March 20, 2009

Starry Night

I’m sorry to have been absent from my blog for so long. I was putting my energy into astronomy. (Well, that and family and work. But I digress.) I made two presentations this week about amateur astronomy to science classes at Ben’s high school.

It’s been about ten years since I did something like this, for Sheba’s fifth grade class. I was pretty rusty, and I’m afraid my first session was somewhat rambling. I tightened it up and the next day’s class—much larger and more difficult to hold their attention—went very well. But last night was the best part of all: we had a star party.

The teacher asked if I would be willing to take my ‘scope out to view some stars. I jumped on the chance to share my enthusiasm with a bunch of kids. We chose a pumpkin farm far enough from the city to avoid the glow of the lights. Even so, viewing was minimal due to light and air pollution. (Light misdirected into the sky is reflected off of particles in the air, turning the black sky into a charcoal gray, dimming out most stars and many deep sky objects.)

The star map indicated that Orion and Saturn would give us the most bang for our buck. Even though we backed up the arrival time to 8:00p, it was still too light to see anything. But we trained the ‘scope on Venus, which was still visible above the western horizon. The “star” of Venus focused into a beautiful slender crescent in the orange sky. It was discernible even in binoculars. That held the kids’ attention while we waited for stars to emerge.

My telescope does not have a motor drive or computer-aided aiming; it requires a lot of fishing about until you find the object of your desire. I couldn’t find Saturn to save my life, so I switched around to find the Orion Nebula. My back was killing me after another half hour of searching, so I handed the ‘scope over to some willing teens. Meanwhile, others used the two pairs of binoculars I’d brought to keep them busy. (The nebula is easy to find and examine using binoculars. You should try it before it disappears in the summer skies.)

When we were beginning to get discouraged, one young lady grabbed the eyepiece to give it a try. Not two minutes later, she cried out that she’d found “something,” which turned out to be the Orion Nebula. While kids lined up to see (and say “Whoa!”), I told the teacher to give this girl extra credit.

Then we turned our sights on Saturn again. We used the star map to figure out which of the bright stars was actually a planet. We confirmed it with binoculars: only a planet will magnify to a larger size in binocs or a telescope; stars are too distant to get bigger. The teacher found it in the ‘scope and we were able to see the rings just barely tipped at a shallow angle. While conditions wouldn’t let us see the dark ring, two tiny moons were visible as bright points of light.

It was just barely dark enough to make out the smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy. This deep sky object has such a low apparent light that it’s almost invisible. If it were as bright as the pictures make it appear, you would see it cover the sky to a width of eight full moons. As it is, you can just make out the central bulge as a light gray fuzzball, using good binoculars (with a 50mm aperture).

The evening was a success. My son was enraptured by the views. He didn’t remember all those nights we spent in the cul-de-sac looking through the telescope when he was small. Truth to tell, he didn’t have the attention span to spend much time at the eyepiece back then. I have a feeling we’ll be pulling out the ‘scope more often now. Summer will offer some incredible skies.

On a spectacular side note, I asked the teacher about Ben’s mid-term grades and learned that he is on the honor roll for the first time since fourth grade. He is one B away from straight A’s. Now I really have stars in my eyes.


Java said...

Great news about Ben!
The star party sounds like a lot of fun. Stuff like that means so much to kids. They'll remember that for a very long time.

Word verification: splat
I guess that's the sound of a star falling out of the sky?

THIS IS ME....ONLINE said...

You just solidified yourself in Ben's eyes, as well as his friends, as the coolest Mom on the planet! This one anyway. I love your excitement. Good job, Mom!

Check out my blog. I did what you asked me to do. Send me something good!

Oh, and thanks for the lesson.

Ur-spo said...

I am very pleased you are doing astromony.
It is one of the 'arts' all people should do to nurture the unconscious and keep themselves/life in perspective.

Roxrocks said...

You would love my little piece of land near Peaceful Town in January! It's an astronomers' dream, no light pollution and bright clear skies! Of course, you'd have to bundle up cuz it's damn cold here in January!

MartininBroda said...

What a splendid post and good news too.