Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Gas Giants

As I squinted at the time early Saturday morning (4:30 a.m.), it came to me that I had forgotten to put out the trash. I knew it would be difficult to get back to sleep without resolving that situation, so I threw on some clothes and dragged the stuff out to the curb. Walking back up the driveway, I noticed a bright planet trailing behind the half moon. Saturn, I thought.

Oh well, there's no time like the present. I quickly set up my Televue 85 telescope and took a look at 75x. Instead of rings, I saw a banded disc surrounded by four little dots: Jupiter and the Galilean Moons. I checked my calendar to find out when Saturn would be up, and 18 hours later I returned to the back yard and found it high overhead.

As it turns out, Saturn's orbit will be at opposition this coming Saturday. That means the orbits of Earth and Saturn will be as close as they get in a 378-day cycle, and Saturn will be overhead at midnight. I use my Televue more as a wildlife spotting scope than an astronomical scope so my mount is just a photo tripod with a video panning head. But it worked well enough to find (at 138x) the ringed ornament hanging in the sky. If there's a neglected telescope stuffed in a closet, now is a good time to dig it out and take a look at the rings. Saturn rises in the east and sets in the west just like the Sun and Moon, so now should be visible throughout the night. And if you happen to be setting out the trash at 4:30 a.m., the Jovian system also is worth a look. (Or you can wait until May 5 when it will be at opposition.)

After some dabbling in astro observing and photography, I decided a while ago it would save a lot of time and frustration if I would do my astronomical observing mostly through the photos of others. But once in a while it's a good idea to look at the sky and get a reminder that those photos represent something real.


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