August 15, 2010

My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Noodles

Actually, when I was young that sentence would have ended with "Nine Pickles". It was the memorization tool we were taught to help us remember the planets, and back then we all still thought that Pluto was the ninth. Today however I am using this blog's title sentence as an observation log because last night out at SPOC a good number of us were able to observe all eight planets in a single night! Though maybe I should come up with a new sentence like, "Even My Very Small Mutt (Mabel) Hates Jumping Next (to) Unicorns." to represent the correct order of objects I viewed:

Earth (Quite certainly the easiest planet to observe)
the Moon (No, not a planet, but how could we resist looking at its lovely crescent?!)
Hercules cluster (Again, not a planet, but at this point in the night we were still waiting for the rest of the lumbering gas giants to get high enough in the night sky to be nicely observable.)
Jupiter (Yay! it finally cleared the Oquirrhs!)
(triton?) (well, Dave Bernson thought he could make out Neptune's tiny moon, but I'm afraid none of the rest of us were so lucky. I needed another word for my sentence anyway...that's why I put it in parentheses.)

Over at one of the other telescopes (I believe at the 32 inch Grimm scope pictured at left) it was claimed that one of the operators also found Pluto (now...along with Ceres, Makemake, Eris, Quaoar, and others...considered a "dwarf planet"), but the word was that no one quite knew which faint speck in the field of view was the elusive icy world. Unfortunately, I never made it over to see for myself. We didn't get Uranus with the refractor until well past midnight and I had an early morning coming up, so I left Patrick to close up the refractor house without me.

It was an excellent night for a star party. We'd been having a number of mild cloudless days and as evening came on and telescopes were set up, people came out in droves to take advantage of the pleasant weather and the promise of fascinating astronomical sights. I had volunteered to run the refractor with Patrick, and as the crowds assembled, helped him align the scope using setting circles in order to find Venus and Mercury in the fading daylight even before either was visible to the naked eye.

Mercury proved to be a particular challenge and we only located it after many failed attempts and repeated resettings of the coordinates (You can see Patrick at right frustratedly double checking things on his laptop). Mercury was (and usually is) so low on the horizon that it was necessary to capture it as soon after sunset as possible, otherwise our planet tally would've come up one short. Even after we found it and rushed as many people as we could up the stairs and to the eyepiece, there were still a good number who missed out on the winged messenger entirely.

Amid all this planet fever, you might be surprised to learn that the highlight of the night for me was not a planet but a shadow...

Jupiter is one of my favorite targets. I tell people that it looks like "a party in the sky!" The huge striped disk floats across the sky flanked by four obvious satellites who's positions change noticeably to a patient observer over the course of any given night. Even to those who only view it occasionally, the configuration of its minions from night to night is always a surprise. Last night, three of the galilean moons, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, were on one side, while the Io was alone on the other. As people climbed up to take their views Patrick or I would explain a bit about what they should expect to see and then entertain the rest in line with little tidbits like: "The light you're seeing coming from Jupiter now left the planet 35 minutes if you really want to see what the planet looks like right this second, you'll have to come back in about a half an hour!"

As the minutes wore on, it became harder and harder to see Io. It continued to move ever closer towards its planet's disk till eventually someone at the scope commented that the little moon was hanging right onto the edge. Patrick and I thought we'd have to start telling people they'd only be able to see three moons in the eyepiece because neither of us was sure whether or not the moon would be moving in front of or behind Jupiter. Then someone at the scope said excitedly "I think I can still see the fourth moon on top of the planet...and a shadow too!" I was now itching to get a peek at the spectacle myself as I had never personally observed a transiting moon and when a lull in line opened up I ran up the stairs and looked through the eyepiece.

Sure enough, almost smack dab in the middle of the colorful giant was a bold black pinprick: the shadow of Io! Because Jupiter was still fairly low above the mountainous horizon, the view wasn't pristine. Just as if I were trying to look at a penny at the bottom of a swimming pool, distortions caused by heat and other atmospheric turbulence made the image shimmer ever so slightly. Io's tiny round shadow would pop in and out of view during moments of incredible detail and clarity parsed in between the image's general fuzzy wiggliness. I wish I could have watched it all night! But...sigh...there were planets yet to be seen and many people still waiting for their turn at the eyepiece, so I relished my 15 seconds or so and then stepped down the ladder...the unforgettable picture of Io's shadow still lingering in my minds eye.

1 comment:

  1. Ah to see the spectacle through YOUR eyes is a true delight!