All that glitters

I love observing the night sky from the back bays of Otago Peninsula. The hills which embrace Hoopers and Papanui inlets create foregrounds which dramatically enhance both memories and photographs, writes Ian Griffin.

Ian Griffin. Photo: Otago Museum
Ian Griffin. Photo: Otago Museum

That’s why, in the early hours of last Sunday morning, the western shore of Papanui Inlet was my location of choice to witness the close conjunction between Venus and Jupiter.

The sky was almost completely clear. Stars were visible right down to the horizon making for perfect viewing conditions. I set up my cameras and waited for my celestial quarry to clear the vegetation at the eastern end of Papanui.

Just before 4am I was rewarded by the truly remarkable sight of first Venus and then Jupiter ‘‘popping’’ into view and then rapidly brightening as they ascended through the thick lower layers of the atmosphere.

Separated by less than half the width of the full moon, the pair of planets was an astonishing and memorable spectacle, definitely worthy of my very early start. I snapped away with my cameras, before, after a few minutes, my excitement levels rose to new heights.

The night was so dark, and the planets so bright that their merged light was clearly visible as an elongated path of sparkling illumination traversing the shallow waters of the inlet. I was seeing planet induced glitter!

Glitter is the name given to paths of light that are visible when looking over water, commonly towards bright objects such as the sun or the moon. It is the result of myriad instantaneous flashes of light. Flashes reflect from waves which have just the right orientation to bounce the light towards your eyes.

On windless nights I have seen Papanui’s waters present incredibly beautiful mirror-like reflections of the sky. But last Sunday’s slight breeze rippled the surface of the inlet.

As a result, the reflected images of Venus and Jupiter become wrinkled and indistinct. But I was not disappointed at the view before me, especially as I thought about the vast cosmic journey each reflected photon of light had made.


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