Pleasing planetary plethora

Ian Griffin
Ian Griffin
It's late on Monday afternoon and I've just woken up after one of the most memorable nights of skywatching in my half-century on this planet.

I'm at the University of Canterbury's Mount John Observatory, 300m above the striking turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo. Along with a team of astronomers and science communicators, I am using the facilities at New Zealand's most picturesque observatory, to observe Mars at perihelion.

It's not often you get access to a world-class observatory, so our team arrived determined to use every single moment of clear sky. Because Mars isn't high enough to observe until about three hours after sunset, getting too low to see a couple of hours before sunrise, each night on the telescope we have five hours of time ''spare''. With exceptionally clear skies forecast, we decided to attempt to photograph all of the major planets in the solar system in a single night.

Before sunset we opened the dome and began hunting Venus. Bright daylight made the closest planet hard to see with the naked eye, yet through the powerful telescope, it was easily visible. Our team jumped for joy when we realised our cameras were showing details of clouds in the planet's noxious atmosphere.

Next up on our nocturnal planet quest was Mercury. The telescope located it low in the sky, and we snapped a few blurry images before the most elusive of our targets set behind the Southern Alps. Over the course of the next 12 hours we slowly picked off Jupiter, Saturn (whose rings were amazing), and Mars, where a massive dust storm enveloped the entire planet. With Mars low in the sky, we turned our attention to Neptune, and finally Uranus. As the final piece de resistance, just before sunrise, we managed to photograph the International Space Station as it passed high over our observatory.

At daybreak, walking back to the observatory hostel, I reflected on the many intriguing planets I had encountered overnight. However, as the sun rose and illuminated Lake Tekapo, an incredible alpine vista reminded me of the sheer beauty of my own world.

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