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As I write this blogpost, I am in Instanbul trying to get on a flight to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. I flew in to Istanbul on Friday, with my onward flight to Ouagadougou scheduled for Saturday evening (7th January). But, as we landed in Istanbul on Friday evening we realised that the city was being hit by heavy snow. In fact, the conditions on Friday evening were sufficiently bad that the pilot aborted his landing and took a second attempt to land.

Saturday I woke up to continued heavy snow. I tried to find out what was happening about my flight via the hotel where I was staying, but no information was forthcoming. So, I made my way to the airport, only to be met by utter chaos. Thousands of people were stranded at the airport, with nearly all outbound flights cancelled. I was instructed at the check-in desk to join a queue to get my ticket changed for the next available flight. This queue stretched at least 400 metres, and it took over 4 hours to reach the counter to get my flight re-booked.

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My 18:40 flight to Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) was cancelled on Saturday, along with most other flights from Ataturk Airport.

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Nearly all flights out of Ataturk Airport on Saturday were cancelled due to two days of heavy snow in Istanbul.

I was told that there was no available flight the following day (Sunday), but that I was re-booked on the same flight to Ouagadougou on Monday evening (9th January). I was then told that Turkish Airlines would provide me with accommodation, and to join another queue down in the arrival area to be allocated my hotel. I then joined this second queue, about 250 metres long, and waited another 3 hours to reach the front of it.

In groups of 40-50 we were led outside into the driving snow, each of us carrying our luggage (which could not be dragged as there was too much snow on the ground), to a coach/bus which took us to a hotel. In all I spent about 8 hours on my feet queueing at the airport, with no information forthcoming from Turkish Airlines. They did come along the queue on two occasions with sandwiches and refreshments, but no tokens were given to use any of the food outlets at the airport.

On Saturday I was taken to the Best Western hotel in Istanbul. Everyone poured off the bus and then there was an almighty scrum at the reception to get rooms. I eventually got mine, by which time it was gone 11pm, and collapsed on my bed. We were told at reception, as we checked in, that a meal would be available in the restaurant, so despite my tiredness I went down to eat as I had barely eaten since breakfast.

I spent most of Sunday relaxing, trying to recover from the physical and emotional rigours of the previous day. Snow continued to fall throughout Saturday and Sunday, and it is clear that Istanbul is not really geared for coping with snow. I cannot criticise this too much, as cities in the Disunited Kingdom are not either, snow is such a rare event that it is not worth investing the money in too much snow clearing equipment. So, the roads near the hotel were not cleared, and neither were the pavements (sidewalks), making it impossible to walk around. I just decided to stay in the warm of the hotel and try to relax.

It was still snowing on Monday morning, by this time I would say about 15cm (6 inches) of snow had accumulated. In the morning I tried to find out whether my flight to Ouagadougou was going to be departing or not. Again, the hotel were not able to find out any information for me from Turkish Airlines. In addition, a promised shuttle bus to take we stranded passengers to the airport never materialised, so I had to get a taxi there, making sure I got a receipt which I will claim back from Turkish Airlines.

My initial impression when I got to Ataturk airport on Monday was that things looked more hopeful than they had on Saturday. Looking at the departure board, there were far fewer cancelled flights. So, in great expectation, I went to the check in desk. I was told that they did not know whether my flight would be leaving or not, and to go to a different desk to find out. I went to that desk, to be told that the system was down and they could not tell me either.

I then found a Turkish Airlines representative who was able to tell me that she felt there was a 90% chance that my flight would be cancelled. She gave me a piece of paper with a number for Turkish Airlines which I could call to reschedule/rebook my flight, instead of queuing as I had done on Saturday. As the queue was already as long as it had been on Saturday, I decided to accept her 90% probability and try to immediately join the queue to get yet another hotel for Monday night.

The queue for accommodation was as long as it had been on Saturday, so after about 3 hours of queuing I finally reached the front and got led to another waiting bus. Except, this bus was further from the terminal than the one that I had been led to on Saturday, and no snow had been cleared since Saturday, requiring me and others to carry heavy cases for about 300 metres through 15cm of snow. No help was provided by Turkish Airlines or the airport in getting our luggage to the buses. Luckily I was travelling alone, I cannot imagine how I would have managed it had I been travelling with young children, as I have done in the past, and as many were on Saturday.

Unlike on Saturday, on Monday I did not see anyone come around at any time with any sandwiches or refreshments. I was told by other passengers that most of the Turkish Airlines flights out of Ataturk on Monday had been cancelled. One guy that I spoke to had been delayed since Friday, so I guess he was in an even worse position than I was.

Once again we were whisked off in the bus, this time to a different hotel. We all piled out of the hotel, the Point Hotel Taksim, and stood in a queue waiting to check in. 30 minutes later we still had not advanced, so I went to the front of the queue to find out what was happening.

I was told by the lady at reception that the hotel had been given no notice by Turkish Airlines that we were being dropped off there, and that she was trying to call them to find out what was going on. Another 30 minute later and we found out that we had been dropped off at the wrong hotel, and that we should be at the Grand Öztanik Hotel “nearby”. When I asked how nearby, I was told “about 400 metres”. So, again we trudged off with our suitcases, unable to pull them due to all the snow on the ground, and made our way to the correct hotel, which indeed was about 400 metres away.

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The queue to check in at Point Hotel Taksim. We waited for an hour, only to find out that Turkish Airlines had dropped us off at the wrong hotel.

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We had to carry our luggage from the Point Hotel along this street to the Grand Öztanik Hotel, the correct hotel. Due to all the snow, it was impossible to pull our suitcases, they had to be carried the 300-400 metres between the two hotels.

 

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The snow outside the entrance to the Grand Öztanik Hotel

Again, I was thankful that I was not travelling with small children, or such a trek would have been very very difficult. I joined the now-familiar scrum at the reception, and got myself a room. By this time it was nearly 10pm, and I had arrived at the airport at 3pm. I had not had a chance to call Turkish Airlines to re-book my ticket, I decided to leave it until later the following day (today, Tuesday 10th January), when they MAY know what on earth is going on with their flights.

We were told as we checked in that food would be available, so again I resisted the need to collapse on my bed when I got to my room, and made my way down to get something to eat. I then collapsed into bed, and this morning (Tuesday) I have woken up to see that the snow has stopped. I still don’t know whether I will be on a flight to Ouagadougou today or whether I will have to wait some more days. I tried calling the number given to me on the piece of paper at the airport yesterday, but no one is answering.

As anyone who has read my blog will know, I have been lucky enough to do quite a lot of travelling. In the last few years I have typically been taking 8-10 international flights a year. So far I guess I have been very lucky as this is, as far as I can remember, the first time that I have been delayed in any major way. What has surprised me is how badly prepared Ataturk airport and Turkish Airlines have been for this eventuality. I cannot understand how a major international airport does not have decent snow clearing equipment, and for Turkish Airlines to be so unable to give any information on cancelled flights it appalling.

The flight which I am trying to catch to Ouagadougou is scheduled to leave Ataturk each time it flies at 18:40. The incoming flight from Ouagadougou arrives in the morning, so I find it hard to believe that Turkish Airlines cannot tell me by 9 or 10am whether the evening flight is likely to leave or not. Certainly they should be able to tell me by 2 or 3pm, and yet they have not been able to. They really need to get their act together, or people like myself will stop flying with them.

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Tomorrow (Friday 25 November) I am boarding a plane which will eventually get me to Brisbane (Australia), via Seoul. Yes, I’m aware that Brisbane is not New Zealand, but in Brisbane I am joining a cruise which is going around New Zealand. The cruise will last for 14 nights, and I will give about 6 talks during the two weeks.

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The Princess Cruise leaves Brisbane on 27 November and returns on 11 December. I will be giving astronomy talks on the 14-night cruise.

This will be the 5th cruise which I’ve done with Princess, and the 6th in total. The last time I did a cruise in the southern hemisphere was in February, when I cruised from Buenos Aires to Santiago around Cape Horn. Unfortunately, during that 14-night cruise, we had only one clear night! I am hoping for better weather this time, as in addition to my talks I run star parties to show the guests what is visible in the night-time sky. 

Many of the guests will probably be from Europe or the United States, and so will be very keen to see the Southern Cross. I will also show them the Magellanic Clouds if weather permits. The New Moon is on the 29 November, so the first week of the cruise will be ideal to see the Magellanic Clouds if the skies are clear. After that, the brightening moon will render them all by invisible. So, fingers crossed we get some clear skies during the first week!

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I recently went to Douala, the Cameroon. On my way here my flight took me via Casablanca, and with the timings of my arrival in Casablanca and the departure for Douala I had about 20 hours. So, I booked myself into a hotel for (part of) the night, and in a very tired state the following morning tried to explore a bit of this magical city.

I had been to Morocco before, to Marrakesh. I have to say though, I found Marrakesh a bit of a disappointment, I don’t really know why but I did. What little I saw of Casablanca during the 4-5 hours I had led me to conclude that it is a more interesting city than Marrakesh, and being close to the sea is always a bonus in my opinion.

The first thing I decided to walk to see was the Hassan II mosque, and I was not disappointed. This spectacular mosque is in a spectacular location, it sits on a promontory overlooking the Atlantic ocean. Here is a map of (the central part of) Casablanca showing where it is.

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The Hassan II mosque is on the Atlantic shore of Casablanca.

This next photograph shows essentially the first view that I got of the mosque as I approached it from the East. It was about 10:30am but already over 30C, so lots of children were jumping into the se off the rocks around the mosque.

The mosque was only completed in 1993, so is pretty modern. It is the largest mosque in Morocco, and has the tallest minaret, at 210 metres, of any mosque in the world. The designs on the facades of the building are exquisite, it really is a beautiful building, and its location near the sea only adds to its beauty in my opinion. I only wish my schedule had been there to take photographs near sunset, it would look spectacular as the late afternoon sun lit up its marble walls.

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The Hassan II mosque is on the seashore of Casablanca. It was completed in 1993 and is the largest mosque in Morocco.

If you are ever in Casablanca I would definitely include this near the top of your sight-seeing list. It is well worth it. Just try to go on a cooler day than I did!

UPDATE: Unfortunately, to reduce my use of the allocated storage space for images, I have had to reduce the size of the original images.

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In mid-July (2016) I went to the famous seaside resort of Blackpool. It was my first ever visit to this town; growing up in Pembrokeshire I’ve never felt a need to visit any seaside resorts as Pembrokeshire is more beautiful than most seaside areas. But, I got a cheap deal for 3 nights in a hotel in Blackpool, so I thought “why not?”. It is a bit of a drive to Blackpool from Cardiff, in theory it should take about 4-5 hours; but as it involves the M5 and the M6 it often takes longer. As I was heading up during the summer, on the first weekend of the school holidays for many, it took a lot longer. About 7 hours!

There were lots of roadworks, and the ensuring traffic jams. Not a nice drive. It was even worse coming back; it was one of the hottest days of the summer so far, and with the high temperatures there were lots of vehicle breakdowns. Both the M6 and M5 resembled city centres at times, with the cars barely moving for tens of minutes. I ended up coming off at several service stations to try to let the traffic calm down before I continued. The journey back took me 12 hours!

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Blackpool tower taken from the South, on the promenade, near the Central Pier.

The hotel where I was staying had definitely seen better days. I guess that is why they were offering a cheap deal in the summer. Unfortunately they had no parking, so after unloading my bags I went off in search of some. I found a car park just up the road, about 200 metres from the hotel. However, this parking was right next to the Winter Gardens, and this apparently presented a problem. There ensued one of the most bizarre exchanges I think I’ve ever had.

The car park attendant : Are you here for the darts?

Me : Um, I had no idea that there were any darts going on.

Him (with a look of either disdain or incredulity) : Well, you’ll have to pay extra then.

Me : Oh, ok. And, if I were here for the darts?

Him : Same deal mate!

At which point I decided it wasn’t worth asking why he wanted to know whether I was there for the darts or not……. It turned out that the town had been taken over by darts fans because the Winter Gardens was hosting the World Matchplay Championships. The entrance to this event was 150 metres from the hotel; I didn’t venture in once.

Anyway, back to the main point of this post, which is Blackpool and its tower. Blackpool was, for many decades, the main holiday destination for large numbers of people living in the north-west of England; places like Manchester and the surrounding town. I don’t know how popular it was with people from Liverpool, presumably they tended to go to the North Wales coast; and people from Leeds and Sheffield would presumably have tended to go to Scarborough. Does anyone know?

With the advent of cheap package holidays to Spain, Blackpool has seen a huge slump in its popularity, hence why hotels are offering cheap deals in July. I am not sure if I will ever return; although I liked it, it does not have the beauty of places like Pembrokeshire or the Gower peninsula, which are closer to Cardiff. I was, however, keen to see the famous Blackpool Tower. Having seen and been up the more famous Tour Eiffel, I was interested to see how they compared. Here are some photographs, so judge for yourself.

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Blackpool tower was opened in 1894. The wikipedia page about it says it was “inspired” by the Eiffel Tower. Inspired? I’d say that it’s a copy of the Eiffel Tower, albeit not as tall or majestic. I think if I were M. Eiffel I would have sued for copying my design! The Eiffel Tower was opened in 1889, and stands 324 metres tall, and when built it became the tallest man-made structure in the World. The Blackpool Tower, on the other hand, is 158 metres tall, less than half the height of the Eiffel Tower; and is far less impressive in my opinion. Still, it has become the most recognised attraction in Blackpool, and I glad to have seen it. I did not bother to go up it; maybe that gives me a reason to return to Blackpool again in the future. But, I suspect that I will return to Paris first 😉

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The clouds of Magellan

I am currently giving astronomy talks on a cruise around South America; by the time you read this the ship will be sailing up the Chilean coast after having been to Cape Horn, Ushuaia (the most southerly town in the World) and through the Beagle Channel. I was lucky enough to give talks on the same cruise in March last year, and jumped at the chance to do the same again.

The cruise on which I am currently giving astronomy talks. It left Buenos Aires on 2 February and will arrive in Santiago on 15 February.

The cruise on which I am currently giving astronomy talks. It left Buenos Aires on 2 February and will arrive in Santiago on 15 February.

One of the highlights of this cruise from an astronomy point of view is being able to see the Magellanic Clouds, two satellite galaxies of our Milky Way galaxy. The first time these were seen by Europeans was back in the 15th Century by Portuguese and Dutch sailors. They were initially known as “Cape Clouds”. They were noted in 1503-1504 by Amerigo Vespucci (after whom the “Americas” are named). When Ferdinand Magellan and his ships circumnavigated the Earth in 1519-1522 the sailors on the ships noticed these two “clouds” in the sky which were visible from southerly latitudes. They were described in some detail by Antonio Pagafetta, who sailed with Magellan and, as a consequence, have become known as the Magellanic Clouds.

The large and the small Magellanic clouds (LMC and SMC) are not visible to people living in Europe or North America, as they lie too far south in the sky. In astronomy, we specify the position of something in the sky by its Right Ascension and Declination. Declination is the celestial equivalent of latitude, and an object in the sky is either north or south of the celestial equator (which is just an imaginary line on the sky where the Earth’s equator would be projected if we imagine the Earth surrounded by the sphere of the sky – see the figure below).

All objects in the sky have celestial coordinates. The declination of an object is either north of south of the celestial equator, an extension of the Earth's equator out onto the celestial sphere

All objects in the sky have celestial coordinates. The declination of an object is either north of south of the celestial equator, an extension of the Earth’s equator out onto the celestial sphere

The SMC lies at a declination of about -73 degrees (73 degrees south of the celestial equator), and the LMC is at a declination of about -70 degrees. I say “about”, because they each cover a patch on the sky which extends for several degrees; these declinations are the objects’ approximate ‘centres’. What this means in practical terms is that you cannot see the LMC or SMC unless you are south of the equator. To be more specific, the furthest north you can be for the LMC to appear on the horizon is 20 degrees north, but practically you cannot see something unless it comes up about 10 degrees above the horizon; so you need to be south of about 10 degrees north of the equator to see the LMC. The same is true for the SMC, but it is a few degrees again further south in the sky.

By the time you get down to southern South America, you are far enough south that the Magellanic Clouds become circumpolar, meaning they never dip below the horizon (the Plough, or Big Dipper, is circumpolar to most people in Europe and North America).

 

The Small Magellanic Cloud

  

The Large Magellanic Cloud

 There are many things I could say about the Magellanic clouds, but I will briefly mention two things, and I will expand on each of them in future blogs.

  1. The last supernova (exploding star) to be visible to the naked eye occurred in the LMC in 1987 (SN1987A). Or, I should say, we saw it in 1987; it happened some 160,000 years ago because of the distance of the LMC. SN1987A is the most studied supernova in history, the last supernova to be visible to the naked eye before SN1987A was Kepler’s supernova, which was seen in 1604! We have learnt a great deal about supernovae by studying SN1987A.
  2. In 1912 Henrietta Leavitt made a very important discovery about some variable stars in the SMC. This discovery, which I will explain in more detail in a future blog, enabled us to measure the distances to very distant objects. It was used in 1923 by Edwin Hubble to show that the Andromeda nebula was, in fact, too far away to be within our Milky Way galaxy; the first ever proof that our Galaxy was not the entire Universe.

  

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    By the time you read this I should be on an aeroplane flying from London to Los Angeles, and then on to Honolulu. I am returning to Honolulu for the first time since 1990; and both then and now my visits are for astronomical reasons. This time, I am joining a cruise to give astronomy lectures; the cruise goes from Honolulu and ends (for me) in Tahiti, twelve days later. Here is the route.





    I have been asked to give four talks, and these will be during the “sea days” which come as we sail south from the Hawaiian islands to the southern Polynesian islands. Given that there are five sea days, I am not sure why I haven’t been asked to give five, but I always plan to do a few extra just in case. The lectures I will be giving will be

    • What we can see in the sky during this cruise
    • Why is Hawai’i such a good place to do astronomy?
    • The oldest light in the Universe – what is it and how was it discovered?
    • Why was Captain Cook in Tahiti in June 1769?

    I also, on the days that I give lectures, run star parties on the top deck so that people can see the stars and planets. The only planets visible really during this cruise are Saturn (in the evening) and Venus (in the morning). This will be my fourth cruise, and my third with Princess, and I have found previously that the main problem in running the star parties is that they won’t turn off the lights on the top deck (for safety reasons), so seeing faint things like the Magellanic clouds becomes essentially impossible. I will see if I can persuade them to turn them off in specific places for my star parties this time.

    I will, of course, take lots of photographs of the beautiful islands I will be visiting, so expect a few blogs to come about from those in the future.

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    One of the lectures I will be giving on my cruise from Buenos Aires to Santiago is how the sky as seen from the southern parts of South America will look considerably different to the skies that Europeans and people from North America are used to seeing. Let me explain some of the obvious differences. First of all, although the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West in both the northern and southern hemisphere, if you are as far south as the southern parts of South America you need to look north to see the Sun. This means that you are facing north, and the Sun will appear to move from right to left across the sky, not from left to right as we northerners are used to seeing it. This can be quite disorientating.

    Jupiter, and all the other planets, are visible from the Southern Hemisphere but again, one needs to look north to see them, not south. Just as in the Northern Hemisphere, Jupiter will dominate the evening sky for the next several months, and is in the constellation Cancer, slowly moving eastwards into Leo over the next 6-12 months.

    The evening sky from Buenos Aires on the xx of March 2014. Jupiter is clearly visible, and will dominate the evening sky for the next several months. Notice up (further south) from Jupiter is the bright star Canopus, which again cannot be seen from Europe or North America

    The evening sky (7:15pm) from Buenos Aires on the 5th of March 2014. Jupiter is clearly visible, and will dominate the evening sky for the next several months. Just as with the Sun, from this location you need to look north to see Jupiter, not south as in the Northern Hemisphere.


    This next diagram below shows Orion and Sirius, two very well known things in the winter sky, but as you can see from the Southern Hemisphere everything looks upside down! We are used to seeing Orion with Betelgeuse in the top left and Rigel in the bottom right, but from Buenos Aires this is flipped; Betelgeuse is in the bottom right, and Rigel in the top left (just imagine looking at Orion from the Northern Hemisphere but standing on your head to do so!). Just as confusingly, we are used to seeing Sirius (the brightest star in the sky) below Orion, closer to the horizon, because it is to the south of Orion. But, from Buenos Aires, it is above it, further away from the horizon. Very confusing!

    This shows how confusing the southern skies can be to someone from the Northern Hemisphere. Orion is upside down, and Sirius is above (further south) Orion, not below as we see it in the Northern Hemisphere.

    This shows how confusing the southern skies can be to someone from the Northern Hemisphere. Orion is upside down, and Sirius is above (further south) Orion, not below as we see it in the Northern Hemisphere.


    During the cruise, the other very bright object that people cannot miss is Venus, which is dominating the early evening sky. Venus will be at greatest eastern elongation on the 6th of June, which means that between now and then it will be moving further and further to the east of the Sun as seen from Earth (remember both we and Venus are moving in orbit about the Sun as this is going on), and as it moves further and further east the time between sunset and Venus setting gets bigger and bigger. On the 5th of March the Sun sets at 7:25pm from Buenos Aires, and Venus will set at 8:46pm. This gives a good hour to see Venus after sunset.
    By early June, from the same location, the Sun sets at 5:50pm and Venus will set at 9:04pm, giving about three hours.



    Venus is the evening sky as seen from Buenos Aires on the 5th of March at 7:14pm. At the moment Venus and Mars are close, and Uranus is near them too.

    Venus is the evening sky as seen from Buenos Aires on the 5th of March at 7:14pm. At the moment Venus and Mars are close, and Uranus is near them too.



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