Wed 2018-08-15 23:45:33 -0400
In all my years of observing there are a few nights that stand out. Wednesday night was one of them. For decades I’ve preached how the hazy, dead air of summer is favorable for observing the planets. The air is not transparent, but for the planets it doesn’t matter. The atmosphere is steady and the seeing is excellent which means the amount of convective disturbance is minimal. This was the case tonight, with a vengeance.
I brought the telescopes to work for some of my co-workers to observe the planets since all of the classical planets except for Mercury were visible this summer. In other words, every day of the week was represented except for Wednesday, ironically the day we were observing on. I thought it wouldn’t be a highly transparent sky and knew it was likely to be hazy with pretty good seeing.
But the air was so incredibly steady that something happened for the first time.
I had spent about 30 minutes in a conference room with Stellarium and a video, showing what to expect when we went outside to view the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Stellarium has some fairly accurate planet images built in that are close to what you’d see through a telescope with high resolution under perfect conditions.
WE WENT OUT ABOUT AN HOUR BEFORE SUNSET and set up the telescopes. Some finders needed to be calibrated. The Moon was already in position and was nice in the 4-inch.
However, as we found Jupiter and Saturn in the eyepieces and I took the first look, I was amazed! The planets were sitting there, solid, with all of the resolution in the images I’d shown. I could see many belts on Jupiter and the detail was steady and holding! It wasn’t a fleeting moment of clarity. I could see the undulating curves along the North Equatorial Belt. Three of the Galilean moons were steady, tiny points of light with prominent color.
Saturn was equally clear. The Cassini division was trivially easy. The one prominent belt, the bit of shadow on the far rings, all were there. It was astounding!
Mars was close but a bit more difficult since we were looking right across the black roof of a large building. Still I could see surface detail.
WE WERE LOOKING THROUGH CLOUDS the whole time. There was always a slight fuzzy halo around the Moon. I never actually saw Saturn naked eye even though I looked several times during the evening. I just couldn’t see it. Fortunately some of my colleagues could and were able to find it in the telescope. Occasionally a thicker cloud obscured one of the planets and, since there was no wind, those clouds moved and changed slowly. Fortunately, they’d eventually reveal our target again.
For all of my years as an amateur astronomer I’ve been a visual observer, using no other instrument for imaging than my eyes. Granted, I’ve done some astrophotography on film and even snapped a few pictures with my iPhone. It’s gratifying to see a visual experience that meets, maybe even exceeds, what is being done with wildly popular digital imaging these days and I’m glad to see other folks experience it.
I’m thankful that I’m so often caught off guard by wondrous sights in the sky, rainbows, sunsets, evening summer thunderstorms in the distance, and astronomical rarities like this one. The funny part is how I’m always surprised.