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Saturn!

On a whim late last night, around 1am or so, I booted up my planetarium software and looked around to see what stars were up. At that time, I noticed that Mars and Saturn were up, so I figured I’d go take a look.

Both planets were easily visible to the naked eye. Mars, true to its moniker as the Red Planet, was indeed a reddish-orange color high overhead. Saturn was a yellow or beige color, and sat near the horizon. I’d never seen Saturn through a telescope, and I’ve heard it’s really neat, so I grabbed my scope and set it up.

I didn’t expect much. On very clear nights, I can see Jupiter fairly well, with one or two color bands being visible from my house on the clearest nights. Last night wasn’t so clear – in fact Jupiter’s colors failed me completely earlier in the evening – so I wasn’t terribly optimistic as to what I’d see. Glad I looked anyway.

With my highest-magnification eyepiece Saturn was very small, and it had an oblong shape to it. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was seeing. Resolution for objects near the horizon is worse than for objects high overhead because there’s so much more atmosphere for the light to go through and it gets scattered away. Objects will appear to dance around, blur randomly, shimmer, and otherwise be difficult to see. In order to get anything out of these viewing conditions, you just have to be patient and wait for clear moments to come.

And clear moments did indeed come. After a few moments of waiting (while my eyes adjusted to the dark), I caught several clear glimpses of the planet’s main body and what were obviously its rings circled around it at an angle. This was the source of the oblong shape.

All I can think to say is Wow. I had thought that the novelty of seeing things through a telescope had worn off, but I felt awed – not only by the sight on the planet and its rings, but also by the realization that, despite the extreme between that world and ours, we – simple human beings – built, launched, and inserted into Saturnian orbit an entire observatory – the Cassini spacecraft – just to see better pictures.

It’s more than that, though. We have an insatiable desire to see our universe, but even more undying is our need to understand it – and science is the vehicle by which we will arrive at that understanding.

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Posted by on January 25, 2012 in Astronomy

 

Monday Musings

It’s Monday again (already!), so it’s time for another Monday Musings – on time this time! Only one interesting topic in my life this week, and of course it’s astronomy. =)

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Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Astronomy, Monday Musings

 

Star hopping tonight

This is Messier 37, an star cluster near the constellation Auriga. It is one of four goals I have planned for tonight, each of them in or close to this constellation.

With the help of a planisphere, I’ve begun learning the names, shapes, and locations of the constellations and stars, and how to find my way around them. I already recognized a couple constellations before I started using the planisphere, so learning new ones has been easy. I locate a constellation I already recognize, and use that constellation as a reference point for determining the locations of stars in constellations I don’t know.

A star atlas provides greatly detailed views of small sections of the sky, primarily for use with a telescope. Using a star atlas will allow me to use a technique called star hopping to navigate to objects that aren’t visible to the naked eye. I’ll start by locating a star that I already know that is close to my destination (I’ll get to that in a minute). When I get that star in the eyepiece, I’ll match the star field that I see in the scope to its location in the atlas. Then I pick a star in the field that’s closer to my destination, re-center my scope on it, and repeat the process until I find what I’m looking for.

What am I looking for? Messier 37 for starters. It’s a magnitude 6.2 object, which is definitely not visible to the eye, but I think my scope will be able to pick it out. Maybe. If I am able to spot M37, I’ll move on to M36 and M38, in that order – and in the order of increasing dimness.

Finally, assuming I’m able to spot all three of the above, I’ll give M1 a try – the Crab Nebula. At 8.4 magnitude (higher numbers are dimmer), I honestly don’t think my scope will pick this out. I have doubts about the three above – but I’m fairly certain I won’t spot this guy. I’m going to try anyway, because I want to see if I can at least get the scope to the right spot in the sky for where it’d be.

With any luck, I’ll at least spot M37. It’s a little more than half the brightness of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and I’ve spotted that with ease many times. I could just be being a naive newbie, but I’m choosing to be optimistic. =)

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2011 in Astronomy

 

Monday Musings

I missed last week’s Musings. I’m not terribly convinced that anyone really cares, but this is more for me than it is for anyone else. =) Herein I discuss my hernia, work, the upcoming surgery, my telescope,

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Posted by on October 3, 2011 in Astronomy, Monday Musings

 

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A sense of scale, and my place in the universe

There was a break in the clouds last night, and I quickly set up the telescope and trained it on Jupiter. Almost immediately, the planet was in focus, along with two of the moons, and I could instantly see the planet’s signature cloud bands through the eyepiece. I’m used to seeing Jupiter now – it’s easy to spot and I know what I’m looking for – but it still made my night.

As a child, I had accepted what I’d been taught about the solar system, and the things that were in and beyond it. The planets, their moons, comets, asteroids, stars, nebulae, galaxies. All of these I accepted, because the story made sense to me. But while I accepted them, I did not adequately appreciate the reality of their reality. Consider that most of the humans on this planet will live no more than 10 miles from the place they were born†. How could we possibly be aware of the scale of the universe, and hope to maintain our sanity?

This question actually presented itself last night. I put the telescope away maybe 10 minutes after I’d unpacked it, knowing that the clear patch was only that – a patch. I wasn’t upset – on the contrary, like I said, seeing Jupiter made my night, and that feeling doesn’t go away quickly. I went to bed thinking about the planet, and when I closed my eyes I could see it again, in my mind’s eye.

Suddenly the reality of what I’d seen in my scope that night – and indeed all the nights I’ve looked – slapped me in the face. There’s another planet, one more than 10 times larger than the one I’m standing on, so far away it looks like a bright point of light in the night sky, and it actually exists! Not only does it exist, but so does the distance between the Earth and Jupiter. That space, empty and black – only not really – is actually there, all 387 million miles of it. The fastest human running at top speed would take almost 4,500 years to get there, were it possible in the first place. It takes sunlight more than 40 minutes to reach the planet’s atmosphere (and it takes another 35 or so to reflect back to my eyes). These things are not opinion, not speculation, not inference, not guesswork – they are hard facts, capable of being verified with the simplest of equipment.

I laid in bed honestly awestruck. In my imagination I saw myself lying in my room, surrounded by the four walls, ceiling, and floor. I saw my view of myself zoom away, my field of view expanding to take in the house, then the neighborhood, quickly the entire Earth, then solar system, galaxy, and all of existence. For a brief moment, I understood that I exist in a bubble of nearly infinite size, surrounded by so much space. I existed at the center of this space as less than a speck of a speck.

It wasn’t a peaceful feeling. I was overwhelmed, and scared. This wasn’t just some thoughtful reflection on scale – it was a demonstration! My heart rate rose, goosebumps broke out on my flesh, and for an instant I was lost in this infinite space, and I felt what it is like to truly understand my place, and what it meant to be there. I opened my eyes, and “reality” – human reality, as distinct from real reality – snapped back into place.

We are so lucky to exist in the first place. We have the unique (as far as we know) capacity to understand the universe we live in. We could look to the sky and be filled with it – filled with infinity. We could choose to frame ourselves as unique individual intelligent beings in a universe that has on offer a wonder of beauty and diversity, not just in what we see, but in what we know about how it works.

 

† – Figure made up on the spot, but it feels right.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2011 in Astronomy, Dreams

 

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Early morning observations

It was 2:00am, and I couldn’t sleep.

I went outside early this morning to take a quick look at Jupiter to see if it’d be worth getting the telescope out. It was remarkably clear last night, the air crisp, clean, and steady. Jupiter shone like a beacon – easily the brightest “star” in the sky. Most definitely worth getting the telescope out! I’m glad I did.

Immediately I spotted all four Galilean moonsGanymede and Io were on Jupiter’s left, while Callisto and Europa were on the right. I watched the planet through my lowest magnification eyepiece for a short while, and fiddled with the focus a bit – when out of nowhere, I began to see brownish-beige horizontal bands come into focus. Not quite believing my eyes, I switched magnification, fiddled with focus a bit more, and there they were – Jupiter’s iconic cloud bands!

I was captivated – this is the first detail I’ve seen on the planet’s surface, and to be honest I didn’t think the optics in this scope (or possibly the eyepiece – I’d like to look into some better quality eyepieces to try out on this scope before I get a new one) would allow me to see any details at all. There were two brown-beige cloud bands wrapped horizontally around the planet.  I studied longer, amazed by what I was seeing, and began to see more detail – two darker spots, one above the two bands and one below. These darker spots I wasn’t really able to make out a color for, and they danced in and out of focus – it’s entirely possible that I didn’t see them at all, also. I sprinted inside and grabbed my notebook, returned to the telescope, and sketched what I saw – I’ll scan and post what I sketched soon. (I’m no artist but it’s recognizable as Jupiter.) I also took some notes, which I’ll transcribe below as well as scan.

I also sketched the positions of the moons relative to Jupiter. Thanks to Sky & Telescope’s Jupiter’s Moons Tracker I was able to identify the moons from their positions on my sketch. If you want to see what it looked like last night at 2:30am, enter (for Date) 09/10/2011 and (for Time) 06:30 and click the button labeled [Recalculate using entered date and time]. Make sure it’s set to “Direct view” and you’ll see Jupiter and the four Galilean moons marked by labels. G is Ganymede, I is Io, C is Callisto, and E is Europa.

I watched for maybe 30 minutes, completely ignoring the mosquitoes draining me, the pain in my back from sitting on the ground, and just watched. There’s a giant planet up there, incredibly far away and so vast and massive, and I can see it with my own eyes – not only see it itself, but see detail! I can’t adequately express just how amazing it is to have independent personal confirmation of the existence of other worlds! I would have stayed longer, but the sky grew lightly cloudy and the details disappeared. Not disappointed however – in this light-polluted place, and with this telescope, I was pleasantly surprised to see any sort of detail at all!


Sketch scans:

To be added later…


Observation notes for 9/10/2011 2:00am EDT:

Jupiter

Clear night, turning lightly cloudy.

I SEE DETAIL!

OMG cloud pattern / Jupiter’s Pattern!

All 4 Gal. moons spotted

(It was very dark after the moon set and I could barely see the paper, so I couldn’t write much detail.)

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2011 in Astronomy

 

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ISS spotted!

Writing this on the phone, so I won’t be writing much. Scarlett and I spotted the international space station tonight. It rose in the northeastern sky around 9:00, looking like a very bright star moving rather quickly up the sky, then almost directly overhead, before fading out in the Earth’s umbra. I did catch it with the scope, but it was moving so fast that I couldn’t see any details. This is the first time Scarlett and I had seen the satellite, so that was pretty cool – we shared a first moment. =)

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2011 in Astronomy