obviously lost the frame of reference.

The Orion Nebula (M42) was frankly awesome at 476X—yes, I had to give it a go. It was so good that I could clearly delineate the nebulosity and dust shadow, and the Trapezium Cluster was clearly visible as 4 distinct stars, along with the 3 bright stars that arc out like an arm away from it. It was magnified enough that I had to move the telescope to view M43.

The Andromeda galaxy (M31) was a bit of a disappointment for me, as it was quite low on the horizon where I was (fences, houses, etc) and the neighbours in that direction chose this time to do their nightly illumination of every corner of their top floor. I was barely able to see Mirach, so I had no hope of seeing M31 in all its glory.

Capella was crisp and bright. Betelgeuse was its beautiful red colour. I read the other day that Castor is a “double double double” star system (ironic that one of the Gemini twins is actually three sets of twins), so wanted to see if I’d be able to separate any least 2 objects. Thinking that Castor was the left head of Gemini, I viewed it with slightly disappointment as not being able to separate it out. Of course it wasn’t until I got inside that I realised I’d been trying to separate Pollux. Idiot.Saturn (from NASA)

Lastly, it was time to try Saturn at 476X. Oh man, what a sight! Even with the dew by that time reducing visibility, it was a stunning sight. So much bigger that I was able to make out the Cassini Division, even though the rings are almost flat now.

This coming Saturday marks the monthly meeting of my local astronomy society, so I am looking forward to attending for the first time. And the following weekend is their IYA 2009 event, with stargazing for all-comers on the Friday and Saturday evenings, and sun viewing on the Saturday and Sunday. If you’re in or near Berkshire and interested in coming along, leave a message here.

So there ends another evening of chilly delight, discovery and rediscovery. It’s again reinforced the need to plan out your viewing sessions based upon date and time, and therefore visible objects, particularly in my backyard environment. However, once I get a proper carrying box, I’m going to make a foray to the nearby rugby club that’s in a more rural setting than I am. That should make for a completely different experience.

Categories: science Tags: ,

In which I learn about clear skies

14 March 2009 Comments off

Imagine my delight to look out my living room window after sunset to see that the Astroforecast clear sky prediction was coming true, and that the usual grey dome of sky was actually a reddish purple. Stargazing! So once the sun had set properly I placed the telescope outside – to allow it to acclimatise to the temperature difference – and worked out a list of Messier objects to view, as I quite like the idea of doing the Messier Marathon.

I went out to join the telescope 45 minutes later but my timing may have been off, as both my neighbours had their kitchen/dining room lights on, the back neighbour had every single light on (inside and outside!), and the sky had quite a bad orange glow. At first I thought the latter was something to do with the sun, but I saw it was a dome that went all around the horizon and at least 45° up from it – leaving just a small darkened cap with stars coming through. I couldn’t see the Pleiades or nebulae around Orion’s belt, Betelgeuse was okay, Aldebaran was barely visible, and Procyon was washed out.

An hour later I was becoming increasingly frustrated, my neighbours still had their lights on (I can’t blame them, of course), and the orange half-dome had no intention of going away. It was bad enough that Orion’s belt effectively set 20° before it went below my roof line. I did get a nice view of Saturn and Titan, but that was it – time to call it a night.

It turns out that clouds are not the only thing that matter when you’re viewing the night sky. Clarity of the atmosphere seems to make a huge difference, as does the time of day (and potentially day of week) in terms of the human factor – at least when not at a dark sky site. This may be obvious to you, but I grew up on the outer edge of suburbia in a Mediterranean climate where there weather and skies are clear 300 days a year. Careful night viewing planning is uncharted territory for this antipodean…

Light pollution is a truly appalling blight for the urban or suburban stargazer, particularly as it’s the easiest of all pollutants we emit to prevent. I accept it’s unreasonable to expect our neighbours to contain their indoor lighting (it really is their right to use inefficient lighting and waste power, though is something of which I’ve always been conscious), but my crime-free neighbourhood and the large town I live on the edge of is lit up like an orange Christmas tree from sunset to sunrise. Why? The oft-quoted reason is crime prevention and safety, and I concede there are places where that does apply – particularly in pedestrianised urban areas – but there is a growing body of evidence to show that it makes little if any difference in the majority of suburbia and rural areas.

I’m beginning to think the British Campaign for Dark Skies (CfDS) and International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) are worthy organisations, and will be looking into them in detail. I intend to bring it to the attention of my local residents’ association, and write to my council and member of parliament. My MP may well disagree with me (he has in the past), but at the very least it will raise his awareness of the issue.

There has to be a better way of using public lighting (and non-renewable resources) than floodlighting the planet during darkness. Anyone?