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Under the Stars and Dreaming

1981, Cheam, Surrey…

Dad”  I whisper…

Dad!!” I repeat more urgently after a few seconds of silence…

“Yes, what?”

‘Tracy next door is staring at us through their bathroom window!‘  I explain, stifling a giggle.

I know” he quietly replies – and I catch a glint in his eyes as he looks towards me and adds  ‘pretend you didn’t notice, she’s just trying to work out what we’re doing…

I turn away from the figure of our neighbour’s daughter, standing on tip toes on the window-sill of their upstairs bathroom, in her dressing gown, peering out at us through the awning window. I can’t blame her for wondering what we’re up to so late at night in our garden, gathered around this strange looking contraption. She would be less likely to be spotted if she had remembered to turn off the bathroom light, which was illuminating her so brilliantly against the glass. Below her, Dad and I are getting our first look through a Dobsonian telescope, which Dad has just finished building from, amongst other things, a bathroom stool, two trolley wheels, a few bits of aluminum and a quite expensive 10 inch mirror.

There it is” Dad says in a victorious tone.  “Come and look!”

We swap places and I move up to the telescope’s eyepiece. I can see two faint smudges of light. Each like a blur. “Can you see it?” Dad asks… “Oh yes” I reply… Before my eyes is M51, known as the Whirlpool galaxy. The light I can see, which travels so fast, it could go around the Earth seven times in one second, has travelled over such a vast distance that it has taken 25 million years to reach me. It is almost too much, thinking about this faintest of light, from hundreds of billions of stars being so far away, in distance and in time. The thought of that, and all the wonders that must exist within those smudges of light takes my breath away…

“Can you see spiral arms?” Dad asks…

“No”

“Try using averted vision”

“…still can’t”

January 2017, Newton St Faith, Norfolk…

Modern technology is amazing‘ I muse to myself as I look at my old camera tripod, now adorned with a Fornax Lightrack II mounted on top and, on top of that, my DSLR camera pointed skywards. A cable connects my camera to a laptop from where I can control the camera and view the photos on a screen. The Lightrack II is a very precise bit of equipment that rotates my camera at exactly the same speed as the earth rotates. This means my camera keeps pointing at the same bit of night sky and I can take quite long exposures without the stars blurring. That in turn means my camera can let in lots of light and all sorts of wondrous objects that are in the sky but we can’t normally see will show up in the photos. That’s the theory, anyway!

My laptop, luckily for me as it’s quite cold tonight, is indoors, with the cable connected through the window. I sit down and press the key to begin taking the photo. I wait 2 minutes, because that’s how long I’ve set the camera shutter to be open, gathering light. And then the time is up, and an image appears on my screen…

I immediately recognise the two faint blurry smudges of light. Hello again old friend…

My first ever image, of M51, Whirlpool galaxy…

The rough image on the screen is of M51, the Whirlpool galaxy, and this time I can definitely see spiral arms! How fantastic that, with just a camera, you can see such details! Unfortunately, before I can take more pictures of M51, the earth’s rotation sends it behind a tree and blocks my view of it. However, it is such a beautiful, starry night and there are lots of other things I can try to photograph.

I take as many pictures as I can… well into the early morning.  They are all fairly rough, as I am new at this, and to take pictures of the stars (called astrophotography) it is sometimes better to have a telescope!  However, cameras can do a great job as long as you don’t have to zoom in too far to small, distant objects.

The constellation Auriga, with the bright star Capella top, and Flaming Star Nebula lower right…

The California Nebula: an emission nebula in the constellation Perseus

The Heart and Soul Nebula are located in the Perseus arm of our galaxy, the Milky Way

The Pleiades – newly born stars still shrouded in galactic dust

The Trangulum galaxy is quite close at ‘just’ 3 million light years away.

Spending a night under the stars is a truly wonderful thing. It really helps to remind us of our place in the universe. We should all look out of the goldfish bowl now and again. You know where I’ll be on the next clear night…

Featured image at top is Horsehead nebula in Orion.

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