Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Practicing Random Acts Of Astronomy

Why be random?
The late spring months here in the northern hemisphere seem ideal for astronomy, at least for the climate. True, the deep sky really isn't that interesting until summer rolls on in. Fortunately, right now we're blessed with Saturn still visible in the west, Jupiter brilliantly glowing in the east, and for the last two nights, a nice first quarter and waxing gibbous Moon. The nice thing about these objects is that light pollution doesn't really make an impact on them.
Which brings me back to the whole random issue.
At all times, yours truly keeps two telescopes on alert standby; my little 55mm copyscope refractor "Lil' Bernie" and my 152mm (6") Schmitt-Cassegrain "Dyna". Most of the time, they simply live in my car (which, I'll have you know, is a 1986 model Chevrolet Celebrity that sounds and feels like it's trying to break the sound barrier when passing 55 MPH). The nice thing about this arrangement is that it allows me to just setup a telescope anywhere, at any time. There's also a box of eyepieces, and occasionally Lil' Bernie's solar filter.
This means that sometimes I'll post a session here in the VA Blog after the fact. Like now. In fact, not just one session, but two. Done on the spur of a moment. Randomly. Spontaneously (note the use of single words for emphasis. And fragments. Great literary device. Must use this again. Later).
Last night, 6th June, 2006, I setup in the field at Mandarin Park before sunset. Seems a little odd, but the Moon looked perfect against a sapphire backdrop. This was a great opportunity to introduce park visitors to our nearest celestial neighbor, and indeed a few people did partake of this little slice of the sky. It is amazing what can be seen on the Moon even with the Sun still high in the west. That session ended before 9 PM, and was pretty straightforward.
Tonight, though, I did something I've been wanting to do for years. I sat up Dyna and Lil' Bernie on the sidewalk outside of Fort Castillo de San Marco in beautiful St. Augustine, near the water's edge. This was a great location to take in not only the Moon, but because it was later, we were able to catch Jupiter as well. Sadly, Saturn was simply too dim, occluded by thick cirrus clouds, looking like dark mare's tails against a darkening sky.
The biggest problem was one of parking. I had to park over a quarter of a mile (500 meters, give or take) from where I wanted to setup and lug the equipment. I'm not as young as I used to be, but miraculously, I survived.
Most of the people who came up (all in all, I reckon 30 in total) were tourists, save for one mature couple who just moved to St. Augustine from Ft. Lauderdale. In fact, they sat on the sea wall nearby and pretty much kept me company most of my session. The children tonight really made it all worthwhile. They'd look at the Moon and Jupiter, mouths agape with "whoa"'s and "wow"'s.
By 9:30 PM, I decided to call it a night. I was tired and dreaded carrying almost 100 pounds (for you metric folks... around 50 kg) back to my car. The trip home, my car vibrating and rattling as I tore through the night down Interstate 95, sounding at times like it was trying to survive atmospheric entry, I reflected on it all; the
gibbous Moon hanging there over Anastasia Island, the thin, wispy clouds still catching the vanishing rays of the Sun, Jupiter shining like a mad diamond, the smell of saltwater and the feel of a stiff ocean breeze. And the people who came up and wanted to catch their own little piece of the sky.
That's what practicing random acts of astronomy is all about.

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