We have been watching planets Jupiter and Venus drawing closer and closer together in our evening skies. Tomorrow, June 30, the pair should be 1/3-degree apart — close enough to look like a brilliant double star! Chances are we won’t see the event due to expected clouds, typical of this season. So last night, with thin broken clouds interrupting the view, I set up my camera to catch what I could. I was pleased to see a bit of drama as brightly-shining Venus created its own nebula in Earth’s clouds.
Despite the fact it was 9 degrees (F) and just before 11:00 PM, I simply had to go out and try a shot of Monday night’s close conjunction of the Moon with Jupiter. Skies had cleared and the day’s occasional snows stopped, so I had a good opportunity. I stepped out on to our sidewalk and, tolerating the frigid breeze as long as I could, shot several exposures, bracketing the shutter speed. I only got one or two that were acceptable to me, mostly due to focus being off. The image I’m sharing is sharp enough that (in the uncompressed original) it even shows hints of Jupiter’s cloud belts, diagonal here in its tiny disk. None of Jove’s moons show due to the short exposure needed to record Earth’s Moon. Pictures done and shared here, on Twitter, and on Google+, it was off to slumberland having witnessed a cold celestial dance before bed.
Curious about how the Geminid meteor shower was going, I stepped outdoors at around 10:00 last night. In the five to 10 minutes I stood in the cold air, I spotted three bright meteors and that’s under our light-polluted suburban skies! Reports were coming in from other areas of North America remarking on the quality of this year’s crop of meteors. And so, despite my fatigue, I set out with camera and tripod for points farther away from city lights. A dark parking spot along a road in Hinckley looked mighty good: there was no ambient light and I was south of a layer of thin, city-lit clouds. Not long after I’d set up, a car drove up, its lights bothering me. The car pulled into a nearby parking spot and the driver started a conversation. I thought it might be a policeman about to tell me to move along or a not-so-nice person out to pester me or worse! Turns out it was another would-be meteor watcher/photographer seeking darkness and a bit of reassuring companionship. This was good. So there we stood, out in the cold, quiet darkness comparing notes and experiences, snapping shutters, spotting a meteor here and another there. Now and again a sound was heard coming from the woods — deer? Occasionally commotion came from the direction of the lake — ducks and geese. Not creepy if you aren’t alone. Photographic efforts continued. Thing is, if your camera doesn’t happen to be aimed at the spot where a meteor zips by, you’re not going to get a picture of it … no matter how bright it was. I saw a Geminid cover half the sky, in the portion of the sky opposite where my camera was aimed. My companion and I suffered the same frustrations … aimed at the wrong space of sky at the wrong time to record bright streaks. So after maybe an hour, with cold feet and 117 photo exposures done, I said goodnight and we headed in our separate directions. I had seen more “falling stars” than I’ve seen in a good long time. Although I got no meteor images it was a beautiful night. From the southern horizon, up, was the brilliant star Sirius, then the grand constellation Orion, and up from there was planet Jupiter floating just above the Hyades star cluster. Above them all (though not in the photo I am displaying here) was the lovely Pleiades star cluster. Those pesky thin clouds, illuminated by street lights, formed patterns in the sky even where they did not completely cover it. That was my little midnight meteor-chasing adventure.
Earth’s Moon joined this spring’s conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in our western evening sky. The clouds cleared just in time for the show and I stepped outdoors, tripod-mounted camera in hand, to record the sight as best I could. The three objects, on the list of brightest in the night sky, formed a very elongated triangle with Jupiter and the Moon forming the base, and brilliant Venus at the peak. The three were visible in bright twilight but really came into their own around 8:30 EDT. Later, as I processed my photos, I was surprised and delighted to see I not had captured Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon but, in a tighter shot, a couple of Jupiter’s moons as well; they appear as tiny specks of light next to Jupiter’s small disk. The nighttime portion of the Moon’s face is lit by bluish Earthshine.
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.
Setting up for last night’s observatory Open Night, I noticed what appeared to be a dead leaf stuck to the wall under the sconce by the front door. Looking a bit closer I realized it wasn’t a leaf after all but a little moth in clever disguise! I took a few moments to photograph the little guy before returning to work. Now to identify it… anybody know what type of moth I’ve spotted here?
Open night went well, by the way, with 28 visitors over the course of two hours, which is about average. We were treated to excellent views of Jupiter, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Perseus Double Cluster. I hate to say, Comet Bentley 2 eluded me… despite its proximity to the Double Cluster, I could not find it to save my life! Jupiter, however, was a crowd pleaser.
The Moon is reaching an especially bright Full phase. Nearby, shining through a hole in the moonlit clouds, planet Jupiter floats at opposition. This is the sight that greeted me as I left the office tonight and walked to my car. I quickly pulled my little camera from its case and, handheld, captured the scene as best I could; a dream sky.
Later: I happened across a beautiful and appropriate haiku at My Haiku World.