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Archive for July, 2009

Let’s face it, I really am not a planetary observer – I’m what you might call a tourist – one of those who drops by and goes “ooh” and “ahh” and then moves on.

And that’s how it was with Jupiter on Monday morning, July 20, right after an alert Australian amateur spotted a huge new scar on Jupiter probably caused by a collision with a comet. I think of it as a black eye and except for the fox I might have seen it, but I doubt it. Heck, if I’m honest with myself I might have seen it anyway and just didn’t know what I was seeing!

My little adventure began at 2:30 am when I was enjoying the special solitude of my observatory and was observing Jupiter because, although low in the south, it was just passing through a large gap in the trees that usually would mask anything in that area of the sky. All four moons were visible and I noted how each showed a tiny disc, but Ganymeade’s disc was bigger, as it should be. I could see more detail than usual on the planet and I looked for the Great Red Spot, but didn’t see it.  Also I looked for Neptune, which is very near Jupiter right now, and then I suddenly heard  barking. Just a single bark or two at a time, but quite chilling at that hour from someone with an active imagination – and given my poor hearing – very unusual – so it meant whatever was doing it was very close.

I got up from the scope, grabbed my bright flashlight, and climbed the little ladder so I could look out the open shutter  of the observatory and see around the yard.  My light picked up a pair of bright, gleaming eyes about 50 feet away. He/she barked gain. Then he trotted right toward me – well , in my general direction. That was surprising. I had always assumed that if a fox – or much worse, a coyote – came near me and I caught it in the light it would run away! I kept the light on him and when he got about 25-feet away, he broke into a trot. Then  he started in an easy run and vanished to the other side of the observatory – but I heard him again several times. As near as i can tell, his barks were a mating call and I suspect someone with better hearing would have heard another fox in the distance.

So that was my highlight of observing Jupiter!

It wasn’t until I got in an saw the message from Dom that directed me to a news story about the discovery Sunday night of this new spot on Jupiter. I might have seen this spot they’re mentioning, but I didn’t make note of it. I did not attempt any drawings and I don’t know Jupiter well enough so that if I had seen it, I’m not at all sure I would have thought it was unusual. In other words, I’m perfectly capable of looking at something important on Jupiter and not even knowing that it is important without someone else telling me. So the fox was an exciting distraction, but I won’t blame it for my not seeing this new spot. 😉

Now untold thousands have seen it – but I have been clouded out all week – and even the Hubble Space telescope has gotten intot he act, as this NYT story shows.

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I felt it first as I tracked down M27, the Dumbell nebula.

M27 - Driftway video image.

M27 - Driftway video image.

This shell blown off by a dying star suddenly looked more than three dimensional to me with faint stars blinking on and off at the edge of my vision as they shone through it. Here, I thought, is the universe as kaleioscope. For this star the kaleioscope has been turned, the pieces are being scattered – and in time they will come together again with other material and form a new pattern – perhaps a star, perhaps a planet – and perhaps they will find their way into the formation of life, perhaps even intelligent life. To paraphrase John Dobson, give it 3 billions years or so and it will be chewing bubblegum.

And this is why I get up at 1 am when I think it might be clear. This morning it wasn’t. No large clouds, but transparency was horrible – until about 2:45 am when I check one more time and am met by cool and clear air, though not all that steady. I grab my tea, still warm in its insulated cup, and the Ethos eyepiece case and head for the observatory. In just a couple of minutes the 120mm is taking in the Andromeda Galaxy, as well as M32 and M110, its companion galaxies. They all fit in the 17mm Ethos eyepiece when used on the 120mm Skywatcher. Nice. But no magic. I rotate the dome about 60 degrees. The last time I remember looking for M27 there was a lot greater distance between Albireo and the point of Sagitta – the arrow. That’s the path I follow when homing in on M27. Of course the distance hadn’t really changed, but everything looks so much smalller as it passes the meridian. When Ilooked at it before it was much nearer the eastern horizon.

I’m not explaining it, am I? I can’t. The feeling – the knowing – is ineffable in the final analysis. All i can say, is it’s not for the seeing – the seeing with your eye. That’s only th ebeginning. It’s for the seeing with your mind’s eye, supplement by the whole experience.  The result I can’t articulate, but it’s there this morning. I couldn’t squeeze meaning out of a galaxy 2.5 million light years away – but I could out of this gas cloud. However, I didn’t spend nearly as much time with it as I would have liked, for Jupiter and Neptune were moving through an open gap in my trees to the south and I really wanted a good look at them both.

A real suze comparison of Jupiter and Neptune.

A real suze comparison of Jupiter and Neptune.

And as I thought it would, the 10mm Ethos nicely took in both. But Jupiter is so bright I quickly abandoned the 10mm for the 6mm and as I came in tight on Neptune, was able to exclude Jupiter from the fov. It is so small! – 2.3 seconds of arc, about one twentieth of Jupiter’s apparent diameter right now. You can tell its a disc and its dominant blue color is – well prominent. But your mind wrestles with its true size, far closer to Jupiter’s true size than its apparent size would indicate. I can see the disc, but . . . once more it grabs me. Another moment where I feel I have a legitimate grasp of what I am seeing. I can picture the huge, frozen globes in my mind – memories of images taken by spacecraft. There is and overwhelming feeling of reality brought about I suspect by how close the two planets are to one another. Nice. But the trees soon close in on both planets and I moved on to the double cluster in Perseua. It is captured nicely in the 17 mm with plenty of shoulder room, yet I don’t stay but a moment because dawn is starting to wash them out and I have an urge to move to the “captain’s seat” for Space Station Earth – my little area where I have a couple of chairs that give me a great view of the eastern horizon, Here there’s a real sense of sitting at the viewport of a space station where the scene constantly – but very slowly – changes.

I take my tea and the low-power, wide angle (11 degrees) Bushnel binoculars. And the little excursion is well worth it, for not only does Venus dominate this section of sky, but it is forming a beautiful triangle right now witht Mars and the Pleiades. And here to the naked eye comes that third revealing event of the morning, for I can easily see the true relationship between Venus and Mars, as well as our own place between them. Your mind has to do twist and turns here and they need to be done effortlessly. It’s a cosmic high dive, of sorts, and practice helps. Here’s what I mean.

The Orrery view of the inner planets on the morning of July 5, 2009 when these observations were made. (from:

The Orrery view of the inner planets on the morning of July 5, 2009 when these observations were made. (from: http://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/Solar

In front of you in the sky is a simple triangle. Venus is the dominant object, the rough twin of Earth, absolutely brilliant as sun light bounces off its cloud-shrouded body. That’s easy to visualize. It’s also easy to see the scene from “above” – that is from the perspective shown by an orrery where you look down on the orbits of all the planets. I can place Earth at its correct location and see Venus off in the distance, oriented to us and the Sun in such a way that it shines like a quarter moon displaying to us half of its lit side, half of its dark one. (This is fresh in my mind from having looked at it in the scope during twilight of the morning before.) And in that same mental picture, I see Mars, almost half its size and diminished even more for being in an orbit far more distant, yet still nearly in a line of sight, from our perspective, with Venus. And between the two I can see our future path. Then I switch to the Pleiades and here the line of sight game continues – Mars is to the right of Venus in this mental model, the Pleiades to the left – but oh my, the gap is huge! We’re talking perhaps 7 light minutes between us an Venus and maybe twice that between us and Mars – but when it comes to this most favored of star clusters, light has been traveling for 400 years – that is something in the order of 40 million times as far away. I have a sense of a huge zooming out – that’s all. The scale between the solar system’s little playground and the stars is too great and my mental model crumbles.

But it’s been a good morning. I feel so fully awake with all these impressions rolling in on me whole. These are the experiences I seek. They are nothing less than revelations. Yes, they remain beyond my ability to fully share – but they are certainly worth having and I am well paid for having ogttenupa nd gotten out at this hour.

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Well I have, what is for me, a complete Ethos set now and a few hours ago I got a quick peek using the 120mm Skywatcher in twilight.

“Wow” is appropriate 😉 I could see quite quickly that of the 3 new eyepieces (17,10, 6) the 10 and 6 are going to get a lot of use on this scope and become practically all that I use. The 17 – well, I’ve just bever beent hat thrilled with low-power, wide-field views and I am stillnot – unless, of course, you have an object that calls for it, such as the Double Cluster.

Yes, conditions could have been better. If I had only gotten out a few minutes earlier! But it was 4 am and we were already quite obviously out of astronomical twilight so that a quick look at M31 was unsatisfying – too much twilight there. And by the time I swung around to M57 in the west it too was pretty much wiped out. So I settled for the Double Double – just great in the 6mm (150X) and even later, brilliant Venus (like a first quarter moon) and Jupiter – just magnificent.

The field of view is, of course, impressive, but I expected that. What I wasn’t sure would be there – but is – is the all aorund quality I’ve come to take for granted with the Naglers. But getting back tot he fov – to cleanly split the Double Double so that someone seeing it for the first time would know they were looking at four stars – and still have plenty of breathing room around it – is a real pleasure. The 17mm gives close to a 2-degree fov, enough to capture the Double-Double on one side and Vega on the other, but at 53X a split would be more a stunt than anything useful. The 10mm did split it. But the best view was witht he 6mm and even with the 6mm, the space it occupies is more than 10 times what you need for the Double-Double, so it gives the split plenty of context and you have plenty of time to get a good look as it drifts through.

I was impressed with the view of Venus, but Jupiter blew me away. Seeing was good, but by now we were in bright twilight with only Jupiter and Venus obvious to the naked eye. Still, I could see three moons and several marking on the planet and colors I’ve never seen before. This is testimony to both the eyepieces and the 120mm Skywatcher, of course, plus to the fact that Jupiter is apporaching its largest size for us. It certainly means that as this Jupiter season moves on I will not hesitate to take the 120mm to where I can see the huge planet, for it will remain frustratingly low in the southern sky.

As for the quality of the eyepieces – well, that’s what impressed me. The fact that I could take the Double Double, set it on the edge of the fov, and have perfect star images as it drifted from edge to edge. That’s what I expect out of my Naglers and that’s what I also get out of the Ethos – at least in these initial tests.

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