Saturn and Earthshine

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My friend Tom came over last night to cash in a long-standing promise to let him look at cool shit through the telescope. I was a little nervous about the prospect at first, since I was worried that all we'd be able to see was white dots, and he would have jackassed all the way down here for nothing. Fortunately, the evening delivered for both of us.

The plan was to look for (1) the Moon, (2) Saturn, (3) the Orion Nebula, and (4) the Andromeda Galaxy. I was dubious about Saturn since the star chart had it low on the horizon and there would therefore be a lot of crap in the way.

The Moon was, not surprisingly, easy to find. This was my first experience observing a crescent moon through the telescope, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Earthshine in the dark region. Even with the lower-powered eyepiece we could easily make out the features of the dark portion of the Moon, and viewing the region alongside the brilliance of the illuminated version was exceptionally neat.

After we had our fill of the Moon, I spotted a small yellow dot in the Eastern sky that I guardedly speculated might be the ringed planet. I swiveled the scope around (I'm getting the hang of the stupid non-intuitive rotational axes), centered the dot in the eyepiece, and checked it out using the lower-powered eyepiece without the Barlow lens. I could clearly see little bulges on either side of the dot. This, at last, was Saturn.

I installed the Barlow lens, and was actually able to see the dark space between the rings and the planet. Tom, with his natural 20/20 vision, was able to spot one of Saturn's moons about two or three Saturn-lengths to one side. We later theorized that a fainter speck closer to the planet was a second Moon.

I called Dr. M, who came to join us, and was also very excited. I switched out the eyepiece for the more powerful one, and at this magnification we were able to make out the top curve of the ring in front of the planet. It was also quite a challenge to get the brighter moon into the same field of vision as the planet, since the high-powered eyepiece focuses on such a tiny portion of the sky and the moon was so far to one side.

The three of us took turns ogling Saturn at the highest magnification power. The high power created two challenges, in addition to the problem of getting the moon into view: First, it was difficult to focus, not least because the three of us each have different eyesights (I finally broke down and kept my glasses on while observing, prompting Dr. M to comment that I looked like a stereotypical 1950s scientist). Second, the Earth's rotation creates a very high apparent speed at that magnification, so we had to constantly turn the fine adjustment knob to keep the planet in view as we watched it drift from left to right. For the first time, I wished that I had sprung for the motor.

My initial instinct was to declare this my most exciting viewing night, since it was the first time I was able to see discrete features on another planet. I won't commit to a decision as to whether the rings of Saturn are cooler than the Orion Nebula or the fake Pleiades nebula, but I will say that the Saturn experience makes me very eager to get Jupiter into the scope's sights. Jupiter is both larger and closer than Saturn, so I should be able to get quite an eyeful when I finally get up the energy to engage in pre-dawn observing (Jupiter has been hanging around the morning sky recently), or when Jupiter makes its way into the evening sky. For now, hey, I saw Saturn.

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Let me know when Jupiter is in view at night. I'm down to drive over again.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by hb published on February 11, 2008 8:36 AM.

The Terrible Secrets of Space, Part Three: Our Dumb Solar System was the previous entry in this blog.

Jupiter at Dawn is the next entry in this blog.

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