Christmas at Astrofarm
December 2015 sees our second Christmas at Astrofarm albeit our first actually living here. December the 22nd 2014 saw us signing the final papers for the farm and getting the keys to our future. We spent a great Xmas and New Year with 4 friends who came over to share the festivities bringing van loads of food, presents and essentials.
We are in a slightly better position this year as we do have kitchen units and a lovely big table – last year we had just a selection of camping tables and chairs and a second hand cooker, though still produced Christmas dinner with all the trimmings! Today I have dug my way back through the as yet unpacked boxes and found some decorations, cards and dinner table bits and pieces – of course they were right at the back of the still unusable sitting room.
We can’t believe it has come round so fast! We arrived at Astrofarm on the 2nd of July to temperatures of 40 degrees and now suddenly we are preparing for Xmas with the log burner lit and frost on the fields. Mind you we have done such a lot in the intervening months, having constructed a full size astronomical observatory, 8 bed bunk-house with wet rooms and a social/learning room with fully equipped kitchen.
We are not expecting any family this Xmas as they are spread far and wide across Europe and travelling with small children in winter is not great. It has rarely been possible to have all the children and grandchildren together so Andrew and I make our holiday time special for us.
We are cooking a traditional English Christmas dinner for our French neighbours on Christmas Eve and then having leftovers on Christmas day so no cooking involved. We open the Astrofarm officially on 1st of January and so we will only be having those couple of days off before we get back to work painting, finishing off and preparing rooms. We are surprisingly busy for the first week of January as a group of UK astronomers take advantage of bargain out of season flights and hopefully our crystal clear night.
December 15th sees the first ever British astronaut Tim Peake, head out for 6 months on the International Space Station. There is likely to be considerable media attention so keep an eye on the news and then you can join the hundreds of ISS spotters around the UK and wave to Tim as he passes over.
The ISS orbits earth every 90 minutes, although you cannot always see it from the UK, either because it is not dark enough, it is too low on the horizon or just an unreasonable hour of the morning! Here at Astrofarm, because we are so much further South, virtually every pass is potentially in sight. If you are not already familiar with seeing the ISS you can identify it by looking for a bright star moving steadily across the sky from west to east. It has no flashing lights (if it does then it’s a plane!) and moves quite quickly. You should be able to follow the track for a couple of minutes until it disappears.
If you want to know when you are able to easily see the ISS passes in UK, you can download an ISS tracker on your phone or check on n2yo.com. You can add your location and the tracker will tell you what time, how bright and how low on the horizon to look.
We’ve never got tired of the thrill of spotting the ISS knowing that inside there is a team of astronauts looking down at us and we will be out there whenever we can! You can follow Tim on Twitter throughout his time in space @astro_timpeake and expect some fantastic photographs of our Earth from space.
While you are out practicing looking for Tim, December 13th sees the peak (see what we did there? J) of the Geminids meteor shower (you will still see increased activity the nights before and after). The event occurs every December and is considered to be one of the best showers in that it produces anything up to 120 meteors per hour at its peak which can be seen without the use of telescopes or binoculars.
The source of the Geminids is debris left behind by asteroid 3200 Phaethon. As the Earth passes through the trail of debris on its annual rotation, we can see a stunning show of ‘shooting stars’. The crescent moon will set early in the evening leaving dark skies for what should be an excellent show. If you do want to know more about meteors, then sign up for Andrews Blog here where in mid December, just in time for the Geminids, he will be giving an easy to understand tutorial.
If like me you are not a fan of the cold then we have some tips to enjoy the Geminids if you are lucky enough to have clear, dark skies. You will stay out longer if you dress warmly in layers, especially feet, I cheat by using an old garden chair that reclines (saves neck ache) and having a hot water bottle and old quilt specially for the occasion. A flask of hot chocolate also does the trick! If you can find an area in your garden away from street lighting and in early evening look roughly east, lying down is best to see the most meteors. The best time however is after midnight when Gemini moves South and the early hours will give the best display if you can stay up that long!
Christmas day night has a wonderful treat in store for us as it will be full moon. Rising at 6.00pm and setting at 8.00 am it will be at its magnificent best late at night as you are all on your way home from the festivities! Though astronomers don’t appreciate the brightly lit up sky for observing or photographing, for me it is still a stunning sight on a clear, cold winter night. Some of my favourite photographs here at Astrofarm are the detailed close ups of the full moon and here when the night is so lit up the fields are filled with the calls of both the Barn and Tawny owls, the cry of the fox and our own resident bat is busy catching his supper.