Sometimes it’s really hard to motivate yourself to get up at 3am for astronomy. I’m more of a late night person myself, and early mornings are not my style. One way to make it happen, to get that motivation going, is to share your intention with a friend – preferably one who is relying on you for a lift. So it was that I set my alarm for 02:50 on New Year’s Day. Clear skies and the knowledge that a fellow enthusiast was doing the same, meant that I was up and out in about ten minutes, including making a flask of coffee.
When I picked Stuart up in the centre of Kendal, he’d already bagged the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights, if you prefer – at around midnight that same night. His dedication to the cause is beyond all understanding, and puts my meagre efforts to shame!
We had two options: a site at the top of Shap Road – dark, clear, cold and very exposed (ideal for stargazing) – or the church car park at Old Hutton – not quite so dark, low lying (so prone to localised humidity), still cold but nowhere near as exposed. Stuart reported very strong winds across Shap Fell at midnight, as had been forecast, so we set off on the short drive to Old Hutton.
About a mile before we arrived, we found the road closed at a barrier, so turned off to the left on a tiny side road and navigated round a big loop to rejoin the main road on the other side of the diversion. The side roads were a real mess, and somewhere in the darkness I hit a massive pothole. By the time we arrived in the church car park, the front tyre was completely flat.
Keeping to the right priorities, we both set up our systems and started taking photos. There followed some stargazing, some musing on the recent awful weather, some discussion of my much-anticipated observing evenings for the Eddington Astronomical Society, a review of Stuart’s aurora photos from earlier that night, some coffee drinking, and of course much delight in the images now coming off the backs of the cameras. Eventually, though, we just had to attend to the wheel change.
Everything went smoothly until the nearside front wheel was jacked up in the air and the wheel nuts were off. The wheel itself just wouldn’t budge, and our efforts to dislodge it by repeated and ever-more-vigorous kicking came close to waking the neighbours and/or sending the car toppling off the jack. 5am, New Year’s Day, remote village in Cumbria, no signal. Hmmmm…. Only a joint effort, one pulling the wheel while the other aimed kicks at the opposite side, eventually freed it. Phew! Suffice to say that the rest of the session went very well indeed. The conditions looked good – but they can be quite deceptive at Old Hutton as the local shape of the land collects moisture in the air – so the photo sets were as good as we could have expected. Some hazy cloud lingered high in some frames, but nothing to stop us until about 6.30 when mid-level clouds started to spoil the view.
I took a series of 2-minute frames and 3-minute frames (all unguided) of C/2013 US10 (Catalina) at its closest approach to Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation of Bootes. Given the moisture in the air, the close proximity of the bright star, the Moon just 38° from the comet and all that other stuff going on, I was pleased with the result. Given also that the weather in Cumbria has spoiled all plans for astrophotography for the last eleven weeks, it just felt good to be out again.
I hope we find the opportunity for a few more of these Stuart!