I was a little nervous going into my first AST 110 observation session this evening. For one thing, I didn’t have one of the essential tools the course wants me to have, a little cardboard wingus called a planisphere. The online class modules sort of blithely assume you have one, without any particular reference to how or when it expects you’ll have acquired such a thing. Without one, it tends to be difficult to find things like constellations other than the very most obvious ones. I asked the first TA I encountered at the observatory where we online students were supposed to have acquired one; she directed me to the other TA, who gave me a what-planet-are-you-calling-from look and said simply, "You’re supposed to order it online." So I guess that’s one of those initiation-rite sort of things. I’ll be investigating further tomorrow. I think you can buy them at the planetarium gift shop, assuming it’s open during the week.
(Ed. note: Yes you can! For $6.)
Anyway, I didn’t have one, and I was a bit worried about that. Plus, the crowd that developed as the clock edged closer to 8 PM was quite large, large enough that it started triggering my Wallflower Instinct in a big way. This was made worse by the fact that one of the three expected TAs didn’t turn up, meaning that the 40 or so of us students who were present had to split a pair of them between us, and one was always busy making sure the telescope was pointed correctly.
But all of that sort of melted away when the actual session began, because, well… whatever is going on to complicate the official-bookkeeping part of the exercise, it’s an astronomy lab. It’s looking at the night sky for credit. If you have a temperament like mine, it’s hard for any circumstantial encumbrance to mess that up. I may change my tune as we get deeper into the semester and the evenings turn from chilly to outright cold (they don’t open the observatory if the overnight low is expected to be below 10° F, which still leaves the possibility of an open evening when it’s well below Zerex*), but right now not even the cold or the sore feet value of standing around on concrete for two hours is dimming my enthusiasm for this class.
About the only thing that could do that, I think, is the size of the crowd, and the fact that there are a few people in it who are clearly not taking the whole thing seriously. I don’t want to come off all Sam the Eagle about this – it’s not as if I’m saying I don’t want people to enjoy themselves in class, quite the opposite – but there are a few people in the Monday group who come off like they’re taking astronomy simply because they figure it’s an easy pass, and they aren’t at all attuned to the… I don’t know, the grandeur of it all. I’ll take another pass at this in a minute and see if I can make my meaning plainer with an example.
The time-consuming part is pointing out constellations (actually asterisms, but I didn’t want to be That Guy on observation day one) to the TAs through the use of horizon landmarks and rough azimuth-and-elevation headings ("OK, start at the student union chimney and go straight up about 30 degrees to a bright star. From there, about 10 degrees away at 2 o’clock you’ll see another," and so on until you’ve described, say, all the prominent stars in the Big Dipper). This is time-consuming mainly because you have to get a TA’s undivided attention for the 30-60 seconds it can take to do all this describing, which is tricky when the ratio is 20:1 and someone has to keep the telescope aimed.
Still, I did fairly well. We’re expected to have at least 10 constellations logged (we can go up to 15) by project’s end, and I scored four tonight. Without the aid of a planisphere, you may recall – although I’ll be honest at this point and admit that I did have Google Sky for Android to help me.
An aside: Once you convince the magnetometer in your Droid that north really is over there, and not in whatever direction it noticed the magnet on your Bluetooth earpiece’s carrying case was in while it was in your manpurse, Google Sky is a deliciously handy little app for the astronomically inclined. It’ll even show you what’s on the other side of the Earth. Several of my classmates were using it as well, though I was interested to note that apparently none of them realize it has a night mode. (Why it doesn’t default to night mode, I’m not sure. You would think that was logical. It’s an astronomical program, after all. While using it at lunchtime to show you what stars you would be seeing except for that pesky atmosphere is amusing, one doubts it’s the usual use.)
Anyway, yeah, four constellations, despite the fact that my aged eyes couldn’t pick out most of the stars in Aquila and Ursa Minor. That is quite good going for an evening as crowded and glaretastic as last night was. Six to go. Or 11, depending on whether I want to be Mr. Completion and go for the maximum extra credit.
The other half of the observation project is a bit less tricky, but involves more standing in line. Basically, during the course of the obs sessions, the TAs will point telescopes at Interesting Sky Objects and then the students will queue up to have a look and draw a little diagram depicting what they see. That’s it. You don’t have to identify what you’re looking at – the TAs tell you what it is and where in the sky you’re seeing it. You draw what you see, draw a horizon reference, and make some notes. Tonight we did the Moon and Jupiter. Sadly, we didn’t use the observatory’s Proper Telescope, the one mounted inside the dome – too many students and not enough TAs – so we did tonight’s observations with a Dobsonian reflector telescope that seems to have been built from a big ol’ sonotube (like you’d use to pour the concrete column to hold up a deck).
Disappointment about the Big Telescope or no, it was still the coolest thing I’ve looked at through a tube in a long time. Jupiter was clear enough that I think I could make out at least one of the darker cloud bands, though it might just have been because I knew they were there. The real "ooo, wow" feature of the Jupiter obs was the Galilean moons – all four of them strung out in a bright line, two on either side of the planet. (Alas, we just missed a transit of Ganymede, which happened Saturday night.) I’d never seen them directly before. For someone with an armchair appreciation of science history like me, it was a real chill-up-the-spine moment. I wanted to grab a couple of my more jocular classmates and shake them. "Don’t you realize what that means, what you’re looking at there? It’s not just a bunch of bright dots, it’s Galileo’s proof that Copernicus was right! It’s the crowbar that pried the shackles of Aristotle from the wrists of Western thought! How can you not be excited about that?!"
Ahem. Do excuse me. Of course I don’t do any such thing, because they would just shake themselves free and walk away muttering, "Psycho." But I’m thinking it. And I think I had a moment of eye contact with one of the TAs that indicated she was thinking it too, but that might just have been wishful thinking on my part. She was really nice.
Anyway. Man, I hope we do Saturn later on. Saturn is my very favorite sky object.
The lunar surface was also impressive, doubly so because the Moon was so close to full. That was bad in other ways, but it did make for nice crater viewing (though I’m told it’s even better when the Moon is at, say, one of the quarters, and the day-night terminator is right in the middle of the frame, as it were). I quite clearly saw that one large crater with the bright ejecta rays all around it. Can’t remember what it’s called right now, and am unable to look it up. Will get back to you on that.
(Ed. note: Tycho.)
When I say the Moon being nearly full was bad in other ways, what I mean is that the glare from it rather messed up the seeing (as we astronomers say) for the rest of the sky. When the moon is full, it’s difficult to see anything in the sky other than, well, the Moon.
It must be admitted that the seeing from the Maynard F. Jordan Observatory isn’t too terrific even on the darkest of nights, simply because – as was, I suspect, not the case when it was built – it’s right slap in the middle of campus now, surrounded by take-back-the-night Pedestrian Safety Streetlights, the bus turnaround in front of the cheerfully lit Memorial Union, and particularly the Godawful garish lights of the Union’s loading dock. (Why the hell does that need to be illuminated at 9 PM?) it’s all a little bit depressing if you’re trying to get lost in the wonders of the cosmos, or point out the dimmer members of Aquila** to a TA.
I do love the voicemail message that tells you whether the observatory is open that night when you call, though. Sometimes it’s recorded by one of the TAs, but sometimes a computer does it, and so you get the delightful illusion that you’re being told that the Maynard F. Jordan Observatory is closed tonight due to overcast by Professor Stephen Hawking.
We’re on the hook for eight telescopic objects over the course of the obs project, but we only got two tonight because of the TA shortage. Hopefully in future sessions either the herd will thin out a bit or they’ll get that third TA back on task. It’s pretty clearly going to take at least three sessions at this point to get everything in – not that I mind. As long as the weather holds out, I’m there. I can’t imagine why I didn’t do this in 1993, but I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t think I’d have appreciated it as much back then (though I was still an astronomy junkie even then, I wasn’t the full-on Saganite I am now).
It is making me wonder now if I’m barking up the wrong tree with this electrical engineering malarkey and should, in fact, just say the hell with Career Prospects and become an astronomer. But that’s probably the endorphins talking.
OK, to bed. Math in the morning. I’m at Moonbase Dad tonight, since I didn’t clear campus until about 10:15 PM, and he’s shut off the wireless router for some reason, so I won’t actually be able to post this until I get back to school. Fortunately laptops are welcome in MAT 122, and since I’ll have written it already I won’t actually be goofing off in class if I upload it while I’m pulling up the virtual textbook.
* In WPI gweepy lore, Zerex is the temperature below which John Todd will put on a jacket. You probably don’t know him, but he had a high tolerance for cold. Zerex was at least in the low twenties Fahrenheit, if not colder.
** "The dimmer members of Aquila" sounds like I’m being uncomplimentary about a Latin American rock band.