Ian’s Celestial Insights

Combining carefully selected quotations with his own commentaries, Ian Glendenning provides a broader perspective to his Celestial photography.  See also the Events page for details of Ian’s free monthly Astro Alert newsletters.

“The sense of wonder is based on the admission that our intellect is a limited and finite instrument of information and expression, reserved for specific practical uses, but not fit to represent the completeness of our being…It is here that we come in direct touch with a reality which may baffle our intellect, but which fills us with that sense of wonder which opens the way to the inner sanctuary of the mind, to the heart of the great mystery of life and death, and beyond into the plenum void of inner space from which we derive our conception of an outer universe that we mistake for the only genuine reality.  In other words, our reality is our own creation, the creation of our senses as well as of our mind, and both depend on the level and the dimensions of our present state of consciousness.”
   – Lama Govinda



‘The old moon in the new moon’s arms’. Light is reflected from the earth onto the moon, and at the crescent phase this makes the moon’s night side faintly visible. Photograph taken 7/3/11, with the moon just ‘3 days old’.

Very recently I was given, possibly the source of the above expression, a copy of The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens Anon C17th.

“I saw the new moon late yestreen
With the old moon in her arm;
And if we go to sea, master,
I fear we’ll come to harm.”


 Christmas Eve Halo

A reminder of the bitterly cold winters past – one of the many icy halos around the moon that appeared during late 2010. There are many stars visible in the photograph, described below.

At the 1 o’ck position, either side of the halo ring, are the Twin stars Castor and Pollux of the constellation Gemini (Pollux is inside the ring, Castor just touching outside). Just below the 3 o’ck position and inside the ring is Procyon of Canis Minor, the Little Dog. On the other side at 8 o’ck and right on the ring is Regulus of Leo, the Lion. The bright blue star shining in the trees, lower right, is Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest in the night sky.

[Photograph DSC01464.copy taken Abercraf, 02:30 24/12/10, 3·2 s, f/2·8, ISO 400 X.FINE format.]


Great Orion Nebula

Great Orion Nebula

The Great Orion Nebula, taken outside my front door in Abercraf! What I rather like about this image is that these are the true colours – this is a straight photograph of the nebula, a hot glowing region of fluorescing gases producing new stars, no need to change or enhance!

Trapezium (Orion Nebula)

Shown here with a close up of the central region of the nebula, with, famously, the four tightly packed stars together known as the Trapezium, four young hot bright stars that are the powerhouse of the nebula. The Orion Nebula’s ‘glittering jewels’. Below is a key for what you are seeing in this close up. 

Also known as M42 or NGC 1976, the Great Orion Nebula is ~ 1500 light years from earth.


Astronomy at Llangiwg

Llangiwg Star Trail

Orion Aside Llangiwg Tower

Llangiwg Church, beautiful and atmospheric – and none more so than at night! With its remote and splendid isolation atop the Gwrhyd, the church is an ideal and magical location for heavenly contemplation. One of the many and special activities at Llangiwg are now the stargazing and telescope observing sessions of celestial wonders when the weather permits and some astronomical slide shows when inclement.

Another activity that is taking place there is astronomical photography. There have been several late night sessions to take ‘star trails’ and other shots around the church. One photograph, taken back in August 2009, Star Trails Over Llangiwg, was exhibited at the Welsh Assembly in October of 2010. This one, Orion Aside Llangiwg Tower, appeared in an article detailing the astro activities at the church in The Community Magazine in February 2011.

Llangiwg Star Trails photograph taken 29/8/9 in the early hours before dawn. Camera mounted on a tripod with 1 h exposure, f/7.1 and ISO 100.  Many thanks to Alexander Glendenning for both the original conception and the technical execution in producing this image.
For more information on the remarkable project and family events at Llangiwg Church go to www.llangiwg.com . The church is located outside Pontardawe, South Wales. The postal district is SA8 and the Ordnance Survey map ref is SN 724 056. There is also the society known as the Friends of Llangiwg who produce a quarterly newsletter, which can be received from pbryan5294@aol.com and is full of fascinating information about this special place.

Sahara Desert Eclipse

Sahara Desert Eclipse

The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead

Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets…

And prologue to the omen coming on,

Have heaven and earth together demonstrated

Unto our climatures and countrymen,

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,

disasters in the sun; and moist star

upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands,

  was sick almost to Doomsday with eclipse.


                                                                                                                       – William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 1.

The beautiful pearly white light of the sun’s corona at total eclipse. Northern Sahara Desert, Libya, 29th March 2006.

Photograph taken with a Canon A1 camera through a Meade ETX-90 EC Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope at f/16, 1/30 s on 400 ISO Fujichrome slide film. This image is a scan, of the original slide, made on 5/11/11 with an Epson Perfection V300.

Black on Black

Black on Black: Total Solar Eclipse

Total solar eclipse

Ruya river, Zimbabwe, 21st June 2001

Note the huge red prominence (solar flare) at the 3 o’ck position. To give some idea of the scale, some 5 ‘Earths’ would fit across the prominence from one side to the other!
To witness a total eclipse of the Sun is a privilege that comes to but few people. Once seen, however, it is a phenomenon never to be forgotten. The black body of the Moon standing out … in sinister relief between Sun and Earth, the sudden outflashing glory and radiance, the pearly corona which can be seen at no other time, scarlet prominences rising from the surface of the hidden Sun to heights of many thousands of miles, the unaccustomed presence of the brighter stars and planets in the daytime, the darkness of twilight and the unusual chill in the air. There is something in it all that affects even the strongest nerves and it is almost with a sigh of relief that we hail the return of the friendly Sun.

Isabel M. Lewis, 1924, A Handbook of Solar Eclipses

Photograph taken with a Canon A1 camera through a Meade ETX-90 EC Maksutov-Cassegrain F=1250 mm telescope at f/16, 1/125 s on 400 ISO Elitechrome slide film and this image made 5/11/11 by a scan of the original slide.

The Southern Cross

The Southern Cross


The constellation of Crux (The Southern Cross) taken from Fraser Island off the east coast of Australia, July 2000. The experience of seeing it was wonderful, strange and magical all at the same time. The remoteness of Fraser Island, the largest sand island in the world, ensured that the skies were truly dark, marvellous and free from any extraneous light sources. Then Crux is the smallest constellation in the entire sky yet contains more bright stars for its area than any other, and running right through is the Milky Way, which in the southern hemisphere is so bright that I thought I must be looking at high level clouds. And it was disorientating to have all the constellations moving clockwise around the south celestial pole (in the north, constellations like the Plough rotate anticlockwise about Polaris).  

[Photograph taken with a Canon A1 mounted on a polar aligned ETC-90 EC Meade telescope using 400 ISO Elite Chrome slide film, f/1.8 with a 4 min exposure time. This image is a scan of the original slide.]

Southern Cross detailed

The above key gives the bright stars visible in the photographs. Crux is to the upper right and is made up of the 5 stars: Acrux, Becrux (Mimosa) and δ, γ and ε Crucis and the star pattern is famously a feature of the Australian flag. Alpha and Beta (Agena) Centauri of the surrounding constellation Centaurus are upper middle. Also visible are the Coal Sack dark nebula and the Milky Way. (The extensive dark area in the bottom right of the photograph is due to trees!)

In Aboriginal culture the Coalsack marks the head of the ‘Emu in the Sky’ whilst Crux itself is said to be a possum sitting in a tree and a representation of the sky diety Mirrabooka. It was added to the European skymap by Royer in 1679. For more about Crux and its legends go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crux .


Then did I feel as one who, much perplext,

Led by strange legends and the light of stars

Over long regions of the midnight sand

Beyond the red tract of the Pyramids,

Is suddenly drawn to look upon the sky,

From sense of unfamiliar light, and sees,

Reveal’d against the constellated cope,

The great cross of the South.

                                                                   – Lord Lytton, Queen Guenevere



But to thee, as thy lode-stars resplendently burn

In their clear depths of blue, with devotion I turn,

Bright Cross of the South ! and beholding thee shine,

Scarce regret the loved land of the olive and vine.

Thou recallest the ages when first o’er the main

My fathers unfolded the ensign of Spain,

And planted their faith in the regions that see

Its imperishing symbol ever blazoned in thee.

                                                                      – Mrs. Hemans, Cross of the South

      The Plough

Charles' Wain: The Plough

The Plough is one of the best known star groupings in the sky. It is one of only a few star groupings mentioned in the Bible, simply referred to as ‘the seven stars’ (Amos 5:8). I took a photograph of the Plough over Llangiwg Church, Pontardawe back in August 2010 whilst meteor hunting! I have entitled this photograph Charles’ Wain, as an older name for the Plough is King Charles’ Wain.  This image  is a close-up of Charles’ Wain.  A key to the seven stars of the Plough, that are visible above the church in this image, is given below.



[Photograph taken 02:24 UT 13th August 2010 with a Sony Alpha 900 24.6 MP digital camera, mounted on a tripod, with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens at f/2.8, F = 24 mm, ISO 1600 and 42 s exposure in X.FINE JPEG format.]

Mizar is a naked eye double, and I’ve put its partner, Alcor, as a star to the left of Mizar on the diagram above. They have been charmingly described as ‘The Horse and Rider’, and are just visible as a separate pair in my photograph.

The middle 5 stars in the table above are a genuine physical group and are moving together. It is fascinating to think that this movement does slowly change the constellation’s shape over eons and ancient humans would have seen a very different pattern 100,000 BC and future humanity will see yet another changed constellation 100,000 AD.

The Plough is but part of the mighty Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation, circumpolar from Britain, which means it never sets and is visible all year round. Ursa Major is one of the oldest of constellations, and is included in the 48 listed by Ptolemy. In mythology, Ursa Major was originally Callisto, attendant to the goddess Juno and daughter of King Lycaon of Arcadia. Her beauty surpassed Juno’s own, and the jealous goddess was enraged as a result. To protect Callisto, Jupiter, king of Olympus, turned her into a bear. Unfortunately Callisto’s son, Arcas, saw the bear while he was out hunting, and was about to kill it with his spear when Jupiter intervened. He turned Arcas into a bear also, and placed both animals in the sky.

The Moon

The Moon

Some believe the Moon to be hollow, others that the Moon is a dead sun. Science has no less a fantastic theory; that our Moon was created when a planet the size of Mars smashed into the Earth in a catastrophic collision over four billion years ago. Debris material from the collision then formed, by the process of accretion, one of the largest moons in the Solar System. Our big Moon causes the tides and stabilizes the Earth’s axial tilt. The Earth and the Moon are sometimes classed as a double planet and without her presence, it is probable that human life would not have developed on this planet.

This image is an image of the Moon taken with an Alpha 900 digital camera through a Meade LX90 telescope from Llangiwg Church 10/9/9. Many thanks to Alexander for performing a data compression to get the image file ‘small’ enough to send over the Internet (the original is over 30 MB).  One sees, even in this simple photograph, just how desolate the lunar surface is; as strewn with craters and mountain ranges aside the smoother ancient lava flow maria regions.

The stars will awaken though the Moon sleep a full hour later tonight, revealing a tone of some world far from ours where music and moonlight and feeling are one.          – Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The Colours of Stars

To the casual night-gazer the stars appear predominantly white.  There is a good reason for this; the stars are such energetic bodies that all radiations, all colours, are streaming from them – and famously all colours together make white light.  However the stars are at different temperatures and any particular star’s light will peak at a particular colour.  The Sun for example, with a surface temperature of ~ 6000 °C, is classified as a G2 yellow dwarf and in some sense is a yellow star as the peak intensity is at yellow wavelengths.  And when the stars are studied just a little more closely, by the more experienced observer, the sky explodes into Technicolor!

Altinak: Blue Supergiant: 30 s, ISO 1600

Betelgeuse: Orange Supergiant: 30 s, ISO 800












These two photographs show two stars in Orion. The first is of Altinak -Zeta Orionis – the easternmost and lowest of the 3 stars of Orion’s Belt.  Its surface temperature is so high, ~ 30,000 °C,  that is is blue hot.  The second is of Betelgeuse – Alpha Orionis – the famous supergiant star in the left shoulder of Orion.  Its surface temperature is much lower ~ 4000 °C, and is a vivid orange colour.  What I like about these photographs is they are completely natural – no attempt has been made at image ‘enhancement’. They are direct records of the light of the stars themselves.  The light from the stars goes from the telescope mirror to the CMOS digital image sensor and is now replayed for us to enjoy.  A complementary study in blue and orange.

Both photographs taken in Abercraf, 9/12/10, through a Meade LX90 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope f/10, F = 2000 mm.
While Night with her company drives through the dewfall,

Snow Moon

Leading the stars in their silent round,
Come to me, youngest, yet not least, of the Muses,
For the doors of high heaven stand open to you,
You who know the stars by number and by name.
Come, lady, let us enjoy the pure spring sky
And wander in quite fields; hear my prayer,
Walk with me in shadows’ coolness.
Surely these worlds, these jewels of high heaven,
Do not shine for us alone, a decorated ceiling?
Who will give me wings to rise in wonder,
To see the firmament more near,
Like you, who shed a softer light, that flows
To uncover fields and calm sad darkness.

                    –   Thomas Gray

Luna Habitabilis – Life in the Moon.

The Full Moon

One of the surprises in running my Astro Alert enewsletter is the number of readers who write in to say how they enjoy having the name of each month’s Full Moon. There is a huge importance of the Moon according to a whole variety of Earth’s cultures.
The photograph shows the Mid Winter Full Moon in February 2012. In English it is known as the Wolf Moon, in Algonquian (Native American) the Snow Moon but it is also variously celebrated as the Hunger Moon, Storm Moon and Candles Moon. The Hindu name is Magh Poornima and in Sinhala (Buddhist) – Navam Poya. With snow all around on the Brecon Beacons that night, I choose Snow Moon as the most appropriate!
Astronomically the picture is dominated by the bright impact crater Tycho (at the bottom of the Moon’s disc) which at the time of Full Moon is fully illuminated to show bright streaks of ejecta running for 100s of km across the surface.
The Moon was actually full at 21:55 7/2/12, however there was blanket cloud in Abercraf at that time – but miraculously almost clear just 4½ h later. Never give up hope when observing the heavens!
(Snow Moon : taken 02:35 8/2/12 through a Meade LX90 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, f/10, F = 2000 mm, ISO 200 and 1/125 s exposure.)

Out of a Timeless World

Shadows fall upon time.

From a beauty older than earth

A ladder the soul may climb.

I climb by Fionn’s Stair

To a whiteness older than time.

-Gnostic Culdee verse

Transit of Venus

When one of the inner planets, Mercury or Venus, passes in front of the Sun, we have a phenomena known as a TRANSIT. It looks rather like a sunspot, but is round, featureless and moves uniformly across the face of the Sun.

This is an off-beat (but rather subtle!) photograph of the transit of Venus on 8th June 2004. The Sun has been projected onto the paper and is at the centre. Venus is the tiny black dot in about the 10 o’ck position. It is difficult to see – but it is there. Transits of Venus are one of the rarest of all phenomena in the astronomical calendar, but they do come in pairs, the next one being visible 5/6th June 2012! We may have a view from our lands: check my AA#40 June 2012 for an update. After that we have to wait until 2117, but for the next chance to see one in Britain we have to wait 235 years until 2247 in the twenty-third century!

In contrast, transits of Mercury are positively ‘frequent’, but even so the next one is not due until 9th May 2016.

The last transit of Venus was in 1882. So hold this thought: we are rather privileged to be seeing this tiny black dot – as no-one alive today had seen one before.

Transit of Venus: photograph taken with a Canon A1 camera of a projected image from a Meade ETX-90 EC Maksutov-Cassegrain 1250 mm telescope at f/16, 1/125 s. This is a scan of the original 200 ISO High Definition Kodak negative.

“We are now on the eve of the second transit of a pair, after which there will be no other till the twenty-first century of our era has dawned upon the earth, and the June flowers are blooming in 2004 …. What will be the state of science when the next transit season arrives God only knows.”

                                                          – William Harkness, US Naval Observatory astronomer, 1882.

Triple Conjunction

The 25th of February 2012 turned out to be a rather special day for me photographic wise. I had not long come back from my trip on the Elidir Trail, with already an unforgettable afternoon in my mind, and I then see a triple conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and the Moon in the evening!

Triple Conjunction of Jupiter, Venus and the Moon : 25/2/12 : f/2·8, 1/10 s, ISO 400

Conjunctions are when the Moon, planets or stars appear close together in the sky. And when close together in the sky they give, with the Earth included, alignments of three bodies – also known by, probably the strangest term in the English language, ‘syzygy’. Apart from these groupings being attractive and striking visually they also give propitious feelings with connections to the cosmos. Gravitational interactions of the planets are now known to exert influences on the Earth’s tilt and orbit recognized in the Milankovich cycles and linked with changes in the Earth’s climate and the onset of Ice Ages.  For astrologers and astronomers alike, there are enhancements and interplays of subtle energies and forces at these times.
In the photograph Jupiter is upper left, Venus and the Moon are together lower right, better viewed from the Celestial Gallery.
                        I have been a hazel tree and they hung
                        The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
                        Among my leaves in times out of mind
                                                                   Mongan thinks of his past Greatness    – W B Yeats


Certainly many instances of earthly beauty – a song, the twilit
sea, the tone of the lyre, the voice of a boy, a verse, a statue, a
column, a garden, a single flower – all possess the divine faculty
of making man hearken unto the innermost and outermost
boundaries of his existence, and therefore it is not to be
wondered at that the lofty art of Orpheus was esteemed to have
the power of diverting the streams from their beds and
changing their courses, or luring the wild beasts of the forest
with tender dominance, of arresting the cattle a-browse upon
the meadows and moving them to listen, caught in the dream
and enchanted, the dream-wish of all art; the world compelled
to listen, ready to receive the song and its salvation. 
HERMANN BROCH The Death of Virgil







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