Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Clair de Lune

Seduced by the crescent Moon, I dusted off my little telescope and took it out for the first time in a long time last night. I don't stargaze as much as I'd like because I'm in a bad place for it: tree canopy blocks most of the sky in my backyard and there's a street light out front. But it was a warm and pretty night, I hadn't yet peeked at Jupiter this season, and I wanted to check out a yellowish star in the southeast that had no business being where it was. So I lugged the 'scope out front and parked it literally under the street light (figured I might get fewer annoying reflections that way) and began my tour.

The Moon was gorgeous, Earthshine illuminating its shaded side. Jupiter was low in the western haze, trembling in the warm air rising from my neighbor's roof, but still and always worth a look. And the yellowish star in the southwest was Saturn, always stunning.

When I was in college, and taught astronomy labs once or twice a week and ran my university observatory's public viewing sessions, I really knew the sky. Not just the names of stars and constellations, but where to find the good stuff. I could spin a telescope around and point it right at a nebula or galaxy without looking, and tell you what it was and how it got there. I liked to flatter myself that I knew my 'scope and sky like a mariner knows his ship and sea. I'm not as facile now as when I starhopped two or three nights a week thirty years ago (and had better eyesight), but it turns out I can still bumble my way around the neighborhood.

People are often stunned when they see the Moon or Saturn through a telescope for the first time. At public viewing sessions, I had more than one visitor peer into the front of the telescope to be sure I hadn't hung a little model in there. Despite millions of photos a million times brighter and sharper than any image I could show you through my 'scope, there's something uniquely thrilling about seeing it in real time with your own eye. It's authentic. If you're looking at something particularly small or obscure, there's a possibility you're the only person in the universe seeing it at that moment. Anything could happen!

Anyway, just before I closed shop for the night, I thought to run inside and grab a camera. I don't have a high-end SLR, just a little point-and-shoot digital camera, and I didn't have the time or inclination to try anything fancy. I literally held the camera up to the eyepiece to see what I could see. My results are below and, to be clear, they aren't examples of my astrophotography prowess that I'm proud of. They're bad. I shot much better pics in college on film. Still, for shoving my camera lens against the eyepiece and clicking away on the automatic setting, I was kind of pleased with the results.

Go out, take a look. Get to know your way around the neighborhood.

The haze in this photo is real. The fog had started to come in.

Saturn. The image is fuzzy because I couldn't hold the camera steady for the 1/8-second exposure. It looked very crisp to the eye. 


Jim O'Kane said...

Nice shots! Here in New England, my Cloud Magnet 8000 telescope has managed to pull every stray wisp of white stuff directly n front of all the neat things in the sky. I watched the beautifully clear crescent Moon as the sun went down, only to see a blobby haze the moment I parked the tripod in the driveway. Sigh. Someday, I will retire to the desert.

Like you said, telescopy is the most fun on public viewing nights. The colors and angles of Saturn are amazing, yes --- but there's nothing so enjoyable as having a teenager's jaw drop as they see Cassini's divisions for the first time and announce, "that's so... fake!" The splendor of the Universe erases the smug out of all of us. Clear skies to you!

Brian Fies said...

Yeah, the "that's so fake!" reaction is what I was getting at with my "model inside the telescope" anecdote (which did happen). Also reminds me of a time I showed a friend that he could see Jupiter's Galilean moons with basic binoculars; he refused to believe me even while looking at them with his own eyes. Folks are astonished that these amazing sci-fi sights are available with very simple tools. All they need to do is look.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Every word of this resonated with me, as I'm sure you could guess.

Brian Fies said...

I indeed could have guessed.

I thought about rotating the Moon pic around to match its angle in the sky, but between the telescope inverting everything and my random hand-held camera "mount," that's how she came out so that's how I left 'er.

Sherwood Harrington said...

Yup. And that's why I removed my crack about its upside-down-itude, much as it pained me to do so.