Archive for the ‘Summer Hexagon’ Category

Port Douglas, North Queensland, Australia
Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Earlier this year we told our friends in Sydney that we were going to Cairns to see the Solar Eclipse. Some thought we were mad; others said we were smart.

Yesterday, looking out of our Virgin airlines plane from 38 thousand feet, we wondered if we were indeed crazy, because the Queensland coast was covered in wads of cotton-wool clouds!

view from the plane

View of cloud bank over Queensland

But, buoyed by the good wishes of all our friends, we hoped that we’d see at least a few minutes of this very special celestial spectacle. “Well”, said Dom, trying to console me, “it’s our holiday, so let’s enjoy it whatever happens.”

The briefing on Tuesday evening
“Beware of snakes and cow dung!” Melissa said with a smile. No one from our tour group smiled back. We had come prepared for mud and mosquitoes, not snakes! 

Melissa, Education Officer from Sydney Observatory, our tour guide, had done her homework and visited the location for plan B, so we took her words seriously.

Why location B?  Location A, ten minutes from where we were staying at Port Douglas, was a no-no. Clouds were about, and clouds were forecast for eclipse morning. So Melissa had to make a rapid change of plans. She consulted a weather forecast company that film makers consult, and they had directed her beyond the Great Dividing Range.  

Cairns and Port Douglas are on the sea-front. Their weather is at the mercy of winds blowing in from the Pacific. Fortunately for us, the Great Dividing Range is inland from Port Douglas, and the mountains form a natural barrier for clouds rolling in from the sea.

So Melissa had to choose a location just past the shoulder of the Great Dividing Range. The place had to be reasonably flat, have a clear view of the east and be as close as possible to Port Douglas. She had personally driven around before we arrived, scouting for suitable places, and finally found one. There was only one catch. It was 160 km away.

So this morning we boarded the coach at the unearthly hour of 2 AM. Orion, bold and beautiful, was straight overhead. I considered it a good omen.

While we napped, Phil our coach captain drove very carefully on the Mulligan Highway that snakes its way over the Great Dividing Range. Two hours later, we reached the location in total darkness. The skies were wondrously clear. As we got off the coach and looked up, we oohed and aahed at the Milky Way spread out like a brilliant carpet overhead. The Southern Cross and the Pointers were to the south. Then, torches on, we carefully walked around cowpats and anthills to find a spot where we could set up our cameras. We noticed other cars there—at least 20 other astronomers had arrived before us.

The land was semi-cleared. To our great relief, resident snakes had taken off into the bush on hearing the footfalls of a platoon of men and women carrying torches, cameras and telescopes.

The spot was fairly level with low hills and a few trees which would be the foreground to the action. Venus was peeking over a mountain, so we set up our cameras aimed at her for we knew the drama would take place in that region.

The view of the east with Venus

The view of the east with Venus (Click on image to enlarge)

Melissa had warned us we’d miss the first stages of partial eclipse, but it was a small price to pay for a good view of the rest of the extravaganza.

We started setting up our equipment—telescopes, cameras—in the dark. Each group chose a different vantage a point from which to view and photograph. We chose a spot from where the landscape would lend enchantment to the view and interest to our photos.

Daphne sets up one of our cameras

Daphne sets up one of our cameras

As the sky began lightening, the stars began to fade. The brightness grew; anticipation was palpable … and soon Venus vanished.

We talked to others in our group. Many had been to other solar eclipses—some had even been to four! Many said previous eclipses had been non-events due to bad weather. We were among a few first timers. We sure hoped we’d be first time lucky!

Slowly, one spot in the sky began to grow brighter. Someone called out, “Put on your solar glasses!”

A bright spot apears between the mountains

A bright spot apears between the mountains (Click on image to enlarge)

The show had begun! All attention was focussed on the rising sun.

Dom views the eclipse with special solar glasses

Dom views the eclipse with special solar glasses

From the top left, the moon had taken a clean bite out of the sun!

The moon had taken a bite out of the sun

The moon had taken a bite out of the sun (Click on image to enlarge)

Slowly the environs became darker. A bird called out. The air turned chill.

As the moon moved more over the sun, an unnatural hush descended. The vanished Venus and a few stars reappeared. The sun and moon slipped behind a tree giving me a unique photo of sun, moon and gum leaves.

The action takes place behind gum trees

The action takes place behind gum trees (Click on image to enlarge)

We watched the sun becoming a crescent …

The sun as a crescent

The sun as a crescent (Click on image to enlarge)

… and then a slim sliver. One of the kids called out, “It’s like a smiley!”

A sliver like a smiley

A sliver like a smiley (Click on image to enlarge)

Eventually the sun was barely a thread of orange.

The sun a slendar thread of orange

The sun a slendar thread of orange (Click on image to enlarge)

Then it happened! Total eclipse!  A shout went up from the crowd!

 “I can’t see a thing,” cried someone.

“Take off your solar glasses!”

“Ahhhh! That’s better. Look at that!”

This was the climax of the drama. The sun and moon were in perfect alignment. What did it matter that this event can be explained mathematically in celestial geometry? It was a moment of bliss and magic—a poetic moment to remember with all its sights, sounds and feelings.

Two stages rapidly followed. First came Baily’s Beads—sunlight, like coloured beads, shining through mountain valleys on the rim of the moon—

Baily's beads

Baily’s beads (Click on image to enlarge)

—then total eclipse when the sun’s disk was fully obscured, but its corona was visible like a halo.

Total eclipse

Total eclipse (Click on image to enlarge)

The two minutes of total eclipse felt like 40 seconds.

And then—oh wow! For a brief second the diamond ring flashed!

The diamond ring

The diamond ring (Click on image to enlarge)

How we savoured the moment!

And all too quickly it was over. Slowly, the sun emerged from the shadow of the moon. The exposure of the sun began anew.

Sliver of sun appears

Sliver of sun appears (Click on image to enlarge)


As the sun waxed, sunspots were clearly evident.

Three quarters revealed with sun spots

Three quarters revealed with sun spots (Click on image to enlarge)

With the return of the light, we noticed how green the trees around looked.

The trees glow green

The trees glow green (click on image to enlarge)

The shadow of the moon over the sun was all but gone.

Nearly full

Nearly full (Click on image to enlarge)

The show was over, but people were reluctant to go home!

Eclipse worshippers reluctant to leave

Eclipse worshippers reluctant to leave (Click on image to enlarge)

Post eclipse

Sydney Observatory regulars who have chased solar eclipses in Turkey, Russia and Easter Island, all agreed that today’s Solar Eclipse was the best they’ve ever seen.

We two were indeed first time lucky!


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I’m a regular reader of the Sydney Observatory’s sky guide; it helps me identify the stars on show every month. In November and December, my hopes for viewing the star-show were shattered by La Niña and Climate Change. The dastardly duo covered the sky with clouds from horizon to horizon every night.
So when the weather girl, in late December, said we were in for some good weather, I was overjoyed. The gift I had asked Santa for was going to be delivered!

31 December 2011
New Year’s Eve fireworks illuminate the sky once a year, but Sydney’s famed blue sky is overhead hundreds of times. We were at a friend’s apartment in Kings Cross, overlooking the city skyline and Harbour Bridge, to see the 9 PM fireworks. We had arrived early, and I saw, to the west, a very bright Venus in a velvet sky, chasing the sun down to the glowing horizon.

In the north-west, the half moon was hanging over an expectant city.

Venus and Moon on New Year's eve, Sydney

Venus sets for the last time in 2011 as the Moon looks on (Click on the image to see a larger version)

To the north, the king of the planets, Jupiter, had risen high. These clear sightings made me optimistic about following Geoffrey Wyatt’s tour around the night sky during the next few days.

 You’ll find Geoffrey Wyatt’s sky guide for January 2011 here:


On the dot of 9, the first fireworks show started. Oohs and aahs arose spontaneously from the crowds crammed into every balcony and rooftop. For fifteen minutes we watched man’s stars sparkle, and quite forgot about nature’s silent stars above.

Fireworks over Sydney Harbour Bridge

Fireworks over Sydney Harbour Bridge

After the show, we returned to Bondi as the beach has its own festivities and fireworks. I was slightly disappointed to see that Bondi’s light pollution was worse. Added to the usual blaze, beams from searchlights were fanning across the sky. But I shouldn’t have worried: Orion is a bright guy! I looked up and there, spread out like a giant flag, was the mighty hunter, doing a hand-stand!  His dog, Sirius, was close by. I knew it was a good start to 2012!

1 January 2012
Another Sydney blue day! I wait till it is dark. I cannot escape the blaze of lights at Bondi, and while purist astronomers might shun it as a place to do any serious viewing, I’m amazed at how much I can see with the naked eye!

We are lucky to be able to view the north and north-east from our Bedroom Observatory, and, if we venture out to the Car-deck or Kerbside Obeservatories, we can see east, south and west. But for a magnificent, uninterrupted view of east and north, we have to walk to the cliff top of North Bondi. From that vantage point, our reward is dark sky over Pacific Ocean.

At 8 pm I see Jupiter perched up fairly high in the north. A few stars are beginning to peep out. Near 9 pm I spy Sirius in a fairly dark sky. Time for the tour to begin.

At 9.30 pm I take the camera on to Car-deck Observatory. Sirius is straight above our TV antenna.

Canis Major with Sirius

Canis Major with Sirius (Click on image for larger version)

The image from Stellarium (below) confirms what I say.

Sirius rising

Stellarium image of Canis Major

Back in Bedroom Observatory
Scooting to the north, I now get a grandstand view of Orion the Hunter. For us in the southern hemisphere, he is doing a handstand while holding up his shield – a difficult feat for a human, but not for the celestial warrior who is fighting a mighty scorpion! Betelgeuse in his armpit is noticeably yellowy orange. Also in the image is Aldebaran and the “V-shaped group of stars pointing back down towards the horizon” which are the Hyades in Taurus, the Bull. Here is my photo, which I have labelled.Orion with Aldebaran in Taurus and Sirius in Canis Major.

Orion, with Sirius and Aldebaran

Orion, with Sirius and Aldebaran (Click on image to enlarge)

While I have the Hunter and Bull in clear view, I pick up my binoculars to have a look at M42 in Orion’s sword as well as the open cluster of the Hyades in Taurus. Perhaps people looking from dark viewing points can see these two beauties with the naked eye, but an inexpensive 15 x 70 Celestron can reveal the magic of these two celestial stunners even in light polluted Bondi. I have observed these before, I know, but as the song says, “How can I resist you, Mama Mia!” After all it has been a very l o n g time since skies were clear.

 Time has marched on while I dallied and fell back on the tour. It is now 10.30 pm. My lack of keeping up with the tour has ended in a surprise. Some rather large stars have risen and are now in my field of view!

What are they? Take a look at my photo and have a guess.

Gemini, Capella and Procyon

Gemini, Capella and Procyon (Click on the image to see a larger version)

See the pair rising over the Bondi lights? I recognize them because of my star sign – Gemini! They’re the heavenly twins: bluey white, Castor and orangey, Pollux. Other prominent stars are also visible. To the east (top right) is Procyon, in the Little Dog; and to the north (left) and near the horizon is Capella, in the constellation Auriga.Unfortunately, I do not have a lens with a wide enough FOV to take a photo of the full backdrop to Bondi. In reality it is truly impressive! Going east in a circle from Taurus, I can see Orion, The Big Dog, the Little Dog, Gemini, and Auriga. By picking out the six big stars – Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, and Capella; I get an asterism which forms a hexagon. Astronomers call it the Summer Hexagon;I learnt about the Summer Hexagon from another site which I consult regularly, run by my US mentor, Greg Stone:


Since I can’t photograph the Summer Hexagon in one go, I’m reproducing a screen capture from Stellarium.So here is: Sydney’s Summer Hexagon!

Summer Hexagon

Summer Hexagon (Click on the image to see a larger version)

You have to admit it is impressive! Within the hexagon is an equilateral triangle formed by our brightest star, Sirius; the mighty star in Orion, Betelgeuse; and the largest star in the Little Dog, Procyon.

As 2012 gallops along, and the images of New Year pyrotechnics fade in my memory, the fireworks of the eternal stars continue. All I need to do is to be a sky-watcher, and a scribe. But what I express in words is a fraction of what I see and feel:

 “Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes to make bears dance when what we really want to do is to move the stars.”
—  Gustave Flaubert

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