I recently met up with a very old friend, Scott, whom I’d lost touch with for quite some time. Actually, in point of fact, Scott is my oldest friend. Me and him go waaaay on back to the Bicentennial, if you can believe it – 40 years. After catching up with him and meeting his fine family, I invited them over to have a look through the scope, because it was one of those rarities here on the East Coast – a nice clear night. He and his eldest boy, Zach, took me up on it and came on by.
Up to the roof we went, where I had the scope set up, cooled down, and surrounded by chairs. First I explained how the scope worked, then I let Zach handle the handset himself. Jupiter was riding high, just a few degrees to the left of the moon. I did a simple solar system alignment on just the moon, but something was off when I later went to Jupiter. I later figured out that I hadn’t adjusted the handset for the switchover to Daylight Saving Time, with the result that my gotos were a couple of degrees off.
And lo and behold, there it was, a 96% phase moon – almost full, but not quite, so that some shadows and detail could still be seen along the edge. Of course, when the moon is that full and bright, it creates its own halo of light pollution over practically the entire night sky. Fortunately, with the kid being just short of 12 and it being a school night, and a cold, wintry one at that, we wouldn’t be out for all that long, so I just decided to show them a few highlights.
I was having the same problem with the 23mm Vites in the binoviewers that I always have – they are a little bit smaller than the 30mm Plossls that come with the binos, and don’t seat themselves properly inside, resulting in an inability to merge the views unless you fiddle around. No matter; rather than futz with them in front of company, I just used the stock Plossls that came with the binos instead. The moon was nice and sharp, first at 53x, and then at 160x with the 3.0x nosepiece. Scott and Zach were suitably wowed as they each spent a fair amount of time ranging over its surface with the handset at the different magnifications, with me providing color commentary on some of the craters and, of course, Tycho’s rays along the way. The binos did not fail to provide their usual lovely 3D effect.
Next we switched to just using single eyepieces for Jupiter, which also did not fail to please. It is just past conjunction, with the result that it’s big and wonderfully bright, and high in the sky. I explained how Galileo discovered the four moons which gave him some proof of the Copernican view of the solar system, that the sun is at the center of things, as opposed to the Aristotelian view of the earth being at the center of the universe.
Io and Europa were perfect little BBs just off to one side, with Callisto and Ganymede much further out. I first told them that Jupiter was 11 earths wide, with the result that it could fit over 1000 earths inside of it (1300, actually). I then asked them to note that Jupiter wasn’t exactly a perfect sphere because of both its fast 9h50m daily rotation, and because it was made up of gas, giving it its typical squashed look . . . or making Jupiter look fat; either way. Of course, the two equatorial bands were present with hints of a third, and I explained how these were semi-permanent cloud features. Unfortunately, the GRS was not yet present, as it would be rotating into view later that night.
As I mentioned, Io and Europa were in a tight pair close to Jupiter. At around 2am that evening, long after the two of them had left, Jupiter put on one of its wonderful shows – a double shadow transit, with the GRS in view. However, being the warm loving person that I am, before they left, I made sure to taunt them with the fact that I would be staying up late to see this and that they, of course, would not be. I explained to them how it was possible to see this eclipse event even from earth, even though Jupiter was 400 million miles away and the moons only 2000 miles across, and even through a relatively small telescope like mine. This picture, taken at mid-transit, isn’t mine (of course) – I got it from someone at one of the Facebook clubs I belong to – but it shows what I saw:
Before we wrapped up for the evening, I showed them the Great Orion Nebula, explaining that it was a star nursery, lit up by the tight ball of four bright stars on the left side, known as the Trapezium. I duly informed them that it was over 400 light years away, meaning that the light from these stars and nebula had left it around the time of Shakespeare and the Spanish Armada. To make sure that Zach fully understood this, I also informed them that if Luke Skywalker had decided to shoot his torpedoes from his X-Wing fighter to blow up the moon (that really is a moon) instead of the Death Star, we wouldn’t see the explosion for about one and one-third seconds after it actually blew up. The result is that we never see objects as they are, but only as they were. Unfortunately, I had to admit that M42 wasn’t all that glorious-looking; it was definitely less than impressive, due to its being fairly washed out by the moon’s light pollution. “But get this scope out under some dark skies and no moon, and it’ll really look terrific!” I blustered.
Unfortunately again, we were observing Jupiter just a few days after a remarkable event had occurred, but a few days before that event was announced: a small asteroid or comet had smashed into Jupiter, just like Comet Shoemaker-Levy had done back in 1994. Except this time, it was amateurs using amateur telescopes who had discovered this, taking video captures of it. The event, lasting less than a second, was caught by at least two amateurs, one in Austria, with an 8″ f/5 newt, and the other in Ireland with a C11, so that there is confirmation that it did actually happen, and is not just a video artifact of some kind.
If Jupiter looks all muddled, that’s because it was – the seeing was poor. But that’s why you take a large number of video frames – so that you can throw away the poor ones like this and only stack the good ones to give you a nice sharp image. Fortunately, this poor frame was good enough to demonstrate the impact. It seems that impacts like these into Jupiter occur on average about once a year. While we were observing, and before anyone knew of this impact, Scott asked me what my favorite object to view was, and I unhesitatingly said Jupiter. Why? “Because something’s always happening.” Indeed!
Visiting Scott’s apartment on the far west side a couple of nights later, he pulled out a scope he had bought, most likely due to the fact that in our youth all those years ago, we had observed through my 8″ Meade newtonian, the 826. He had a virtually unused C5, almost 10 years old, in a lovely case with the foam cutout to precisely cradle the scope, with the same exact NexStar + handset as my Mak. His family takes an annual summer vacation on the southern Massachusetts coast away from most of civilization, so I will have to show him and his family how to use it one day. Unfortunately, he isn’t able to observe off of the roof of his apartment building, and observing at street level would mean being fairly surrounded by street lights and other local light sources. That’s a shame. But oh, how I envy his ability to take the scope out to dark skies this summer!