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ALL THE LATEST NEWS, VIEWS AND STORIES FROM AROUND YOUR LOCAL AREA:JUNE/JULY LETTER FROM THE SOUTH...


At this time of the year, many astronomers go into a kind of hibernation. Not me; although the night sky doesn’t get dark enough to see faint stars and deep sky objects like clusters, nebulae and galaxies at the moment there’s still plenty to see – including NLC.


NLC stands for noctilucent clouds. They aren’t water droplet clouds tho; they’re clouds of ice crystals and dust that form way, way up in the atmosphere, much higher than ‘normal’ clouds. This means that they are illuminated by the Sun’s rays in the middle of the night, long after sunset – hence ‘nocti’ (night) and ‘lucent’ (glowing). Most NLC displays are modest affairs, restricted to a few bands or patches of glowing cloud hovering almost reluctantly above the northern horizon. If you’re lucky enough to catch a major display of NLC this summer, you’ll have to pinch yourself to prove you’re not dreaming because that is something wonderful to behold...!


I actually came to observing NLC very late, in fact not until I moved down here. Where I used to live in Cockermouth I had no clear view north and without social media - no Facebook or Twitter in Ye Olden Days kids, imagine that - to alert me to the appearance of NLC any sightings I had of them were purely accidental. The best display I saw was in the summer of 1983 when I was up at the layby down at the bottom of The Hay, taking photographs of a comet with my Practika SLR (which used film... Google it, kids, or ask your parents) and a very bright display of NLC kicked off too. I had no idea what it was until I checked in an astronomy book in Cockermouth Library the next day. It was only when I moved down here and started to live online that I knew when it was worth hiking up to Kendal Castle to catch a display.


There is an ‘NLC season’ which begins in May and ends in early August and the good news is that as I write this, on June 3rd, there have already been some minor displays, so fingers crossed 2018 turns out to be a good year for NLC-spotters. It can only be better than last year, which was - well, pathetic is putting it very kindly.


the northern horizon - not big fluffy billows or streams, more like sharp lines, like golden or silvery vapour trails. If you see something like that just above the horizon around midnight, it’s a good sign – it means a display of NLC is brewing! There’s always a chance it might fade away to nothing, or it could grow larger and brighter, rearing up from behind that horizon like a dragon unfurling its wings.


During a major display, as the winds in the upper atmosphere catch the clouds, they form beautiful shapes – ghostly streamers, curls and tendrils of silvery- blue light, like some kind of ‘phantom’ or ‘energy field’ special effect from a science fiction film. Many NLC show a distinctive cross-hatch pattern and through binoculars, you will be able to watch the insides and edges of the clouds changing shape almost by the minute, sculpted by the silent winds blowing high, high above the Earth…


So, how do you see NLC? The good news is you don’t need anything. An NLC display is visible to the naked eye. Having said that, a pair of binoculars is great to use on NLC because they often have very fine, very intricate, very beautiful structures – wisps, curls, streamers and billows – that can’t really be seen well with just the naked eye. NLC are very photogenic too and you can photograph bright displays with a hand- held digital camera, but you really need a digital SLR to take good NLC photographs. The bottom line is this: to see NLC all you need are your eyes and a clear night.


When can you see them? Well, occasionally a big display of NLC will already be in progress immediately after sunset but usually nothing happens until around 11.30pm, when the first signs of NLC appear just above


If you’re lucky you’ll witness an NLC storm, a display that covers half the sky or more. I saw one in 2014, and from midnight until around 5.00am I just stood there, in the ruins of Kendal Castle, shaking my head in disbelief as the heavens were painted a dozen different shifting shades of electric blue and silver by nature. For hours and hours, I stared north, at a sky full of whirls and swirls, tendrils and curls of NLC burning with a cold electric blue light, until the approach of dawn eventually washed them from the sky. Will we see something like that again this year? We can only hope.


Stuart Atkinson


Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal http://cumbriansky.wordpress.com


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WWW.THECOCKERMOUTHPOST.CO.UK ISSUE 426 | 23 JUNE 2018 | 33


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