Sidewalk Astronomy

Observing notes from the evening of Friday, December 5, 1997

It had been quite a while since I had done any observing. My last two attempts at observing from my backyard were drowned out by floodlights of some neighbors. But, we had a promise of clear skies from the weather forecaster and I had an idea of a way to get in some special observing. It seems like the planets have been on the news and the Internet lately. Everyone is talking about an "alignment" that will not happen again for 100 years. This "alignment" is having all the planets in the sky at one time. There are times when you can observe all the planets in a given night, but rarely can you see all of them at the same time. Since a lot of non-astronomer people were asking me about the planets, I thought of a way I could give them a treat. I decided to bring my telescope to work on Friday and set it up just outside the door of my building right at the end of the workday. The night before I also invited co-worker and friend Michael King to bring along his telescope as well. I was using my Vixen 80mm alt-azimuth refractor and he had his Meade ETX 90mm Schmidt-Maksutov. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for a crowd to form around us.

As the Sun slipped below the horizon, Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon were immediately obvious. It was very cold, but that didn’t seem to deter the crowd. Everyone that walked out looked at the scopes, looked into the sky, then joined in with the rest of the people. There were lots of questions, but most people simply enjoyed the view. They got a quick astronomy lesson as to which "star" was which. Next came the explanation as to why Venus went through phases but Jupiter did not. Some also got a brief description of my telescope and Michael’s, and how they differed. I saw some puzzled looks when I said his scope had a longer focal length. Apparently they knew exactly what focal length was, but were puzzled since my refractor was so much longer. This of course, was followed by a description of a compound reflector and folded optics.

Venus was a brilliant beacon. Lots of people commented that they had been seeing this "star" on the way home from work. Through the eyepiece, it displayed an awesome crescent phase (approximately 30%). The phase just seem to amaze people. I had a couple of funny cases where when I asked if they could see it, they said they could only see the Moon. Then they look up and notice that the telescope was not pointed at the Moon.

Jupiter, the king of the planets, also put on a fine show. We had some pretty decent skies because the images were great. Even in the dark blue skies of twilight, the two equatorial bands on Jupiter stood out well. We could also see a couple of Galilean moons to one side, but don't ask me which ones. People were really impressed with Jupiter and the cloud belts. A few asked about the Great Red Spot which I don't think was visible at the time. I didn't really scrutinize the view myself since I had so many "customers" lined up.

The fat crescent Moon in the sky got lots of "wows". With the Moon filling the view of the eyepiece, some people could hardly contain their excitement. Most never realized such a small telescope could show the craters and mountains of the Moon in such detail. The neat part was that the phase of the Moon very closely resembled the phase of Venus.

All of the previous objects definitely pleased the crowds, but the view that stole the show was none other than the "original" ringed planet, Saturn. Saturn was the planet the got the most reaction. I had one guy yell "no way" and proceeded to go to the front of the telescope to try and find the "picture" I had placed there. A lot of them were amazed that you could actually see Saturn with the naked eye but to actually see the rings through a telescope was almost sensory overload. We could also pick up a bright moon that was probably Titan. The view of Saturn and its magnificent ring system will probably cause a few telescopes to show up under some Christmas trees this year.

A few people requested a view of Mars. Nothing more than a red dot could be seen through the eyepiece. I told them to give in another year and a half. Uranus and Neptune were a little to dim to try and find in the light pollution. Besides, with new viewers it's best to give them a view with details instead of little pale dots. Mercury was just too low to find. We had some trees on the horizon. Pluto of course was too dim and too close to the Sun.

As the evening went on, I rapidly switched from one planet, to the next, and back again. Lots of people hung around for second, third, and fourth views. I answered all their questions and think I might have sparked a new hobby in a few. We were out there for almost two hours. Everyone couldn't seem to thank Michael and I enough for setting up the telescopes and letting them have a look at those marvelous celestial wonders. One lady said that she had considered going to Internet to ask if anyone knew of a public viewing of the planetary spectacle that has been in the news. She then walks out to find us at the front door. She stayed the longest and seemed to enjoy it the most. Some joked about asking for money for each view or even setting out a "tip" cup or something. My payment was seeing the joy and excitement in all those faces. I enjoy sharing my love of astronomy with anyone who will listen or take the time to glance into the eyepiece. I encourage other astronomers to do the same.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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