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Scopeless not hopeless

A blog for us AMATEUR amateur astronomers. By @RadioVicky.

Bio:

I’m 33, I live in Bristol and I like astronomy.  However, I don’t have a telescope and even if you did give me one, I’d be uncertain where to put my eye. I write comedy and I’m a professional blogger. My favourite colours are beer and dark skies.

Telescopes scare me. Not in the way a stranger in my bedroom or a spider in my knickers would scare me, but they do fill me with a certain fear.

I mean, I absolutely love things that go *shine* in the night, and have since I was a little girl, but the prospect of going out and buying a scope – something I know NOTHING about — is fairly petrifying. It even makes me feel a bit of a fraud. How can I be in to astronomy when I don’t even know my azimuth from my elbow? And also, I’m not too hot on my constellations either – sure, I know the main ones they teach you at school, but ask me to point out Lyra? Pegasus? Lucky Jim’s Pirate Ship?

OK, I admit it, I’m an AMATEUR amateur astronomer, but so is 99.9999999999999999999999% (possibly more nines than that, I didn’t have time to conduct a survey) of the world’s population, so it’s a cool club to be in.

Before I got friendly with astronomers on Twitter, I always fancied one of those thin tubular ones they sell for £90 in Argos. Surely I would be able to see the storms on Jupiter, the arms of Andromeda, and the Bristol football team practicing from 10 miles away? Turns out I’d be better off peering through a toilet roll tube with some cling film on the end of it – I’ve been told that cheap telescopes merely turn unimpressive white dots into marginally less impressive WOBBLY white dots, so I’m saving the cash for a Virgin Galactic space holiday instead. I hear the weather’s quite exceptional on Mercury…

But something happened this weekend that made me feel better about scope envy. I’ve been getting friendly with our very own @virtualastro on Twitter, and when I discovered I had 900 free minutes to use before the end of the month, I thought it was nigh on time we spoke to each other.

So, I called him up, and we spent a total of FIVE HOURS on the phone over the course of Saturday and Sunday night. Rest assured Twitter, we have plotted and planned some very exciting things together which will be blazing your way like a comet made of ideas instead of muddy ice soon …but the best, most wonderful, amazing, magical thing we did was…GO STAR HOPPING TOGETHER. Without a freakin’ telescope!

Even though we are about 70 miles apart (I live in Bristol, he lives in Oxfordish somewhere) we were both able to look up at the same sky, see the same ISS passes, and the same meteors. It was remarkable to be on the phone to someone with such an incredible knowledge of the skies. I sat gob smacked, mouth and ears open, as he talked me through constellations, clusters, satellites and gory Greek myths. I had no idea Cassiopeia had been a naughty girl and was sentenced to dangle upside down on a chair for eternity. I’d never heard of the Cygnus Rift — an ominously dark patch of sky in our milky way. I couldn’t even pick out the summer triangle, but now I know where it lives I will undoubtedly point it out to people in the pub, spilling cider as I leap around, trying to remember which stars make it up.

The best part was a dazzling ISS pass with a Perseid meteor streaking past like an arrow through a love heart. @VirtualAstro even had to put the phone down to deal with the deluge of tweets, and it felt amazing to be part of something so communal, so magical, yet so fleeting.

He also reassured me I didn’t need a telescope to enjoy the skies – which is fabulous because I was getting a bit sick of wishing for one on every meteor I saw. He said ‘if you look up at the sky…then you’re already an astronomer,’ a line which neatly castrated the last traces of my scope envy.

As I lay back and looked at the star-flecked sky, with crickets singing in the hedge, fired up with a guided tour of our resplendent heavens, it dawned on me. This was better than any naughty phone chat line. He could quite easily wire up a premium-rate number to his phone and charge £1.50 a minute for the pleasure of his knowledge.

Yep, I had a great time star-gazing without a scope last night. To the point of rubbing my thighs and drooling a bit. And how was it for you, darling?

Vicky pretended she was having fun looking through the telescope, but the view was better with just her eyes.

 

The World’s Unluckiest Stargazer! – Fingers Crossed For The Perseids?

I am the dead albatross on your boat.

I am the peacock feather in the house.

I am horseshoe carelessly nailed upside down so all the good luck falls out down a grid.

If you ever see me coming to stand next to you at a star party, meteor shower, or eclipse, you have permission to make the cross sign with your fingers and run backwards as fast as you can.

That’s because, for my 33 and a half years of sky gazing, I have managed to cause cloudy skies and inclement weather at every single major event I have attended.

Just for the record, I’m a keen amateur astronomer without a telescope. I follow as many Twitter astro accounts as I can, avidly retweeting the latest data from Cassini, and following lonely Mars landers as they bump across rusty rocks. I cried the first time I saw the ISS, and as a child, I used to stand in the garden with a compass, straining hard to see the northern lights. I never did.

My bad luck began in earnest when I went to Cornwall for the eclipse. A boyfriend and I spent a small fortune hiring out a dank, uncomfortable cottage in the middle of nowhere. I was so excited that I woke up at 6.30am every morning, causing us to be grey faced and exhausted for the whole pitiful ‘holiday.’ And of course, on the big day, there was 100% cloud cover and it was so cold we had to wear gloves.

One night, me and the chap were out in Sefton Park, Liverpool, admiring a wonderful conjunction of several planets dancing around a new moon like fairy lights. Flushed with happiness, we went in and congratulated ourselves for figuring out how to use a planisphere.  Next morning we were mortified to find out aurora had been visible ten minutes after we went in.

And indeed, only last week, I was photographing some incredible clouds where I live in Bristol, only to be told a short while later that even more aurora had decided to shimmy their way on to the sky’s stage while I had my back turned.

I travelled to America last year, and on my first night, I was so jetlagged that I shut the blind to keep out an incredibly bright moon. Mr Moon was very cross at my ignorance, and proceeded to turn bright red with rage, causing me to miss a spectacular lunar eclipse.

But the thing I have had the LEAST luck with…is meteor showers. I have stood out in back gardens and dark fields trying to catch a glimpse of these fleeting sky streaks at least three times a year from the age of 15. And guess what? Except for ONE Leonid I saw, cutting through soupy orange cloud two years ago, I have not had ANY luck. Truly disheartening.

That is, if you forget about last year. I was in Portland, on the west coast of America. Through a set of remarkable coincidences, which really do make me wonder if we are being pulled through our lives by twinkling cosmic threads, I ended up meeting some wonderful people who shared my love of all things that require tipping your chin up to 90 degrees to observe.

They took me out to a pitch-black nature reserve, bundled up with blankets and deckchairs, as bullfrogs boomed in the blackness, and baby racoons cavorted in the undergrowth.

On that magical, starry, starry night, we counted several hundred Perseids, each one causing me to gasp and grip the arm of my chair. One of the most memorable experiences of my life and one I long to repeat.

So. Will I be turning my head skywards for the Perseids this year? Of course I will. But judging from past form, I’d say, chances are, Bristol is not going to enjoy clear skies. I just seem to have that unfortunate effect on the sky over my head.

So if there are any astronomers in the Bristol area hoping for a good viewing, you may want to drive me out of town with planks and pitchforks. Either that, or take a trip to Inverness.

Follow me for further antics on twitter, I am @RadioVicky