Almost a Catalina disastor.


calalina (2)

Here in Cornwall we are often rainy and even more cloudy.  So observational astronomy is a bit of a waiting game.  Last night a gap in the cloud didn’t materialise until in the early hours, so I went to bed and set the alarm for early o’clock.   My plan was to photograph Catalina.  It was certainly cold outside for here.  There was the first frost I had seen in two winters on the ground.  But the sky was crystal clear.  Setting up the scope I realised Catalina was going to be near the zenith, making it harder to look through the scope as I would be bending down.  Scope aligned I sclew to the plough and Catalina’s location and guess what I couldn’t find it.  I looked and looked and catalina was certainly playing a hiding game with me.  Feeling decidedly out of practice and a little foolish I went inside to warm up and look for the gps locations of the comet.  Back out in the cold with information to hand I started aligning the scope again and that is when the owl swooped.  I felt a swoosh near my head and glancing up this huge wingspan of a owl had nearly knocked my hat flying off my head.

I had heard the tawny owls distinctive hoot in the trees behind our house all night but that is nothing unusual.   I had never seen one of the birds up close and personal before.  I know this was stupid but I was now feeling decidedly spooked.  I don’t know if it had been trying to land on me or just dive-bombing me but now I certainly must have looked a sight crouching even lower looking every few seconds over my shoulder.


Image credit Renaud Visage/Getty Images

Anyhow I managed to get a quick one shot long exposure of Catalina –  not my best shot ever but least I got one.  I then packed away my scope and watched the ISS make its pass just after 6am.  As dawn was upon us there was a lovely line of planets rising from the south east Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Mars.  Jupiter had dropped behind the tree line for me.  But 4 was great to see anyhow.

Tim Peake a very British astronaut


Yesterday the a UK was gripped by space walk fever.  Tim our ever smiling and unflappable very British astronaut was the first person ever to emerge from the hatch of the ISS wearing a Union Jack on their sleeve.  It was so great to see that Britain has finally been represented in space.  Prior to Tim British born people have had to make their journeys as commercial astronauts or under other national flags due to the lack of funding from successive British governments. Tim’s selection and training started as early as 2009.  Although the British government only started their investment in the ISS in 2011. 

Long may space fever continue in the UK and I hope that Tim’s spacewalk isn’t the last time we see that Union Jack on an astronaut floating in space.  Well done Tim watching you work while you walked was amazing.

11 years since Huygens landed.


On this day 11 years ago a tiny probe named Huygens landed on Saturn’s moon Titan.  Sending back images of an Earth like but dry landscape.

The science collected by this audacious and tiny probe wasn’t the end of the story for Titan.  The Cassini – Huygens mission has gone through lots of discoveries since. Particularly that Titan isn’t as dry and barren as first envisioned.  Lakes at the North and South pole’s.  The lakes are made of liquid methane and imaged by the RADAR equipment on the Cassini satellite.

Happy landing anniversary Hugyens


A Cornish sunrise – at last!

pluto blue sunrise

Image credit JPL NASA

Watching stargazing live  (our annual astronomical tv fest with Brian Cox)  last night I was reminded that different planets would have different coloured sunrises.  Above is a beautiful image of Pluto’s blue sunrise taken by the picture taken by the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera.  It is thought that the blue colour comes from nitrogen, methane and particles called tholins.

Winter has been a bit of a damp squid here in Cornwall.  There has not been a sunrise to be seen.  One storm after another this winter has arrived from across the Atlantic and we have already reached the letter R in the naming of them.   I had nearly forgotten what a Earth sunrise looked like.

So this morning when there was a beautiful sunrise with hints of purple I just have to catch this picture of it.  It may not be blue but it certainly was pretty.


Lightning strikes


lightning penzance

Lightning over Penzance Credit Adam Gibbard

Lightning stuck Penzance at 4am Sunday morning doing damage to our works phone line. Reported by the local newspaper it was a strike that was large enough to disable car batteries, take down the internet and make plasma tv’s fall from their wall mountings smashing on the floor.  Lightning news.  I love a good thunder storm but this has to be one of the most destructive strikes in Penzance’s history.

A nice piece of technology added to the ISS in 2014 is the lightning imaging sensor.  It records lightning strikes and works on recording lightning both during the night and day.  It would be nice to know if the sensor had recorded the strike and we could find out how powerful it was.  Time for me to go back to trying to get the phone line fixed. Thank goodness for mobiles!


Missing the goal.


Watching Blair Walsh take his field goal and miss during the Vikings and Seahawk’s game Sunday was soul destroying.  Walsh is a kicker whom had scored all of Minnesota 9 points during the game. With 22 seconds on the clock all he had to do was put in one last field goal to see them move ahead of Seattle whom had 10 points.  The goal should have been easy one only 27 yards.  It is something that Walsh would practice over and over again.  Unfortunately he missed and the Vikings were declared out – at least for this year.

This whole event reminded me of the last manned docking of the Soyuz at the ISS.   Britain was watching live as our first affiliated astronaut Tim Peake was onboard.  We were in for a few nail biting minutes as the automatic docking had to be over ridden and manual docking took 2 attempts until the Soyuz latched itself onto the ISS.  These manoeuvres are extremely difficult and hats off to  Yuri Malenchenko the veteran Russian astronaut who undertook making these tricky moves.  This time the Kurs radar system failed and that was why they had to dock manually.

I know the astronauts have trained extensively thankfully manual docking is not a common occurrence.  Things do go wrong though and in 2014 two Russian cosmonauts and one american astronaut were stuck in the cramped Soyuz module as they missed a 24 second boost which would have enabled them to complete a 6 hour journey to the ISS. Luckily for them on-board was food that would keep them alive for a number of days!  In 2012 a unmanned supply module failed to reach dock with the ISS and took another week until it had another chance at docking.

It just goes to show however much training is involved things sometimes do not go to plan.  Hopefully Bradley Walsh will get another chance at redeeming himself in next season.

Rubbish attack

poldu pink]

The stormy weather has hit one of my local beaches here in Cornwall and with it there has been a massive amount of pink bottles washed up on Poldhu cove.  27000 bottles of Vanish detergent were lost from a container ship west of Lands end and have spent months at the bottom of the ocean before the stormy weather has washed them ashore.   A clean-up is occurring with many volunteers arriving each day to help remove the plastic, although some have leaked detergent fortunately many of the bottles are still sealed.

However difficult it is to clear up my local beach it is considerable harder to deal with rubbish in space.   NASA currently tracks 20000 pieces of space junk and the amount is ever increasing.   This recent image highlights how the Earth’s orbit is becoming increasing cluttered.


IMAGE CREDIT Royal Institute of Great Britain.

During 2015 the ISS had to modify its orbit numerous times to avoid collision with space junk.  In fact continuing to litter low earth orbit without formulating a plan of dealing for the existing pieces of junk is short sighted.   It is not like we can just go out and remove them!  The number of countries and independent businesses wishing to use low earth orbit is on the increase and I hope this does not mean a increase in the amount of junk.

A mysterious astronomy journal found in Cornwall

st keverne

St Keverne Parish church

A journal from a mystery man.

While conducting a search through the local Cornwall archives database for astronomical items. I brought up a document files under Miscellaneous in the Parish records of St Keverne. It was labelled
“P99/28/1  1797-9 Volume of notes on experiments with a pump and its application to shipping with notes on use of a telescope and plan of observation. “.
I felt that this certainly needed further investigation, and went along to the local records office to take a look.

On receiving the record from the archivist I was surprised to find it was a substantial A4 sized journal, hard bound and about 30 pages in length. The initial third of the book was primarily concerned with the design of a water pump. It has technical drawings with description of its possible application. But it was the remainder of the book that I found of far more interest. It described the design of not only a domed observatory, but had detailed diagrams for a telescope, with a equatorial mount and a transiting instrument as well. Along side these were mathematical workings and musings on the viability of different designs.


I was intrigued to find out who had written this journal. I had some information to go on. The journal was dated. The first date being 1799, later in the journal another date had been given which was 1806. Next to the date was also the name of Bayford. From where this was written I felt that this was a reference to location, rather than the name of the author. I had visited a modern day observatory at Bayfordbury in Hertfordshire and knew a village of Bayford was close by. As I suspected I found that there was only one Bayford in the UK and as expected it was the small village in Hertfordshire. I had also noted that in the corners of the journal the initials AB had been written. So I felt I was looking for a person AB whom had a background in technical drawing, engineering and mathematics. Not only this but they were actively writing in the journal from 1799 to 1806 and had links to Bayford in Hertfordshire, but St Keverne in Cornwall as well.

How had this persons journal ended up all the way in a small parish records from over 200 years ago labelled miscellaneous?

Initially this lead me down the route of thinking that it must have a local connection and most likely it could have had something to do with St Keverne’s parish itself. Maybe it was a local vicar or landowner from that time. Looking into this further I found no leads hinting at an author.

I decided to photograph the book to look into it further at home. As I did this I found a final clue about the author. Inside slipped between the back page and the cover a small piece of paper had been placed. It was a partially addressed envelope with the name J Blair esq on the front. I wondered if the B of AB could stand for the name Blair and if they had been in the process of writing to a relative.


The name of Blair was the breakthrough I needed. An Archibald Blair had lived in Bayford since 1799, after he had retired from the Bombay Marines. He had spent much of his life abroad. Employed as a surveyor he had mapped much of the coastline between Iraq, India and beyond. He had unfortunately spent a considerable time a prisoner of the French, for which he had been compensated on his release, with a large amount of money. During his survey missions he had surveyed the Anderman Islands and Port Blair is named after him. He had become the Andamans first administrator. He also had a brother named John whom had accompanied him into the Bombay Marines and then resided at Bayford with him.

andamen islands
On his return to the UK he had been elected as a fellow to the Royal Society with the letter of recommendation saying that
“Archibald Blair Esqr of Bayford, Herts, Captain on the Maritime Establishment of the East India Company at Bombay a Gentleman distinguished in his profession and for astronomical observations and having been employed by The East India Company in forming an Establishment at the Andamans “.
This gave me some idea of Archibald’s astronomical pedigree. And I knew at this stage I had found the author of the journal.

But how had the journal found itself into the local St Keverne parish records? After some further digging through the local Cornish records I was to discover in 1813 Archibald Bair had been recommended by the UK government and then appointed as head of the Porthleven Harbour Company. He was to design and build a harbour wall here in Cornwall creating a further harbour in the Mounts Bay area. It is very possible that he needed his design for a water pump with him and that his how his journal travelled the 330 miles from Bayford to West Cornwall. It was while residing at Treleven in 1815 just outside Porthleven that he unfortunately died. He was buried at the parish church in Sithney overlooking Porthleven harbour. It is only a short distance for the journal to travel from Porthleven to St Keverne with them being less than 15 miles apart.porthleven

Porthleven Harbour.

I feel a lot more of this man’s astronomical story is yet to be discovered maybe lying in archives around the world. After one of the reasons he had been elected to the Royal Society was for his astronomical observations. So if anyone has any more information about Archibald and his astronomical observations or his designs of telescopes and observatories I would be very keen to hear from you.

Cornish Aurora

When you think of Cornwall, it’s unlikely that aurora comes to mind.  Its low latitude and often cloudy skies lends to it being a unlikely place to spend your evenings aurora watching.  But a reconstruction of aurora sighting in the county over the last 200 years show more aurora than expected.  Below is one of the more recent aurora’s photographed Chris Small in Bude.image

Cornwall isn’t a county well known for its aurora viewing. Its low latitude, and penchant for the cloud all go against it as an aurora viewing location. So whenever a Cornish sighting is reported many will exclaim that they never knew the aurora could be observed here expecting at least you would have to travel to Scotland and beyond.

Auroras in Cornwall are an unusual event, so when three auroras occurred in 2015 in Cornwall and one known one in the previous year they were widely reported in the local newspapers. This made me question did aurora’s get reported in the past and if so how regularly and in what manner where they recorded. As there are no other local records giving a comprehensive amount of aurora sightings, newspapers reports give a good insight even if in a non scientific way. So looking back through the newspaper records is one way of seeing the frequency of the aurora in Cornwall but also a wonderful insight into how these lights have been reported over the years.

The first newspaper to be published in Cornwall was the Royal Cornwall Gazette which was published from 1801, so the search starts in 1801 and continues until around 1950. It did not take too long for the first mention of an aurora to happen. It was in the 1804 Gazette edition published on Saturday October 27th. Here it is in full

“The phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis, (or Northern lights) whose appearance in this southern extremity of the kingdom is much less frequent than in it more northern parts, displayed its beauties on Monday night last to the inhabitants of this county. It made its appearance about the end of twilight, when the sky was quite clear and serene, in columns of clear light, issuing at first from a common centre, and shooting up from the horizon eastward. At twenty-five minutes after seven o’clock, one of the columns or luminous rays , had passed the Zenith, emitting in the northern sky numerous coruscations and gradually extending itself into the western horizon. Nearly at the same time, there broke out in the south-east, where before it has the appearance of a very dense black cloud, or nebulae, consisting of small clouds brilliantly illuminated and disappearing as instantaneously as the eye could catch them. On the northern limb of the western column, garnet- coloured flashes, without intermission, darted upwards from the horizon, diffusion their colour along white beams, nearly at times to the Zenith. Those appearances continued for nearly two hours, when the rays became less luminous, much broader and more dispersed, till they gradually disappeared. The weather on the two following days was serene and mild”.

It is quite a description and must have been quite a display for anyone whom had the chance to see it. Not all displays were reported in such manner though for instance the next reported display was not until 1837 where the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported a crimson hue being seen of the coast of St Ives to the North. Saying that the general appearance was both “awful as well as beautiful and grand in the extreme”. The paper returns to this display in a later issue, trying to comfort its readers saying that it had been widely reported by scientists that the aurora was most possibly due to the reflection of the red atmosphere of Mars!

As you can see there is a large reporting gap for aurora for Cornwall, with no sighting in Cornwall reported between 1804 and 1837. The Gazette during this time was still mentioning the aurora as it was sighted in other areas for instance in 1836 an extremely large display seen in London was reported. Maybe Cornwall had had a particularly cloudy time, as I said this isn’t an exact science. Even if people had reported to the paper sightings they may not have been passed onto the readers.

I would have expected sightings to have become less as there was the advancement of street lamps within the county. Even though Cornwall was home to William Murdock and the first domestic gas light in 1792, with places like Penzance introducing street lamps during the 1830’s it must be said though that there would have been little light pollution in the country at this time. In fact due to its ruralness much of the country retains dark skies to this date and is optimally a great place to view the aurora. Curiously there where no aurora sightings reported during the first and second world wars. Infact aurora reporting seems to have slowed down after 1910 with only 3 reported sightings two occurring in the late 1930’s and one in 1947.

As expected many years have no aurora sightings. And most aurora sightings happen just one or two per year. But a couple of years have far more. For instance 1859 having 5 separate reporting’s, following on from 2 late year sightings in 1858.
While 1870 stands out as having a total of 7 separate dates where sightings are reported.

Here is the list
Aurora in Cornwall or the “hairy borlus” – Cornishman 11th dec 1890

1804 sat oct 27th made an appearance on the Monday night 22nd October – detailed description of a clear display

1837 fri 7th April royal Cornwall gazette 18th feb sightings – linked it to the reflection of the red atmosphere of Mars

1841 fri 28th may royal Cornwall gazette – a meteor and a aurora seen on the 26th May by a solicitor in Truro called Mr Hockin

1841 Friday 4th June observed in Penzance – letter may 29th 1841 – saw with a massive storm

1843 fri 12th may royal Cornwall gazette – seen on Saturday night last 6th may a fine appearance.

1844 Fri 13th Dec royal cornwall gazette late Monday night an appearance of the aurora

1847 26th march fri royal Cornwall gazette a lovely description of truro sighting from previous Friday evening – by a man on horseback . The following article is about a wizard!!

1847 24th Dec royal Cornwall gazette – on Sunday night there was a splendid display

1849 2nd march royal cornwall gazette – aurora spotted on Thursday evening from 7pm.

1852 Friday 27th feb a large and brilliant aurora last Thursday night

1852 19th march fri – fine aurora spotted in Cornwall on feb 19th

1852 15th October royal cornwall gazette – on the previous Friday 8th there was a singular event spotted in liskeard could it be the northern lights???

1853 Friday 9th dec – royal cornwall gazette reports a large display on Tuesday 6th dec arching across the whole sky

1858 October 18th appeared between 7 and 8 pm published royal London gazette 18th November 1859
Also October 24th a large meteor in the same paper 1858

1858 dec 10th royal cornwall gazette – St Agnes a brilliant red display for over a hour on the previous sat evening.

1858 dec 11th lakes Falmouth packet seem late sat night – doubt many saw it due to lateness of the hour. – Also reported in Dublin

1859 25th feb royal Cornwall gazette seen in Truro on Tuesday and wed 22nd and 23rd Feb

1859 4th march royal cornwall gazette – letter about spectacular display from 23rd feb

1859 April 29th Friday event spotted in St keverne on the 28th April also reported in the Royal Cornwall Gazette.

Carrington event sept 1st -2nd cloudy???

1859 Friday 9th Sept – a brilliant aurora was seen on Sunday night – 4th ? Sept?

1859 Event in Cornwall 14th October 1859 Royal Cornwall gazette writes about last night Wednesday 12th October

1859 lakes Falmouth packet also reports the Wednesday sighting of the aurora – very detailed.

1859 21st oct royal Cornwall gazette letter about previous weeks aurora from J Jefferys in St Day

1870 7th Jan cornubian and redruth times previous sat 1at Jan sticking aurora seen, also reported about Camborne in west Britain thurs 6th jan

1870 Feb 18th Friday aurora spotted over truro from royal cornwall gazette sat 19th feb

1870 5th March lakes Falmouth packet Mr Glaisher said that the appearance of aurora by daylight witnessed on the 12th feb very rare two other instances are 24th may 1788 and 10th feb 1799.

1870 thurs 29th sept west Britain also writes about large display on the Saturday and Sunday night.

1870 fri 30th sept cornubian and redruth times – aurora spotted on Saturday and Sunday night 24th 25th September 1870 description in royal Cornwall gazette 29th July 1871 also reported in west Britain thur 29th sept.

1870 fri 28th October royal cornwall gazette – aurora seen many time over the last couple of weeks

1870 sat October 29th Falmouth packet seen on Monday and Tuesday 24th and 25th October very brilliant seen from Camborne

1870 25th Nov Friday – a large and fine aurora seen last Saturday night 19th nov – green and blue seen

1872 10th Feb sat. A fine display near truro on previous sat night – remarkable as most brilliancy was to the south west.

1873 10th May sat . Royal Cornwall Gazette – seen several time last week from Hayle

1877 (pub 1878) royal Cornwall gazette 22 feb 1878) happened on august 24th 1877 met notes from altar nun in Cornwall

1878 thurs 29th august Cornishman visible in Hayle last week on Sat and Sund. 24th / 25th august 1878

1879 Cornishman thurs 12th June – false profits and recent sightings of the aurora with the location of Jupiter in the sky.

1880 Cornishman 11th November sighting on the 10th November by crowen beacon.

1881 thurs 10th feb. on tues wed feb 1st, 2nd saw aurora to the north.

1882 fri 24th nov royal cornwall gazette spotted in Penzance by post master Mr Uren – all their circuits were pulled to zero

1883 thurs 8th March Cornishman saw aurora on Tuesday 6th march.

1894 thurs 11th Jan royal Cornwall reports last Wednesday spotted to the west of Bude

1895 thurs 21st March Cornishman was seen on the lizard on the Wednesday evening – it had an unusual fan like shape.

1897 thurs 23rd sept seen out towards st just and seen throughout the night on Saturday evening

1898 Report thurs 15th sept 1898 royal Cornwall gazette for previous Friday night can see in west Cornwall violet colours happened Friday 9th September 1898

1898 Also reported in Cornishman as being seen in st just published thur 15th sept 1898 and also the helston publication with a nice description about the height of the lights

1905 30th Nov Cornishman seen by lots of people of treriffe hill early last Wednesday evening.

1907 14th feb west Britain and Cornwall advertiser – reports annual meeting of cornwall polytechnic society – photographs of last weeks aurora was displayed by a Mr E Kitto

1907 mon 11th feb west Britain and Cornwall advertiser
Aurora seen on Saturday night between 8 and 9 pm 9th February
A beautiful display seen in Falmouth, Redruth and Padstow.

1908 2nd April thurs west Britain and cornwall a fine view from st agnes last Thursday night 27th March.

1909 magnificent view of aurora in mullion west cornwall – Thursday 21st October 1909 Cornishman seen on Monday 18th October – red glow flashing lights.

First world war 1914 – 1918 ??/?

1937 Cornishman thurs 7th October 1937 on Monday 4th October reports of aurora in the English channel above Plymouth – lasted about 30 minutes and appeared like hundreds of search lights

1938 Cornishman 27th Jan 1938 spectacle viewed by thousands visible in west Cornwall Tuesday 25th 1938 – large display reported nationwide also seen at the scilly isles

Second world war reporting gap.

1947 Thurs 25th dec 1947 Cornishman Aurora spotted last Friday 19th December near ludgvan lease
Large display as awaiting the arrival of a comet.