Lightning, Rainbows, Hercules Cluster and Satellites in formation

Posted by XTSee on 2nd September , 2008

What a bizarre combination of sightings this evening.

Early evening we had a fantastic thunderstorm. I love the power of a storm. The sky was incredibly dark, with fork lightning zipping across the clouds, and since the sun was setting from the opposite direction it was perfect for a strong bright rainbow to form, in a full arc over the fields behind our house. In fact there was even a second fainter rainbow arcing over the first.

Double rainbow

Of course rainbows often occur with thunderstorms, and this was quite spectacular, with the bows and the lightning together.

Later in the evening the skies cleared and a miracle happened - yippee, the stars came out!!!

It seems absolutely ages since I’ve seen a nice clear starry night. There were still too many fleeting clouds to warrant getting my XT10 telescope out, plus the fear of more showers, so instead I took my 20×80 binoculars to the pagoda at the top of the garden and settled down for some enjoyment of the night views.

I took in Jupiter and its moons briefly before some cloud cover rolled in, and mistook Arcturus in Bootes for Saturn. Later I scouted around the regions of Ursa Major to see if I could make out any of the galaxies in this area, but I think the night air was too damp to allow me to see them with the binos, or I was just not concentrating on the right patch of sky (I had not taken any star atlas, nor the laptop outside because everything was too wet from the rain storm).

Next I viewed the beautiful star-studded jewels of Cassiopeia, and the wonderful clusters abiding within.

Usually during the course of an evenings viewing I will see several satellites individually crossing their own part of the sky, some blinking as they spin, others just moving steadily overhead. But tonight I saw something that made me do a double-take and confused me for a moment.

As I panned the binos on the tripod I suddenly wondered which direction I was actually moving them, because while some stars were moving, as expected, in the opposite direction to what I panned, 3 stars had suddenly appeared that were going roughly the same direction I was panning. “Eh? How can that be” I thought, until I followed them and got them centred in the view, and realised that they must be satellites, but ALL three were moving in the exact same direction, and in a triangular formation. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen this, as if they were flying together deliberately in a group.

So I tracked them as far as I could and very, very slowly the triangle formation changed shape, so they were in fact travelling at slightly different speeds after all. It was very strange to witness, because at first it looked as if they were intelligently flying as a group!

Finally I quite accidentally came across what at first I thought was Comet Holmes again. It looked the same indistinct fuzzy ball as I had seen a few months ago, when the comet exploded into life, but I thought that the comet was supposed to no longer be clearly visible. After consulting the excellent Stellarium astronomy software, I am certain that what I stumbled upon was the Great Cluster in Hercules. For a while I have been meaning to search this cluster out to see what it would look like in my new giant binos, so when I found it by chance this was quite a nice discovery. The last time I saw the Great Cluster was on my holiday in S.France, when I only had my 10×25 binos, and then the cluster looked very pale and small. In comparison the 20×80’s made the cluster very easy to spot, and to appear quite impressive.

So all in all quite a pleasant couple of hours observation, with quite a unique collection of visual spectacles during the course of the evening. The one thing I learnt was that with such long gaps between decent viewing nights (due to the crap weather), I have forgotten the locations of some of the constellations and stellar objects, and some revision is necessary, with star atlas on hand.

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