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Astronomical Contemplations at 56 Degrees North Latitude GMT -7

Gary Andreassen
BY Gary Andreassen
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There are things you know. There are things you know and experience.

And the delight of experiencing something you know can catch you by surprise.

Snowflake Hex
For example, every school kid knows that snowflakes are always six-sided. I caught one landing softly on my gloved hand one day. When I saw its hexagon shape, my “Whoah” sent my wife into a spasm of giggling at my child-like wonder. Made me appreciate Saturn’s hexagon storm all the more. And then I saw the snow-covered car and driveway, and I swore under my breath because of all the shoveling I needed to do again.


TARDIS - Time and Relative Dimension in Space
Geographic time differences is another example. I flew out from Manila on Dec 08 at 3PM. 10,541 kms and 11 hours later, I arrived at Vancouver not only on the same date still but also earlier at 10AM. I travelled back in time 5 hours. I left after lunch, I arrived before lunch. Another two and half hour plane ride and I was at Fort McMurray.

And then there’s also the geographic coordinate difference. At 56 degrees North latitude, this time of the year, the Sun rises in the Southeast at 9AM, makes a very low 10-degree max arc above the horizon, and then sets in the Southwest at 4PM. It never goes above your head.

Even more surreal is seeing the Moon rising on your left in the East and then turning your head to the right to see the Sun setting in the Southwest – at the same time.


Astrophotography Woes

At night, to see the North Star (Polaris), you have to tilt your head up. Back home at 14 degrees Latitude, all you needed to do is roll your eyes upward. The sight of the whole Big Dipper asterism under Polaris felt weird. And the counterweight of the equatorial mount doesn’t hit the North leg of the tripod. Hallelujah!

The auroras have been number one on my bucket list since long before the phrase “bucket list” was invented. I saw it for the first time on the night of Dec 20, 2017. I tried really hard to control it, but I couldn’t – I broke down and cried. My wife was with me. Pretty soon we were both crying. She knew that I had dreamt of this for forever. And she was overjoyed that after three years of a long-distance relationship, we were finally together again – and looking up at the northern lights. I wanted so much to take a shot of the two of us under the aurora. But then the tears that rolled down my cheeks at the sight of it started to freeze because it was so cold, so we just both went back inside the house.

I used to think that there are two great ironies to astrophotography. One is seeing the North Star but everything else is clouded out. Two is seeing everything else except the North Star. Now there’s a third – being under pristine astrophotography winter nights but not being able to get out because it’s so cold.


Speaking of the cold

Oh my God, the cold. In the list of things you know and then experience, this will be the most surprising. When you’re used to summers of 35C above, a winter on the opposite extreme of -35C below (with a windchill of -43C below) is one of those if-it-doesn’t-kill-you-will-make-you-stronger life events. I hear the summers are great here. But then the sun doesn’t set until 10PM. Yet another fourth irony to add to an astrophotgrapher’s woes.