Delving into the dark skies of Dartmoor

The sky was wonderfully clear over my favourite dark sky site on Dartmoor on Saturday night, meaning I was able to spend several hours imaging objects in and around the Milky Way. Below are some of my images from that session, including a few of the lovely noctilucent cloud display that appeared over the northern horizon at about 02:00 BST. Clicking on each image will open a larger version.

The Milky Way in Scutum & Sagittarius. Credit: Will Gater
The globular cluster M22. Credit: Will Gater
Noctilucent clouds on the northern horizon. Credit: Will Gater
A close-up of the NLCs showing intricate structures. Credit: Will Gater
Wave structures within the 3 July 2011 noctilucent cloud display. Credit: Will Gater
More wave structures within the 3 July noctilucent cloud display. Credit: Will Gater

Noctilucent clouds light up the horizon — 1 July 2011

The height of the display, at roughly 3am BST, as seen from latitude 51°N. Credit: Will Gater

At around 3am BST this morning I spotted my first noctilucent clouds of the 2011 season. It was a fairly modest display, but did show some nice Type IIIb cloud structures at one point. Below are a few images I captured, along with two animations I made showing the clouds’ movement and changing structures. Clicking on the images will open up a larger version.

A panorama showing the extent of the display across the NE horizon. Credit: Will Gater

ANIMATION: click the image below to view the wide-angle animation. Credit: Will GaterANIMATION: click the image below to view the close-up animation. Credit: Will Gater

Scanning the summer night skies

This month’s Sky at Night Magazine vodcast is all about some of the things you can see in the night sky during the summer months. From glittering star clusters to glowing nebulae there’s something for everyone to observe over the coming weeks; in fact, many of the objects covered in the video can be spotted with a good pair of binoculars.

The vodcast is illustrated with several star charts to help you track down some of the more elusive objects, but if you require something a little more detailed then have a look at the free planetarium program Stellarium.

As usual, make sure you select the 720p HD setting for the best video quality. Clear skies and happy summer stargazing!

Noctilucent clouds and Audioboo

A noctilucent cloud display captured during summer 2010. Credit: Will Gater

I’ve just started using the website Audioboo to upload short pieces of astronomy themed audio to the Web. My first ‘boo’ (as they’re called) is all about noctilucent clouds – the ethereal glowing clouds that appear in the northern hemisphere’s night skies around this time of year.

I’ve embedded the audio below. If you’d like to see some of my pictures from previous years’ displays you’ll find them here and here.

Noctilucent cloud display 9 July 2010

Around 10:30pm last night I started to see reports coming in on Twitter of a large and bright noctilucent cloud (NLC) display appearing across much of the country. Poking my head out the window I was, to my dismay, greeted with thick uniform cloud lit by light pollution. Hoping for the best, I checked on the latest IR satellite image from the Met Office which showed that a clear patch would likely arrive over my location around midnight. I’ll give it a try I thought.

Well, by 11:30pm the skies had cleared and the sky, low to the north, was glowing with bright and detailed swirling NLC activity. Running out of the house and down the dark lanes I found a spot where the hedgerow allowed me to glimpse the northern horizon. Here are a few of the fifty or so images I managed to grab. It was, without doubt, the most impressive NLC display I’ve seen from south Devon. Let’s hope for a few more displays like this one before the NLC season’s out.

All images above © Will Gater 2010

Radio 4 takes a shine to noctilucent clouds

A stunning noctilucent cloud display seen in the summer of 2009. Credit: Will Gater

It’s approaching that time of year when the skies of the northern hemisphere are graced by an ethereal phenomenon known as noctilucent clouds (or NLCs). These high altitude clouds of ice crystals shine long after the Sun has set and are visible from latitudes of around 50 to 60 degrees north during the summer months. They are beautiful to look at, glowing a bright blue/white colour against the reds and oranges of the twilight. We had some wonderful displays last summer and I’m hoping that this year they’ll put on a good show too.

Late last year BBC Radio 4 announced that they would be holding a new competition ‘So You Want To Be A Scientist?’ to find the BBC’s Amateur Scientist of the Year. People from around the UK submitted their ideas for scientific experiments they’d like to carry out, with the four best now being put into practice with the assistance of professional scientists. The finalists will be judged later this year at the British Science Festival to see who wins the coveted title.

I mention this because one of the finalists, aerial photographer John Rowlands, will be studying noctilucent clouds for his experiment, with the help of Professor Nick Mitchell from the University of Bath. You can read (and hear) more about John’s idea and the science behind noctilucent clouds on the Radio 4 website here. There’s also a Facebook page where John and the Radio 4 team are keeping everyone up-to-date with how the project is progressing. It should be a really interesting experiment to follow over the next few months, not least because the subjects of the study are so fun to look at and photograph.

Noctilucent nirvana

Well you wait for noctilucent cloud season to start and then they appear three nights in a row! I missed Tuesday night’s display so here are some images (click them to enlarge) captured from Bristol from Wednesday (17th) night between 10:30 and 11:45 local time. The clouds last night were full of contrast and were tinged with the classic electric blue colour. An impressive sight looming over the horizon, like something from a movie. If the last few weeks of displays are anything to go by this is going to be a good summer for NLCs.


A wider angle looking at the whole display:

A shot with a zoom lens to reveal some of the fine detail in the clouds:NLC_170609_3

Early morning NLCs

Getting up to grab a glass a water at 3:30am this morning I popped my head out the window to hear the dawn chorus. I’m glad I did, as it gave me my first sight of noctilucent clouds this year. These ‘night-shining’ clouds appear to glow as the rising or setting Sun scatters off tiny ice particles within them.

NLCweb1Noctilucent cloud patterns at dawn. Credit:

They are found much higher in the atmosphere than ‘normal’ clouds, typically around 80km or so. You can often see them in the summer months about an hour after sunset and before sunrise. They shine whiteish blue and don’t appear silhouetted against the bright dawn or twilight sky like lower clouds tend to be (some high cirrus clouds can often look similar to them though). Sometimes they show beautifully intricate glowing patterns and other times simple swirls.

NLCweb2Type II NLCs towards the bottom of the image. Credit:

To find out more about NLCs there is some excellent information on Les Cowley’s great site and more on the different forms of NLC here. I’ve put two pictures I captured of this morning’s impressive display in the post above. So if you are up early or are enjoying a twilight walk, keep an eye out for these impressive and ethereal clouds.