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Astronomy in Suffolk: From Halley's Comet to Neowise, SpaceX to shooting stars, look to the skies for some celestial wonders




From comets to space ships, eclipses to meteorites, if ever you feel like reminding yourself just how very small we are in such a vast universe, then taking a look to the skies can often deliver that down to Earth feeling.

And while celestial wonders dance across our skies on a frequent basis, for those of us not equipped with a telescope, we have to wait for some showcase moments to be able to spot them with the naked eye.

So just what, for those peering into the heavens, has been on show over the years? Here are just a few.

A pair of binoculars are always handy to spy celestial wonders
A pair of binoculars are always handy to spy celestial wonders

Total solar eclipse

Now this was a really good one. A proper, no questions asked, spectacular experience which you couldn't help but be mightily impressed by.

Taking place on August 11, 1999, it was a period in which we all started using the phrase "totality" as if we knew what we were talking about. But the thing we'll all remember is that bizarre spectacle of the day turning into night for a few glorious moments.

Aliens looking down will have seen millions of us staring up at the sky while wearing little cardboard glasses with black plastic 'glass' so we didn't all blind ourselves by looking directly at the Sun. They'll have thought our fashion sense was a bit odd. Or, at least, that we were really embracing 3D TV.

The solar eclipse of 1999 was remarkable - sadly the same couldn't be said for the partial eclipse in 2015 which was spoilt by cloud
The solar eclipse of 1999 was remarkable - sadly the same couldn't be said for the partial eclipse in 2015 which was spoilt by cloud

It was the first time since 1927 that the UK had the opportunity of seeing a total eclipse and at the point of totality (see, first use there for 22 years) people held parties and TV teams provided live coverage.

In case you're wondering, a total eclipse is not just the inspiration for a Bonnie Tyler classic, but when the Moon passes in front of the Sun and is big enough to entirely block it's light. The point the Moon is directly in front of it is known as, you guessed it, totality.

If you somehow missed it or were too young to have remembered it, well there will be another one in the UK. But not until September 23....2090. So only another 69 years to wait. Ahem. There was also a partial eclipse in 2015 - but most of Kent couldn't see it courtesy of a blanket of cloud.

Space ship

Be fair, to watch a space ship take off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and then, a couple of hours later, stand in your back garden and watch it soar, high, high, high overhead is pretty special.

Last May, Elon Musk watched a few more hundred million dollars soar into the sky as he teamed up with Nasa to launch his latest SpaceX rocket into space.

The SpaceX rocket took off from Florida - and could be seen in our skies a couple of hours later. Picture: NASA
The SpaceX rocket took off from Florida - and could be seen in our skies a couple of hours later. Picture: NASA

The Falcon 9 vessel soared into the sky on Saturday, May 30. It was the first manned effort, and carried astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley towards the International Space Station.

Those watching in the UK were able to see the rocket - albeit only as a tiny speck - crossing the sky as it made its way to the ISS. In addition, those prepared to stand outside at 10.15pm could also glimpse the ISS too. Two for the price of one. A deal Mr Musk can only dream of, no doubt, when it comes to building the things.

International Space Station

While we're talking about the International Space Station - which is currently orbiting the Earth around 250 miles above its surface at a remarkable 17,227mph per hour - those determined to see it will be pleased to hear that with a bit of perseverance and the right weather conditions, your opportunity swings around pretty frequently.

There are currently seven crew on board - taking isolating to a whole new level - and there are windows of opportunity to spy on it most days.

The International Space Station. Picture: NASA
The International Space Station. Picture: NASA

According to those clever folk at Nasa, the best time to spot it is in the hours just before or just after sunrise or sunset "as the sun reflects off the space station and contrasts against the darker sky".

It tends to be low in the sky and will be visible for just a few minutes. Click here for Nasa's guide on where and when to have a look (you can change the location so it corresponds with where you are in the county.

Comets

Now, we're going to need to separate out some of the most notable comet sightings over recent years here.

First up, let's recall the events of 1986 when, with enormous fanfare, the most famous of all the comets flew overhead. And single-handedly put off a generation of possible astronomers.

Comet Hale-Bopp was a remarkable sight. Picture: Doug Warshaw
Comet Hale-Bopp was a remarkable sight. Picture: Doug Warshaw

Halley's Comet - which passes by the Earth approximately once every 75-76 years before rounding the Sun and heading off to circle around Neptune almost 3 billion miles away - is the only comet which it is possible to see twice in a lifetime. But, you're going to have to live a ripe old age - and have good eye-sight to achieve it.

But it is famous. It's in the Bayeux Tapestry, don't you know.

Certainly, for those of us who looked in vain to spot it 35 years ago will be unable to count ourselves among those lucky few even if it returns in full, visible, glory when it is next due to pass in 2061. Assuming we've made it that long, of course.

Apparently, in case, like me, you're still a bit annoyed about not seeing it in 1986, the reason was not necessarily your inability to read the stars, but that the comet and the Earth were "on opposites sides of the Sun, creating the worst possible viewing circumstances" for those of us stood in a garden with a pair of binoculars.

It was the worst viewing conditions for 2,000 years and invisible for much of the northern hemisphere for a number of months. Which is just my luck.

Neowise captured above Dover Castle. Picture: Greg Esson
Neowise captured above Dover Castle. Picture: Greg Esson

But while Halley's Comet under-delivered, Hale-Bopp in 1997 did the complete opposite.

It didn't bang on and on, like Halley's Comet, about its arrival, instead it arrived and then hung in the sky looking exactly like a comet should. Even after sunrise and before sunset. It was that bright. It had a long tail and was, quite frankly breathtaking.

It was so convincing you half expected to see Three Wise Men driving a Land Rover, laden down with gifts, to greet the Second Coming it must surely be signalling the birth of.

Admittedly, it was a bit of a show off - hanging around for us Earthlings to gawp at for 18 months.

If you missed it, it will return but not for a few thousand years. Sorry about that.

Nasa's solar probe took this image of the Neowise comet last year. Picture: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg
Nasa's solar probe took this image of the Neowise comet last year. Picture: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg

While the world was getting to grips with the pandemic last year, another visitor from the far reaches of the galaxy came-a-calling - and jolly good it was too. Granted, it was a poor show in comparison with the all-conquering Hale-Bopp, but Neowise hung around looking very much like a comet ought.

Granted, you needed to get away from the ugly urban glare which dominates our skies so often, and keep an eye close to the horizon, but a little perseverance paid dividends.

Visible for most of July, it slipped away so the southern hemisphere could have a look.

Meteorites

Meteorites, more commonly referred to as shooting stars, are a regular sight and one which a little perseverance and some good luck can pay dividends.

Granted, you may not see the Milky Way in such glorious fashion - but looking into the skies can provide plenty of remarkable sights
Granted, you may not see the Milky Way in such glorious fashion - but looking into the skies can provide plenty of remarkable sights

They are, of course, rocks and space debris flying through the cosmos and burning up as they enter the Earth's atmosphere - and looking like, well, a shooting star. They are, admittedly, a bit of a 'blink and you'll miss it' phenomenon but it's a free show, so count yourself lucky.

There have already been three showers so far this year, and there's more to come.

Worth keeping a note in the diary for will be this summer, between July 16 to August 23, when the Perseids shower is due to deliver some 150 shooting stars an hour during its peak. Sod's law will say it will be cloudy.

Lunar eclipse

If you want to witness a regular impressive sight then you're in luck when it comes to lunar eclipses. Because 'blood moons', as they're called, occur a few times a year.

The 'blood Moon' is something which can be spotted relatively frequently
The 'blood Moon' is something which can be spotted relatively frequently

It occurs when the Earth moves between the Sun and the Moon, preventing the sun's light from reaching our rocky satellite. Relying on the light from the Earth's sunsets and sunrises, the Moon appears to take on a red hue. The more dust in the atmosphere, the redder the Moon will appear.

In fact the most recent one took place in May.

Granted, most of the month was cloudy and chilly, so the chances are you may have missed it. But they happen around four times a year - two of which are normally visible to us northern hemisphere types.

However, if you miss this one, you will will have to wait until next May to see the next, although there will be a partial eclipse in November, with less dramatic results.

UFOs

There's been a lot of UFO sightings...but do you believe aliens are making such regular visits to our skies?
There's been a lot of UFO sightings...but do you believe aliens are making such regular visits to our skies?

Now, before you say anything, I know that it seems as though 95% of UFO reports seem to be descriptions of those pesky Chinese sky lanterns people release, but surely the remaining 5% must be alien visitors?

Well, it's unlikely, but in 2009, when the Ministry of Defence presumably finally tired of taking reports of "brightly lit orange balls rising in the sky, no engine noise could be heard",

Reports of UFOs are no longer recorded. Most likely, because they're nonsense. Or is it part of a wider conspiracy and aliens have already landed and infiltrated the government? Probably not, but who knows, eh?

But reading some of the reports from that year are quite amusing. Aside from the aforementioned descriptions of what are clearly those lanterns, others descriptions received and logged include a sighting of "a little moon thing". The Moon itself perhaps? Or the call from someone in Herne Bay who clearly didn't want to go into detail and simply reported they had seen "a UFO". You'd think if you've gone to the bother of finding the UK equivalent of Mulder and Scully's phone number you could at least provide a little meat on the bones.

Or the report from someone near the Thames Estuary who described what they saw as "same as the UFO seen over the House of Commons in February 2008. Matches description The Sun gave".

We keep getting flown over by aliens galore. They are dropping germs and we keep getting colds

Although perhaps the best was someone from Colchester in Essex, who rang in to say: "We keep getting flown over by aliens galore. They are dropping germs and we keep getting colds. Please send the RAF or USAF to stop them."

Let's leave it at that, shall we?