December 4, 2015: The Stupidmoon, The Urban Starfest, and The Nethermead

If you weren’t living in a cave at the time, you probably remember that there was a lunar eclipse in September.  But, oh, not just any lunar eclipse.  No, this was the SUPERMOON, the BLOOD MOON.  Actually, I like to call it the STUPIDMOON.

It really chaps my ass when the media hypes some astronomical event that simply has no business being hyped.  The September eclipse falls neatly into this category.  A “supermoon” is when the full moon occurs when the moon is at its perigee, its closest approach to the earth.  At that time, the full moon is something like 14% larger and 30% brighter than it normally is.  However, 14% isn’t enough to be noticeable, and since the human eye doesn’t detect light linearly, neither is the 30%.  This “supermoon” was also a “blood moon”, because during a lunar eclipse, the moon takes on a reddish cast, as the sun’s light passes through the earth’s atmosphere and falls onto the moon, which we can see.

In other words, as Linda Richman would never have said, a supermoon is “no big whoop.”  She probably also would never have said, “The Super/Blood Moon is neither super nor blood.  Discuss.”  But the media couldn’t leave this one alone.  Oh, no.  Since there was going to be an eclipse of this supermoon, they had to go nuts and give technically accurate but supremely misleading information.

So the media hyped it like there literally was no tomorrow:  “There’ll be a ‘supermoon/blood moon’, one that you won’t see again until 2033!  Long after some our older viewers are dead, dead, DEAD!”  Okay, so they didn’t say that last part, but that was certainly the implication.  The only problem with this is that there is a total lunar eclipse on average every eighteen months.  Since lunar eclipses are visible from half the earth at one time, that means that any spot on the earth can expect to be in position to see a total lunar eclipse once every three years.

Now, it’s true that you might get clouded out, so more realistically, that 3 years is something like once every 6 years.  And since supermoon or not, any total lunar eclipse is pretty much exactly like any other one, the older viewers will definitely have a chance to see another total lunar eclipse in their lifetime.  They don’t have to wait 18 years.

I explained this over and over again to the approximately 100-150 people who were in my line to take a look at the eclipse through my scope at an outreach event.  I have continued bringing my scope out to the Amateur Astronomers Association’s outreach events at Carl Schurz Park, about a half-mile from where I live.  I enjoy interacting with people, explaining what they’re seeing, giving some first telescope buying advice if asked, and in this case, even explaining how an eclipse happens.

On the one hand, as you can tell, I find it truly obnoxious that the media dupes people like this.  This eclipse was no different than any other eclipse.  Oh, sure, the moon was nice and close and big and bright, but what difference does that really make?  Not that an eclipse isn’t a cool thing, it is; but an eclipse is an eclipse – it doesn’t matter how big and bright the moon is.

On the other hand, it was pointed out to me that even though there’s a total lunar eclipse visible every three years, that doesn’t mean that it is scheduled conveniently for normal (non-astronomer) people.  This one occurred in the relatively early evening, between 8pm and 10pm on the east coast, so that most people in the US were probably still awake when totality started.  If this eclipse had occurred even two hours later, between 10pm and midnight, not a lot of people would have come out or stayed out, and certainly there wouldn’t have been any kids at the outreach.

Regardless, all the hype DID get the crowds out, in a very big way.  Normally we’ll have about 50-75 people come out over the course of an evening, about three hours or so, for one of AAA’s normal monthly outreach sessions.  For the eclipse, we had over 400 people turn out.  There were about 25 people in line for each of the 4 scopes set up at any one time, and believe me, they were psyched.  I had at least a dozen people going through my line over and over again – and telling me that they liked the view of the moon best through my scope over the others, which sure was nice!

I would love for them to just be interested in “any old eclipse” and come out anyway, but that’s not going to happen.  On the other hand, even after I explained that this eclipse was not that big of a deal, and that they’d be able to see another one long before 2033  – they stayed out anyway.  And kept on staying – for the whole eclipse, until it got clouded out.  We had been dodging clouds all evening, but they held off until just after totality.  In fact, when the clouds covered the moon, the crowd let out a loud “Boo!”    

So, I’m torn about this.  I’m really glad that A LOT of people got some exposure to astronomy, I’m just sick that they had to be exposed by being effectively lied to.  Anyway, I had a good time, and even got interviewed by a cute reporter and made it onto the late night local newscast!  Now that’s a good evening!

A couple of weeks before the eclipse, I had a real treat.  I visited some friends out in Northern California.  As you know from the very name of this blog, I live in Light Pollution Central, and am the Lord High Emperor of Light Pollution, observing just about 2 miles from Times Square.  This puts me smack dab in the middle of the whitest of white zones (which is not for immediate loading and unloading).  My friends live in a light green zone,  an LP zone I had not been to since rekindling my interest in astronomy almost 2 years ago.

The British have a great word for what happened as the car arrived at my friends’ house.  I was gobsmacked.  I have never, ever seen as many stars.  I could even see them as we turned into his driveway with his headlights still on, when my jaw dropped open.  I could even see them when we opened the car doors and the interior dome light came on, when I bent over to pick my jaw up from the ground.

The Milky Way arced completely from one end of the sky to the other – from Cassiopeia on one end, through Cygnus overhead, all the way down to Sagittarius on the other.  INSANE!  There was a fuzzy patch of stars above Alkaid, the end star of the Big Dipper – I had no idea what that was.  (It turned out to be some stars around Theta Bootis.)  There was some other fuzzy patch of stars in Aquila, and I had no idea what that was.  (That turned out to be the entire constellation Delphinus.)  I’m glad I know my way around the sky, or else I would have gotten lost, there were so many stars.

Oh, what I wouldn’t have given to have a telescope out there!  My schmucky friend told me he had binoculars, but then proceeded to be completely unable to find them.  If only I had known, I would have happily brought my own 12x60s and been in observing heaven.  Tough break.  But naked eye observing was still amazing for the week I was there.

In October, the AAA held its annual Urban Starfest on the Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park.  I was all set to go last year, but it was cloudy, and I figured they wouldn’t hold it.  Wrong!  This year, the weather cooperated with a wonderfully clear sky and a setting almost quarter moon.  Of course being only 1 mile from Times Square and midtown Manhattan didn’t help the sky any.

There was a line of literally 30 telescopes of all types, shapes, and sizes stretching out across the Meadow, everything from tripod-mounted binoculars to homemade 10-inch dobs and everything in between.  I got to look through a TeleVue 85, a $2300 refractor (!) which was sweet.  However, I don’t think the seeing was so great that night, because the moon wasn’t any more amazing than it would have been through my scope.  The owner said his wife had gotten it for him for a big anniversary.  I loaned him my 8mm TeleVue Plossl – which I just, ahem, happened to bring with me – so he could see how it did on the moon.

Of course, Jason and Bruce, the two guys I do outreach with at Carl Schurz, were there with their scopes.  I was glad not to have brought mine, not only because it’s some schlep, but because I was able to enjoy just looking through other people’s instead.  There were easily over 700 people out for the night, most of them wearing a free glow necklace that the AAA handed out to everyone.  They also held a free raffle to give away some beginner scopes, some  astronomical prints, and a nice TeleVue eyepiece – Al Nagler himself was on hand to give a powerpoint presentation on a giant screen they had set up.  Once the moon set, the targets ranged from M13 to M57 to M31 to NGC457 – the Owl or ET Cluster.

I learned a few things that night, the most interesting of which is that the Ring Nebula, M57, is not a supernova remnant, but is actually a shell of gas thrown off by a star very much like our sun as it reaches its death throes.  But more importantly, in talking with one of the observers with the homemade dobs on the lawn, she told me that she goes observing in Prospect Park from time to time because of the dark skies there.  There is a place in Prospect Park, called the Nethermead, which is an open field surrounded by trees that block out the light from the streetlights and paths through the park, and as a result, she could see 4th magnitude stars without any problem from the Nethermead, while I sometimes struggle to see Albireo at magnitude 3.05 from my roof.

Well, it was a long, strange trip down to Brooklyn.  The sun was setting just before 5pm, and I figured that if I left my house at 4, I’d get there after 5, after sunset, but still with enough twilight to set up.  Unfortunately, I was hitting the early part of rush hour.  That meant that I had to stand with the scope over my shoulder for half of the trip, holding onto the bar with the other hand, which ain’t easy.  Especially when you’re loaded down with both scopes (the Mak alone would have been sufficient), a camp chair (which was incredibly not useful for observing while seated, but useful to relax in after finally getting to the field), and a backpack packed with my entire eyepiece case (which was totally unnecessary – three or four eyepieces would have been plenty), a bottle of water (which was incredibly necessary because I had exhausted myself bringing waaaay too much stuff), and some food.  I was loaded for bear, and sweating like a pig.

The Nethermead was definitely darker than my rooftop.  The field is really cut off from almost all of the surrounding streetlights, and the only lights come from park vehicles and a number of people walking their dogs.  So it was dark, but it wasn’t any black zone or anything.  It was still plenty bright enough from the city skyglow that I could see the scope, my camping chair, etc.

But darker it was.  Even in the fading twilight I could easily see Albireo, which is sometimes tough to see from my roof.  I could also easily see Sulafat and Sheliak, the bottom stars of the parallelogram in Lyra.  I could also see Delta Andromadae, the star in between Alpheratz and Mirfak.  All of these stars are in the 3.25 range.  With averted vision I could just see Zeta Cassiopiae, which is 3.65, which is about the deepest I could see.  So I would estimate that it was a good half a magnitude darker there.

I was planning on staying until about 10:30 or so, because by then, the Crab Nebula would be about 35 degrees above the horizon.  As I discussed at length in my March 19, 2015 post, I have tried mightily to see it from my roof – wearing an eyepatch, putting a hood over my head and the eyepiece, using a UHC/LPR filter – and no dice.  I was hoping that with the extra half a magnitude I would be able to find it from the field.

Funny thing about fields, though.  It was filled with grass, as one might normally expect to find in a field. Not something you see too often on roofs.  And strange as it may seem, grass has this unusual tendency to attract dew that I had completely forgotten about in the over 30 years since I last observed from grass.

And of course, I didn’t even think to bring my dewshield, which I haven’t used in the entire year I’ve had this telescope.  It turned out that the humidity was 85% that night!  The telescope dewed up solid in under three hours, as did the eyepieces.  Everything was absolutely dripping wet, and there was nothing I could do about it except pack up and go home.  Oh, well.

Next time I go, I’ll be sure to bring the dew shield, along with a microfiber cloth for wiping off the eyepieces, and I’ll be sure to check the weather forecast to make sure that it’s something less than 85% humidity.

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3 thoughts on “December 4, 2015: The Stupidmoon, The Urban Starfest, and The Nethermead

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