Friday, July 18, 2014

Star Party

For a deeper appreciation of the night sky I headed over to Halibut Point one Friday evening to mingle with the Gloucester Area Astronomy Club. I arrived early enough to admire the sunset, the day's gorgeous finale from our own life-giving star.

I stood alone on the rim of the continent for the spectacle. It dawned on me that the astronomers were looking the other way.

Sure enough, they were waiting for the heavenly colors to blacken, tinkering with telescopes up on level ground by the Visitor's Center. Their fabulous instruments and shop talk had the buzz of a NASCAR warm-up, except that these folks wanted all comers to join in the fun. As twilight deepened the voices around me called out celestial attractions like carnival hawkers. Their red laser pointers zipped around the constellations to help orient us to stellar topics.
One way to gauge the quality of darkness is the brightness of the Milky Way. It surrounds us on all sides with billions of stars each billions of miles apart, one among billions of galaxies. With no wind nor moon we had great conditions.
Club 'host' Michael Deneen quipped, "When you see another galaxy you have to wave back, because mathematically, with the number of planets in that galaxy, there's got to be someone looking back at you."
Michael Deneen
Michael located Messier Object #57  (M-57) overhead, the Ring Nebula. "Everybody see The Cosmic Bagel? It looks like a tiny Cheerio at the bottom of the bowl, a little ghost of a Cheerio. It's a dead star, 1,500 light years away, over a light year in diameter. You could fit a hundred of our solar systems inside that circle."

Elaine called out, "I've got M-13in the scope. The Globular Nebula. Who wants to look?" Michael explained why, when you see those particular stars, you're looking back almost to the beginning of time.
The winning attraction of the evening was the planet Saturn, which "has sold more telescopes than anything else." It shimmered breathtakingly a billion miles away in the unfathomable nothingness. All "its" light originated in the sun, reflected back to us.
Was it possible to take a picture? No one in the Club tries to do much with astro-photography, though it's possible with telescope adapter rings and long exposure experiments. But Steve Smith said he'd had occasional luck with an iPhone generating a snapshot to remember the night.
That was exactly what Jackie wanted. She and her Aunt Kim have set out to visit all seventy-six State Parks in Massachusetts. "I can't believe I'm seeing Saturn tonight, a million times. It looks like a UFO. This is so cool! Oh, if I can get this, it's going to be a great picture."

Right on the spot Jackie emailed it to me from her iPhone. Billions of nano-circuits transmitted the image to my home. It was an awesome night for an earthling.
The Gloucester Area Astronomy Club, 11 years and 120 members strong, meets monthly on Friday evenings. See their Facebook page or website. Says Michael Deneen, "We're a minimalist organization. No dues or bylaws. It's kind of a Woodstock thing."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for yet another fascinating post, Martin!
    I admire your commitment to keeping this blog going with interesting content.