UB’s Personal Top Ten Thrills from Astronomy
I do not exaggerate in my topic title. These ten experiences with a favorite hobby over the last 30 years have been awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, or all three. The reader may not share my excitement with some entries, but it is a personal list. I do hope though that the reader gains some perspective on the breadth and depth of this subject.
Anyone can play at this game. I may have used a telescope for several of these events, but I needed a scope for just three of the ten. My love for the history of math and science played a part in most of the events including my top- ranked thrill. My career as a teacher allowed me to share my excitement with people 7 to 97 years young. I’ll start my countdown with number 10. [Go straight to #7] [Go straight to #4] [Go straight to #1]
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA
10. Finding the Dumbbell. June 25, 1993
After about two weeks of using my new 10” reflector scope, and admiring those colorful points we call stars, I came across what looked like a gray misty wall. Yikes! Did I have a smudge on my optics already? The object was not a point, but it was certainly interesting. I immediately thought of the old Star Trek TV series.
“Mr. Spock, why are we slowing down?” “It appears that the planet Rebus 7 has put a force shield across our entry path, Captain.”
The Dumbbell, pictured above, is a nebula – the illuminated gases of an exploded star. It is also known as Messier 27, part of a catalog of spectacular non-points of interest. My sky conditions and a short exposure time to my retina failed to capture the more detailed shape of the cloud and its wide spectrum of colors.
9. Ceres Tracked. February, 1995
Ceres is a dwarf planet that resides in the asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Its size of almost 600 miles in diameter allows its mass to maintain a nearly spherical shape. At a distance of millions of miles, it has the appearance of a star. Like all of the outer planets in our solar system, Ceres moves against the distant starry curtain, and it was due to enter retrograde during February 1995. Retrograde? Our planet has the inside track on Ceres and more noticeably Mars, and as we pass these slower objects, they appear to make a u-turn, heading east for a time before returning to their westward progress.
I used binoculars to find and sketch a fairly wide patch where Ceres was predicted to be [see figures above]. The movement in any direction would be noticed night to night over a couple of weeks. I used that one sketch of the fixed stars and found the one object that drifted among them. Sure enough, it was Ceres and I could even approximate the arcing path. The figure on the right is a detail where each x marks Ceres' position over 11 days.
In 2015, NASA spacecraft Dawn visited Ceres to study its surface.
8. The Sky – We’re Losing It. April 3, 1996
This was the “Chicken Little” title of my first published article with an astronomy theme. It dealt with the problem many professionals and amateurs have in their pursuits, that of light pollution. It was a very non-impassioned presentation of some facts.
Fact #1 is the inverse square law. A light source twice as close will be four times more obstructive to observing. We can’t put all the blame on urban areas if the neighbor has an unshielded light over the garage. Talk to the neighbor nicely about directing the beam downward, and look for a place in shadow to observe from. The power company once even added shielding on a street light at my request.
Fact #2 is that on a dark night from our home in New Hampshire we could see a few thousand stars, and on a very dark night, with stars as busy as bees overhead, that count might have approached 10,000. Now retired and living in suburban Philadelphia, we see just a few stars, having a well lit town center nearby and a brightly lit parking lot even closer. Still, people who like city life and love to see the stars find ways to compensate.
Fact #3 is that organizations like the International Dark Sky Association are winning over some communities to designate light-free parks and other areas. Why should New Mexicanos have all the fun?
Since 1996 I’ve published many articles on the night sky and received positive responses from folks who enjoy looking up. I guess this effort adds to the list.
7. Finding Comet Hale-Bopp. July 17, 1996
This object was predicted to be big and bright. Comets don’t always hold true to early forecasts. I needed the telescope to get a preview several months before the comet’s appearance for a wide, general audience.
My log book tells the story. “Tonight the sky was clear. I found the Ring [Nebula] before it was totally dark…. [then on to star cluster] M5. Its asymmetry makes it appear to be facing slightly to one side.” While I waited for darkness to the south, I found other clusters, double stars, and even a few smudgy galaxies.
“On a good night you want it all. My real objective was to find Hale-Bopp, next year’s super comet candidate…. I pointed and accidentally bumped the finder. It went off by half a view [about one-fourth of a degree]. Its error was in a fortunate direction. When I looked, I had a mind set [to see stars or another cluster]…. I saw something I couldn’t interpret and said [aloud to myself], “Hey, what’s that?” It reminded me of one thing – the early views of comet Hyakutake from [four months previous].”
This comet looked very promising for the following spring. It was fully as bright as the Messier objects in the vicinity and easy to find in binoculars once you knew where to look. Over the next few months it would be an early morning object, but on both March 7th and 9th the following year I could see it with naked eye in both the morning and evening skies. I wrote an article for the paper to help people find it. Big and bright Hale-Bopp was seen by millions of folks – even in downtown areas in New England.
Image credit: Comet Hale-Bopp
(c) Philipp Salzgeber - salzgeber.at
6. Venus transits the Sun. June 8, 2004 and June 6, 2012
Aunt Claire and I had advance warning of a very rare event. In 2004, Venus was predicted to pass in front of the Sun just after dawn in our location. We were prepared with solar filters mounted on card. (I taped two in front of my binocular lenses), and we drove across the river into Vermont for the best view looking east. Sure enough, the black dot on the fiery disk indicated that Venus had made her appearance on stage.
Eight years later she would put on a second show in the afternoon. This time I wanted to share. At a neighbor’s place I mounted a white piece of paper and pointed the unfiltered binos. The solar disk with heavenly black dot projected nicely on the sheet.
The history of observing this event goes back several hundred years, and it is so compelling I decided to dramatize it in a play sketch. You’ll find it here.
So – how rare were these two events? There will not be another Venus transit for over a hundred years. As Tom Peters once said, ”If a window of opportunity appears, don't pull down the shade.”
The first was an afternoon workshop I led with combined second and third grade classes in Orford, New Hampshire. My plan was to engage them by asking their participation and encouraging their continued interest. Judging from the letters and drawings I received later, their interest continued. I had a three-pronged attack. First, they used templates to outline two prominent constellations for late winter, Orion and Leo, marking with colored chalk on black construction paper.
Next I took them through some floor ex. Exercise, that is. In a big open space, we simulated the earth/sun dance, our rotation on a tilted axis, and thus the reasons for the seasons. I also pointed out the differences through the year in the southern hemisphere. When you are portraying Earth, north is your head and the southern hemisphere is, well, your butt. I knew that would bring a laugh.
To wrap up the show I had some glitzy slides of planets and galaxies, highlighting some details with a laser pointer. Later in the week, their teachers had a stack of letters for me. Students had drawn Orion, spiral galaxies, Saturn (of course), and me at the projection screen. They reported going out at night to see Orion and they sketched him. I also got the impression they were most fascinated by the laser pointer. Ha!
Winters, 2009 and 2010
A few years later I was invited to teach astronomy to an adult class through the ILEAD (now called OSHER [link]) program at Dartmouth College. I wanted this group to be actively engaged as well, but I thought that colored chalk would not be as appealing. I made another plan using twinkle lights mounted on four black foam boards to depict major constellations in each season. The boards at right show Leo the Lion, Scorpius with Sagittarius with its Teapot, and the Great Square of Pegasus.
I assigned brief research topics that each participant would give a five-minute report on, and we managed an even more sophisticated floor ex program, starting with the seasons, but extending that to the moon phases and even the Mars retrograde motion. The adults took on the roles of Sun, Earth, Moon, and Mars. As Earth rounded the Sun and overtook the slower Mars in its outer orbit, a recorder stuck paper markers at the far end of the room, marking the position of Mars against the distant starry background from Earth’s perspective. Sure enough, even with all the approximations in this experiment, Mars tracked left (east) in the sky, then looped back west, and finally recovered its easterly direction.
There were no pictures taken that day, so in order to show the concept, I made a table model. The shadow cast by a flashlight beam allowed me to mark Mars’s apparent location in the distant sky. The little shells are sequenced #2 though #9.
Wow! Still four thrills to go, and they have earned their higher ranking. For example, just after lunch one day my Trig students go outside, look up and see Venus and Mercury, and then they calculate an accurate distance to the Moon. In another event, Aunt Claire and I take a shower – a meteor shower. Watch for these and other thrills coming soon.
5. Teaching Astronomy. 1993 to the present
I mentioned in the introduction my joy in being able to share some of these thrills in my capacity as a teacher. One teaching thrill, the annular eclipse of the Sun in 1994, will appear higher in my ranking. Aside from informal get togethers at the house in New Hampshire, there are two other occasions I’d like to share with you.
credit: E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes-Kepler-Observatory, Linz, Austria
4. Comet Hyakutake. March 23, April 3, 1996
Some skywatchers traveled to remote dark-sky areas; some used binoculars and telescopes. With these conditions some were able to estimate the tail of Hyakutake to be 90 to 100 degrees in length – basically a sky full of tail. I felt very fortunate those ten or so days in 1996, in that I could step out into my New Hampshire side yard, look up, and see Hyakutake’s large coma and a tail of at least 30 degrees. How long is that? Just raise your hands to the ceiling and shout Hallelujah – the tail was that long. Two nights later it rode high in the sky between the Dippers, and hardly anyone could miss it.
It was a bright comet too, having come within 10 million miles of Earth, or about one-tenth the Earth-Sun distance. On April 3, I could see it making its way through Perseus with about half as much tail. It was a night of a deep total lunar eclipse and so many other celestial wonders came out for a while. We saw star clusters like Coma Berenice and those inside Auriga. Of a sudden a bright green “slow” meteor dragged overhead, its ghost trail lasting half a second or so. At 8:30 the Moon began emerging out of the shadow and Hyakutake’s tail faded along with many other stars. My log comment: “It was a natural demonstration of what will happen if we all light the outdoors with full moons every night.”
3. The Ring Eclipse. May 10, 1994
Back as far as history’s reach and even as recently as Nancy Reagan, people were making a living using events in the heavens to cast fortunes. Claire and I knew this partial eclipse was coming maybe a year in advance. We also knew that the Sun would not be fully covered, and thus it would be unsafe to observe directly. The ring — that portion of solar disk the Moon would not block — would form around 1 p.m. on a school day. We looked for ways to share this event with students in our respective schools. It was a “Tom Peters”window of opportunity [see previous thrills] and, sadly, many teachers were instructed to pull down the shades.
We learned that refractor scopes, ones with lenses and no mirrors, would safely project the images on white paper. For a direct look, and at a buck a piece, we bought 100 2-inch solar filters mounted on card, and then we held an outdoor carnival of 300 students all safely viewing a once-in-50-year event.
Not just looking, mind you. Science was happening. With a darkened Sun the temperature dropped noticeably. We looked up and saw that Mercury and Venus were busy keeping up with Old Sol, even in, not so broad daylight.
Our Physics teacher brought his 6-inch scope to project a nice full-sheet image, and then, as the two disks were merging, an idea struck me. I had a student quickly mark the rims of Sun and Moon three times each. I knew that with three points on each circumference one could find the centers and reconstruct the full circles, and that would tell us the percent of eclipse — that fraction of the Sun which was covered. We repeated the process to confirm the measurements of Sun and Moon image radii.
We shooed everyone back to classes, and then my trig class went to work. The percent of eclipse tells something about how the distances from us to the two other bodies are related. The eclipse was partial because the Moon was near its farthest point in its orbit around Earth. How far was that?
Using the published info on Sun and Moon diameters and a rough 93 million miles to the Sun, we calculated the fourth parameter — the distance to the Moon. We came well within one percent of the published figure. Real science and a thrill too, baby!
2. The Leonid Meteor Shower, November 17-18, 2001
You may have noticed that a little advanced knowledge and a little preparation may enhance the thrill of an event or sometimes make it at all possible to see. Autumn’s Leonid shower had a history of making a spectacle about every 33 years, so we had plenty of notice, but which year around 1999 would witness the big shower? My prep for this lasted seven years. When it came at last, it found me pounding on the clapboards outside our house at 3 am. Well, I didn’t want Claire to miss it.
The prep for this was not very involved. No equipment except eyeballs needed, but looking up for long periods is very wearying, so for seven years I kept our hammock outside until mid-November — in northern New Hampshire – at times in the ice and snow. The other prep involved figuring out how many and which layers of clothing I could wear all at once and still be able to move and enter a double sleeping bag and zip it up.
It was all worth it, and Claire can confirm most of the 632 meteors I saw in the span of 150 minutes. The Leonids were fast and bright. They would arrive sometimes 2 or 3 at once. In the final hour they even shone through a popcorn cloud sky. They were numerous enough to give you that “traveling through space feeling,” and that’s exactly how Earth and some comet debris conspired to make this event happen.
Next time, I’ll wrap up my top ten astronomy events list with Number One – a curio. I stated at the beginning that this was a personal list, and I chose looking at a cardboard tube for my topper. Be back soon.
1. Galileo’s Telescope
My nose was four inches from it – so close I could read some of the scrawl. Galileo’s scrawl. The scope itself was in a large glass case in the center of the exhibit. It accommodated a four-foot tube two inches in diameter with a piece of glass tucked inside each end. I was not in any panic. I was merely exhibiting a symptom. I could not draw breath.
I can imagine being this thrilled on an amusement park ride, or solving a very difficult math problem, or being involved in a successful musical performance. Roller coasters give a short and fleeting high, math problems more like the exquisite exhaustion of a five-mile run. Thinking about musical highlights has me wondering about a future top ten list, but before any of that, let me try to explain my Galilean attack.
First, there were events that brought us together. The Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy, was undergoing restoration and the Medici Collection of writings and instruments from the Age of Discovery was on loan to the Franklin in Philadelphia. The collection included one of Galileo’s two surviving telescopes and some of his hand-written notes and sketches. I was lucky enough to be visiting the city and would not miss this show.
Ironically, everyone including the big G thought the instrument’s value would be in military and commercial applications: “Be the first on the street with news of a new spice shipment, or of an approaching enemy.” You know, the money/power things. Although he was not the telescope’s inventor, once Galileo found the formula, he was busily grinding lenses and is thought to have made a raft of scopes to give or to sell. Then one night he pointed a scope straight up, and he changed the world.
For 2000 years previous, people accepted Aristotle’s view of the cosmos. All the twinklers in the heavens were put there for our amusement – God’s perfect creation. For 1500 years, people accepted Ptolemy’s nearly brilliant calculations that explained phenomena like the Mars retrograde. But Mars had to do loop-de-loops for some reason to make predictions anywhere nearly accurate. For what reason? Copernicus had a much simpler Sun-centered system which north Europeans were growing fond of, but the Roman Church held on to Aristotle. A contemporary of Galileo, Johannes Kepler, had the data to show that the Mars orbit around the Sun was elliptical. What was the reason for that?
Galileo used his telescope as a trumpet, if not a deadly weapon. One could see that the Moon and planets were not smooth cueballs, that Venus had phases like the the Moon, and that Jupiter dared to have its own moons. One could see these things. One could ask for reasons and not accept antiquated beliefs. Galileo living and teaching in Italy would not and could not be ignored, but it’s not nice to fool with Mother Church.
At the exhibit, I could inspect some of Galileo’s log books, his sketches of the Moon, and the timings of Jupiter’s moons – all so breathtaking. The man got us to ask questions and look for reasons, but for me, just seeing the scope before all the rest, knocked me for a loop-de-loop. Why? I don’t know, but this tube had hung around for 400 years so that I could be a witness to what was the gathering of the new facts, or (?) maybe fool me into believing a new mythology.
More information and photos
I hope my top ten journey through this wonder-filled hobby has sparked a bit of curiosity and interest. Having some information that we can impart to a young person might result in the next Galileo, or maybe a scientist who scraps everything and replaces the whole scheme.