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Astronomy

Ever since my sister gave me a basic 40mm Tasco telescope and a luminous star-chart for a present way back on my twelfth birthday, the starry heavens held a certain fascination for me. Many an evening I would spend looking at the fuzzy blob of Jupiter or the Moon - perhaps without always truly understanding what I was observing - although it's only been since 1999 that my interest has been truly rekindled to the point of calling astronomy a real hobby of mine. I believe my faith as a Christian has contributed towards this considerably, replacing any sense of complacency about the universe around us with one of complete awe at God's mind-bogglingly massive and beautiful Creation.

It has to be said that 1999 was a good year for astronomy, and I suspect I was far from being the only one to dust off the old telescope and gaze skywards once again. With Jupiter and Saturn in close apparent proximity, a total solar eclipse during the summer - with a lunar one the following January - and record-breaking meteor showers forecast, there wasn't much better a year in recent times for taking a closer look at the solar system and universe we live in. OK, so in the end, the typical British weather bit, spoiling most of the "scheduled" events, but that was nowhere near enough to destroy my appetite for focusing on infinity. Besides, there's plenty of astronomical software, including the excellent and educational RedShift 3, to keep me happy even when there's nothing to be seen for real.

My interest this time around was however sparked first by something altogether more earthly in origin - namely artificial satellites, and most specifically, the Iridium communications satellites launched by Motorola. Like all satellites - for example Mir, which was one of the first satellites I specifically looked out for, rather than just randomly spotting - their orbits are entirely predictable, but due to their highly reflective main antennae, Iridium satellites can appear piercingly bright. People still remember the party trick I played, predicting almost to the second the appearance of a near-maximum -8 magnitude Iridium flare - as the phenomenon is known - during a summer barbecue in 1999.

Spotting satellites soon wore a little thin however, rarely providing any real surprises, and when I fetched my Tasco from my parents' house one weekend and focused it on Saturn, there was no looking back for me. Within a few weeks, I had tracked down my ideal first "proper" telescope, a second-hand Celestron 114mm Newtonian reflector. I could have justified going for something a little bigger, but the price was right, and while I didn't have my own house something easily portable seemed the best idea. It came with a sturdy tripod and plenty of eyepieces and accessories, giving very satisfactory views of the Moon and the major planets, plus a few galaxies and nebulae. Farnham thankfully offers slightly darker skies than Milton Keynes ever did, and Katy quite enjoys gazing into the heavens from time to time too, so hopefully this is a hobby that will be properly revived soon!

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