Stargazing and the Aurora Borealis

25 06 2009

Aurora Borealis 2 mw

“…and today’s forecast is for green skies with a slight chance of slime.”                      (Aurora Borealis from the International Space Station)


When my grandmother was very young, she saw the Aurora Borealis – or Northern Lights – dancing in the sky above her house. By her own accounts, it was quite an incredible sight, if not perhaps a little frightening to a small girl in the pre-internet age of innocence. Her tale whetted my own desire to see this breathtaking natural phenomenon, but being a city slicker, that was easier said than done.


One of my favourite things when travelling is gazing at the night sky away from the blinding light of the city. I can stare at the heavens and lose myself amid the constellations and billions of twinkling stars. I get excited by satellites and thrilled by meteors. Although I impress myself by identifying Venus (my brilliance never ceases to amaze me!), I couldn’t distinguish Betelgeuse from a Betel nut and I am therefore that most amateur of amateur astronomers…the astro-moron.


Whenever I have been in the wilds of the reasonably-far north or reasonably-far south, I have hoped for a glimpse of the Northern or Southern Lights, but they’ve always proved elusive either due to weather, light pollution, alcohol or my inability to determine direction.


Landing in a small airport in Northern Ontario late one Christmas Eve, our car made its way from the airport along pitch-dark snow-covered country roads. As there were no street lamps, houses or businesses to mar the view, I couldn’t resist gazing into the crystal clear night sky at an ocean of stars and the dancing lights of the airport.


The airport searchlight was huge and weaved and waved across the sky. It must have been visible for miles…which I guess is the whole point of such a thing. Instead of being a static pillar of light as I had seen elsewhere, it wobbled like a tower of Jell-O and swayed like a drunken stilt-walker on ice, deftly painting the sky with its white and blue illumination. Although quite mesmerizing and captivating, it was also a source of annoyance as it obscured my views of stars that I couldn’t name if my life depended on it.


It didn’t seem to matter how far we got from the airport, the light continued to hamper my view of the heavens and all too soon we were back amongst the electric lights of the city and my window of opportunity for stargazing had slammed shut.


“Beautiful evening” my hosts said to me upon arrival. “Did you see the Northern Lights on the drive in…all blue and white and swaying.”



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Photo by: NASA

Tourists in Space

27 03 2009



Forty years ago this July, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin donned bulky white spacesuits and became the first to set foot on a Styrofoam set in a California movie studio designed to look like the moon. Incredibly, there are conspiracy theorists out there who actually believe that the two astronauts really walked on the moon, and ignore the overwhelming evidence that it was just shot on a back-lot using grainy 8mm film and beamed to televisions around the world.


Although tourists can follow in Armstrong and Aldrin’s footsteps and visit Hollywood, it’s not yet possible for them to spend Spring Break on the moon. Several years ago Sir Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic to give those so inclined the opportunity to join the select group of almost 500 people who have flown in space by trying a sub-orbital hop beginning next year…for a mere $200,000 a ride. But there are less expensive ways to reach the edge of space…slightly less expensive, anyway.


Since the retirement of Concorde, the only way for civilians and non-astronauts to see the curvature of the earth and the darkness of space without doing heavy-duty drugs is to pay hefty sums to fly in a fighter jet. In Cape Town, South Africa a sound-barrier breaking flight in a Cold War vintage English Electric Lightning sets you back the price of a second-hand minivan, while in Moscow there’s the opportunity to sample a whirl in an aircraft that was amongst the most highly classified and sophisticated in the world: the MiG 31 Foxhound.


The Foxhound was until recently a top secret Soviet aircraft and flies at almost three times the speed of sound and 60,000 feet altitude – or 8,470 Shaquille O’Neals. When little more than a rumour and the focus of western intelligence attention, it was laughable to think that one day western tourists would be allowed to take one for a spin to the edge of space. Yet 20 years later there’s no shortage of adventure seekers heading to an airfield near Moscow on a day-trip with a price-tag almost as lofty as the dizzying heights the double-engined jet itself attains.


Although they don’t serve meals or show movies on the flight and the experience lasts less time than the average hunt for a car in an airport parking garage, at least your luggage won’t get lost this time…and you won’t have to drink Tang!



Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan

Things I Have Lost In The Air

18 12 2008


“Can you believe we’re boarding a seven-day flight and they still want to charge extra for carry-on!”   (Kennedy Space Center, Florida)


Everyone knows that washing machines eat socks. If not exactly proven by science, it is certainly a fact to anyone with a drawer full of mismatched items of clothing. A lesser known fact is that seat-back pockets and overhead storage bins on airliners have an appetite every bit as healthy as that of washing machines.


While friends, relatives and fellow travellers have been divested of their reading glasses, travel documents, book marks and even a large Scotch-filled golf ball, I have so far been lucky and have only lost the feeling in my legs after sleeping in a particularly contorted position in the most economic of economy seats.


Before I board an aircraft I make sure that everything I need to keep me company is within easy reach. This includes my travel documents and a pen for the completion of arrival forms; material for reading; a bottle of water and snacks for longer flights; earplugs to block out small children; and headache medication in case the earplugs didn’t work properly!


I tend to buck the trend of most frequent travellers and opt for less carry-on and more check-in baggage. Although the risk of never seeing my checked-in items again is a real one and the wait for its arrival on the carousel often long and always stressful, I still prefer that to lugging spine-twisting bags around an overheated and congested departure lounge for two or three hours. There is of course also the fear of having inadvertently left something in my carry-on that could provide me with a quick one-way ticket to a certain U.S. government all-inclusive facility on the south-east tip of Cuba. You know, something like Granny’s knitting needles…or the bottle of aftershave that Uncle Jeremiah gave you that’s shaped like a hand-grenade.


And if that’s not enough, there’s also the battle for overhead locker space when that person boarding the plane ahead of you stuffs what looks suspiciously like a body in an ice hockey kitbag into the bin above your seat…thereby leaving you to endure 9 hours with your knees up your nose because your own bag now occupies every single square inch of space beneath the seat in front of you!


No, for me the lighter I travel in the cabin, the more comfortable I am…and the less chance of having my possessions go the way of my socks!


Post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 9/18

29 07 2008

Confessions, musings and tips from a snap-happy wanderer.



Space Shuttle Discovery, Kennedy Space Center

Carry spares…of everything!


Pretend you are going into space: take extra batteries, extra rolls of film, extra memory cards…extra everything. Assume that you can’t buy anything locally. Take an extra camera or extra camera body (even if it’s just a disposable). It doesn’t have to be as good or expensive as your main camera, but at least you won’t miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if the unmentionable happens and yours gets lost or broken.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008