HP Weather & Spectacular Sunset Sunpillar With 'Cross' Formation - May 29th 2023

What an incredible period of high pressure weather we have been getting across Ireland this Spring, in all honesty it has been the stuff of dreams. Every single day there has been blue skies, very warm temps in the 24C-25C range, blazing sunshine, and calm winds, it really has been epic. It just feels like every morning is wonderful knowing the day ahead is going to be perfect until sunset, with the promise of the same thing day after day, not only that but every single night has been clear for early NLC watching so I can honestly say with hand on heart this has been perfect in every way.

With HP weather comes the prospect of photogenic sunsets, the above image was actually taken from the north coast at sunrise a few minutes after 5am with the solar disk rising a few degrees over the flat ocean horizon which marked the beginning of yet another fantastic day. The solar disk was ,and is, a place of great drama, with solar maximum getting closer the Sun has been showing a frenzy of activity with the most sunspots I've seen since the last solar maximum ten years ago. In this single 400mm disk shot there are six active regions on view.

Since the days have been so clear I've been able to indulge in almost daily sunspot observing with my trusty 90mm ETX, I have enjoyed watching these complex sunspot groups march across the disk, during one particular day I observed eight sunspot groups at the same time, one of which was producing flares on the eastern limb. Solar observing is fascinating and will continue to be so on the years ahead, a worthy project to get into if you have the means to 'safely' observe the Sun.

The evening twilight has been a place of interest too where we got treated to a nice conjunction between the crescent Moon and planet Venus and in the area was Castor, Pollux and Mars which made for a wonderful gathering. Then news appeared online about a Supernova explosion within the galaxy Messier 101 in Ursa Major which had just peaked at mag +11 which is rather bright for a distant Supernova. It was located within one of the spiral arms and was confirmed as a Type IIa event which involves the catastrophic collapse of a super red giant, a star so massive that if it replaced our own Sun it's atmosphere which reach out to the orbit of Mars.

It was 00.30, the Moon and Venus where low in the sky and the bright twilight was just getting dark enough to see the brighter deep sky objects so I guided the 10" F/5 reflector directly to the zenith and slowly swept the region of sky above the handle of the Plough. I found M101 as a large oval haze barley visible against the background sky, and there to it's lower left was a bright 'new star' which wasn't there before, I had just witnessed the Supernova! Knowing what it was and understanding what was happening made this a wonderful visual experience, this single death of a star was so bright it single handily outshone all the other billions of stars within that far away galaxy, it was a spectacular yet sobering sight. I had to remind myself that I was looking into the past as this eruption took place 21 million years ago and it's light was only reaching us now. I've observed several Supernovae before over the years however this was the first Sn catch with my new 10" Dobsonian.

Back to Earth and several days later a remarkable atmospheric optics display was captured across the E and SE of N. Ireland when images began to appear online showing extremely complex halo displays. On show at the same time were UTAs, CZAs, sundogs, 360 degree parhelic circles, pillars, circumscribed halos, wegener arcs and supralateral arcs. The last time we had a show of this caliber was during the first lock down when we had the exact same phenomena, only this time the CZA was much more intense making this the finest optics display in 10-20 years across N. Ireland, however that's just a guess on my part. I never saw any of those from here as our skies didn't have the cirrus present however I was on full alert on the days ahead watching for more however they remained elusive.

On May 29th I spent the day out searching for dust devils (there were a few reports) and monitored the sky for optics displays but the atmosphere seemed to be behaving itself. That evening I sat down with Roisin to watch a Netflix series, however my instincts made me check facebook before settling down, it was then that I saw a private message from Paul Martin tipping me off to a spectacular sunpillar. I looked out the upstairs window and saw it, spectacular indeed!

I ran straight outside, I pondered grabbing the DSLR and driving out somewhere but realised by the time I did all that the pillar might have vanished, there was no time so I just sent the DJI Mavic 3 Classic into the air to 120m high, the view through the live feed on the RC controller was outstanding. The sunpillar looked like a search light beam shooting up from the setting Sun, and it was tall, the tallest I've ever seen, in fact, it was notable even in the wide angle field of the 24mm Hasselblad lens which I cropped 16x9 here.

The auto camera settings were not great and kept blowing out the pillar so I switched to Pro mode and manually dialed in the settings, ISO100, F/5.6, shutter 1/320th of a second which I altered somewhat as the Sun lowered. These settings brought out the pillar perfectly and matched the naked eye view, I began shooting stills and recording video sequences, the Sun was moments away from setting behind the Sperrins.

The dynamic range on the Mavic 3 is impressive, I was able to capture the disk of the Sun with the pillar and both exposed very well. I'm pretty sure the sun was setting between Mullaghmore and Moneyneany precisely between those two summits which made the composition nice and tidy. It was then that I began to notice an enhancement within the pillar and a new form was becoming dominant.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing, there was a horizontal bar within the vertical pillar which gave the impression of looking directly at an illuminated 'cross' in the sky, can you see it?. I began recording video then used the x3 digital zoom for a closer look, on the screen the cross seemed to jump out of the sky.

I knew such forms can happen with sunpillars however I never seen such a sight in person before so not only was this the best pillar I've ever seen but also the first time I've observed a cross in the sky in 25 years of sky watching. I called Roisin out and she looked at the screen too in awe. The cross was just a region where enhanced ice crystals were catching the Sun, perhaps aided by a passing strip of cirrus, however when you see it in real life all the logic gets thrown aside, this was something rare and very special.

Even after the Sun had set the Crucifix remained in the sky slowly fading into the darkening twilight. What an unexpected surprise this was, however what made it more eerie was that Roisin and I had been eating a picnic earlier in the afternoon under three large crosses at Lady Of Wayside in Broughderg and at sunset we were seeing a celestial cross in the sky, I know its just a coincidence but in some way it felt connected, literally a sign in the sky, you can only imagine how such sights were interrupted by the ancients when they had no understanding of such phenomena.

As I type this report on June 4th high pressure and phenomenal warm days are still present and there's little sign that its ending any time soon. I will continue to be on the watch for more sunsets, optics displays, and hopefully a thundery break down at some point. Sunpillar 'cross' drone footage above, as you watch keep in mind the drone is moving the entire time but because the foreground is dark this movement can be difficult to see, also you can see the benefits of the x3 digital zoom, reckon I might need to upgrade to the Mavic 3 Pro now. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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