The Moon, Venus and Saturn

On January 20th, astronomers were alerted, we would have an unusually fine view of the Moon and Venus close together in the southern skies. You should be able to see many photos captured by amateurs and posted on sites such as Astronomy, for example the fine photo featured by Rick Stankiewicz in Ontario (Canada).

I and some non-astronomy friends happened to spot this in a restaurant parking lot after a great Italian dinner. We oohed and aahed. They deferred to me for the identification: “The Moon and Venus. Amateur astronomers have been waiting for this event. Look how bright Venus is!”

As We drove out of the lot, I exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! And look, there’s Saturn, to the left … see it? That HAS to be Saturn!” The object was a slightly oversized point of light about two thirds the magnitude of Venus. It did not twinkle, but stared back steadily from its fixed point in the heavens. How exciting!

Shortly later, I was forced to announce:

“Saturn has developed a blinking tail-light … and now, red and green wingtip lights: it’s zooming toward us … we may never see Saturn like this again!”

Our driver had noticed this, he said, but hated to burst the bubble of the moment. The “Saturn incident” was so funny I forgot to be embarrassed!

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Pluto, By Any Other Name …

Sky and Telescope MagazineI’m reading about the Great Planetary Demotion controversy again in the current Sky & Telescope (November 2006).

Since every school kid had to memorize the names of the “nine planets”, the media has picked up on this one. Any change in the conventional thinkiing that impacts the study habits of school kiddies is fair game for the press.

As you surely know and are getting tired of hearing, the IAU recently tightened the definition of “planet” to include the requirement that a planet candidate be massive enough to sweep the geophysical space surrounding its orbit clean of asteroidal debris. Poor tiny Pluto, which is smaller than Earth’s Moon, plows smack through the middle of the Kuiper Belt on a highly eccentric orbit. Exactly how a planet of any size is expected to clean up that mess, is not explained.

The IAU voted to demote Pluto to “dwarf planet” status, and the rest is history – history, at least, until the next IAU conference where it’s widely expected astronomers will take a second look at this decision.

Legendary astronomer and observer Clyde Tombaugh discovered the “missing ninth planet” in 1930. The impetus for this siren-call discovery was predictions by Herschel and others that perturbations of the orbits of Herschel’s new planet Uranus would be explained by the discovery of an outer planet. The discovery of Neptune in 1846 didn’t fully resolve this. Tombaugh, who died On January 17, 1997, remains an inspiration to millions for his perseverance and persistence in often brutal observing conditions and gruelling blink-comparator sessions.

I’m not reading any more celebratory memorabilia about Tombaugh’s famous ninth planet exploit right now. It’s almost like there’s a self-enforced cone of silence in the astronomy and news communities regarding the remarkable context of Pluto’s discovery.

I am reading some new memnonics which aid kids and news writers alike in memorizing the planets. I never heard these before. One was “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.”

Before Pluto’s discovery in 1930, of course, kids memorized eight planets. The memnonic (taught to me by my mother) was: “Men Very Easy Make Jugs Serve Useful Needs.”

After that, it became the only memnonic I ever knew (taught to me, you guessed it, by my mother):

“Men Very Easy Make Jugs Serve Useful Needs. Period.”

That pretty well sums it up for me.

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Lunar Eclipse October 27, 2004

Lunar Eclipse 6:25PMWe didn’t have time to really prepare for this, the last full lunar eclipse until 2007. I was able to set up the D100 digital camera on a tripod. This shot was captured shortly after sunset (taken at about 6:25PM Pacific), over the hills east of Castro Valley, California.

The bright dot to the upper right of the moon was a jetliner.

This shot was captured at ISO 800, 1/20 sec, f10. The moon disappeared shortly after this picture was taken, but came back later. Exposures up to 2 seconds later caught the red glow, but I didn’t use a remote shutter release and there was some blurring, so I’m not posting here.

For a large 1024×768 verion of this JPG, click the image to the left.

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Scaling the Solar System

Credits: click link in picture

What would the solar system “look like” if we could scale it down to walking distances?

Most of us have seen diagrams such as the classroom picture above, showing the relative size of the planets. Note that they can never get more than a small arc of the entire Sun’s orb in these pictures. If all of the objects were spaced out proportionally, at this scale how big would the Sun appear? How far away would Earth and all the planets be?

This exercise isn’t just for students. I knew the Sun was about 93 million miles away. I knew the Earth was about 8,000 miles in diameter. But I was stupefied to learn the Sun is the better part of a million miles in diameter: 864,936 miles is the published figure I found.
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Mars Elusive

From urban Phoenix, this is probably as good as it’s going to get during the “apparition” or current period of closeness.

Viewers with a 3″ Tasco or AC Gilbert scope and a good viewing location will no doubt get a visually more satisfying image than this. However, the image to the left is a faithful reproduction of what we’re seeing through our 8″ LX-90 from the back yard in Phoenix.

This is the best of five images, focused as carefully as the LX-90 allows. We see an essentially featureless, blurry, yellow to sandy red ball. We see a hint of albedo that shows up as a false banding. Nothing so encouraging as a south polar ice cap, though it is late in the season and we’ve seen it earlier in the year.

The image on this page would probably be great if available visual detail were great. The blurriness and image size on this page is about what we were seeing with very careful focussing of the LX-90 with a 7.5mm Orion Lanthanum eyepiece. It was taken with a D100 digital camera at ISO 1000, 1/100 second. Coupler was a Meade variable-projection camera adapter. No camera lens or eyepiece is used in this setup. The raw JPG image was cropped and magnified to 200% (2x) in PhotoShop, but otherwise unprocessed.

In the SF Bay Area, strong winds had produced clearer than normal night skies (when it was not foggy). Due to our own schedules, our last hope for Mars this year is up north, whenever OPT is able to ship the new CG5-GT mount for our 10″ Big Bertha.

“We have a 4″ (or so) reflector, and I was able to convince myself that I could see a central spot and a white cap.  The mind does wondrous things.” — Dave N.”… and we had an 8″ reflector, and were therefore twice as convinced.” — Alex

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