Doing right by Jupiter

JupiterEarlier, I wrote about the one good aspect of the encroaching darkness of winter: it makes astronomical observations easier. I had been trying to observe Jupiter and its satellites with my old 8×30 binoculars, with no success. On Saturday night, I made up for it in a big way.

I attended a meeting of the National Capital Observers (open to the public, though I intend to become a member). It was held at the University of Maryland, College Park observatory off Metzerott Road, where I had several astronomy lab sessions as an undergraduate, so I had a feeling of deja vu. Also, my parents took me there once when I was much younger for an open house. The only vivid memories I have of that experience were twirling instead of walking as we were leaving and getting yelled at by my mom, and the thousands of twinkling fireflies in the tall dark trees surrounding the observatory. I’ve never seen anything like it since; it actually took me several seconds to realize that the trees didn’t have blinking Christmas lights in them.

One thing that immediately struck me about National Capital Observers is that its members are old. And I don’t mean “old” as in “middle-aged”. I mean old as in octogenarian. I would estimate that at least half of the members were over 65. It was a very sad sight to see — astronomy is such a fascinating field, but it seems like it simply doesn’t enthrall people now like it used to. The most steadfast astronomy enthusiasts are simply dying out and not being replaced. I talked to some amateur astronomers online and they confirmed that my observations match the general age makeup of their local astronomy clubs as well. I blame the coming of the video age, which keeps most people indoors at night, as well as urban light pollution, which means that most people don’t see anything spectacular on the rare occasions that they do look up at night.

It wasn’t all old people though. A few other guys roughly my age who looked to be either undergraduate or graduate students attended. One middle-aged guy was there with his middle school daughter. She wasn’t just dragged along; she seemed to enjoy it. A University of Maryland professor from the Astronomy department, who I met back when I was an undergrad, gave a surprisingly (considering the audience) technical talk about resonances in orbital and rotational precession periods between Saturn and Neptune. The club is even affiliated with a local guy who runs free build-your-own telescope workshops, which I am so going to attend.

But the best part of the NCA meeting was the observing session afterwards. It was run by a cute female soon-to-be-graduate-student (what are the odds!). The observatory at UMD has two retractable sheds, only one of which was open for the meeting. The shed that wasn’t open houses a solitary 20″ telescope. The one that was open houses three telescopes: a 14″ cassegrain, a smaller diameter refractor, and a 14″ military relic that was originally used to take photographs of the sky in search of Soviet spy satellites. It looks totally unlike any civilian telescope I’ve ever seen; for one, it’s built like a tank, having several hundred pounds of steel in its rugged frame. It turns out not to be the best astronomy telescope though, since its eyepiece can’t be switched out, thus it doesn’t deliver very good magnification.

But the 14″ cassegrain most definitely did deliver. I saw globular clusters, binary stars (including the “Double Double”), and those elusive targets I had previously been looking for through my dinky binoculars, the Galilean satellites of Jupiter. I saw all four, including Europa as it was just transiting across the face of Jupiter and emerging as a small blob on the side. I even saw Jovian cloud bands. So my initial disappointment at not being able to see Jupiter from home is completely gone, and thus, I had a great time at the NCA meeting and will be attending the next one.

2 Responses to “Doing right by Jupiter”

  1. Darmok Says:

    That sounds awesome!

    I agree about the rarity of astronomy buffs—I’m the one one of my friends who’s really into this stuff.

  2. Spud Says:

    i Blame the break down of space exploration. We got to the moon and kinda gave up after that. Maybe chinas space program will spark some interest in the US again….. But i doubt it

    It speaks volumes on the human race that we spend more money inventing ways to kill each other than expanding our frontiers

    I too find space fascinating but i doubt in my lifetime that it will be an acheivable goal to see it first hand =( cmon virgin galactic! make space travel affordable for the average joe!