I had to deal with thin clouds and a late-arriving Moon Saturday night; things turned out well, however, and included surprises.
I’d feared clouds that made Jupiter hazy looking and most stars invisible would mess up the view. Between the excellent telescope and Jupiter’s size and brilliance we were given delightful views of the giant world. The equatorial cloud belts were nicely defined and there were glimpses of additional bands north and south of them. I also got my first confirmed sighting of the Great Red Spot … it was faint and intermittent but really there. We were also treated to the slow progress of Jupiter’s moon Io moving closer to the planetary disk and begin its transit. Shortly after Io began its crossing in front of Jupiter it was visible against the south equatorial belt before it disappeared into the planet’s glare. I’d hoped to see Io’s shadow on Jupiter’s cloud tops but seeing conditions deteriorated later in the evening.
Unfortunately I’d made a mistake back in judging when Earth’s Moon would be visible to us this night … back in January or February when I was making up the schedule. Visitors climbed high on the ladder with the telescope nearly horizontal to get a look at the Moon. What they saw was an orange-tinged orb shining hazily through clouds and obscured by the naked branches of a neighbor’s tree. Sill, they could see the lunar seas and craters and many said they appreciated the moodiness! That’s making the best of a sad situation.
By closing time the Moon had risen much higher, clear of clouds and trees. Only a professor from Kent State University and a student from one of his classes were still under the dome with me. I aimed the ancient nine-inch refractor at the Moon, changed to my favorite vintage eyepiece for lunar observing (a fist-sized, low-powered piece of brass and glass) and let them take a look. The professor, also a very experienced observational astronomer, remarked over and over about the wonderful quality of the view he was getting. He said the 110-year-old instrument was delivering the finest views of the Moon that he had enjoyed in 40 years of observing, and that made my night!
I did not build or donate the observatory’s telescope. Nor have I completed restoration of the telescope’s finish and mechanical drive. The optics are the thing, however, and I’ve always said the telescope’s best and highest purpose is its continued use in astronomy. Entertaining and educating visitors of all ages and thrilling seasoned astronomers is pretty cool.
After my last guests departed I pulled out my little Canon PowerShot camera to try and capture the view of the Moon that had so thrilled a few minutes earlier. It’s tricky to do this, especially handheld, but sometimes the “afocal” technique works: you hold the camera to the eyepiece, about where your eye would go to look through, get the image perfectly centered and focused, and trip the shutter. I was rewarded this time with some very nice pictures to help remember the occasion.
A busy and stressful week awaits me at work and I know I’ll wistfully look at the Moon photo more than a few times as relief. Though battered, the Moon endures to shine as, perhaps, can we.