Friday, May 14, 2004

The Comet and the Cluster

Friday night May 14 I went to Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland. Several familiar faces were there... a nice group that always enjoy getting together. The telescope maker's workshop is a great place to meet other amateur astronomers, reminisce about times past and to make new friends. Chabot is a outstanding example of what public science can be. If you have not been, I hope you go soon. I plan to go again next Friday night.

The evening started out very unpromising. Low clouds formed over the east bay hills and extended well out to the north and west. It looked like a classic cloud-out. I had my truck packed with equipment, the 18" Obsession, 10" CPT and 10x50's with a parallelogram binocular mount. I thought they'd all stay in the truck by the looks of things. So, inside I went, to spend time among glass pushers... a gritty group covered in rouge and scented with the smell of cooking pitch.

Just after sunset I walked outside, toward the observatory, and was amazed to see an intense solar pillar shining up through a layer of distant clouds on the horizon above where the sun had just set. It extended about 8 degrees - a thick spike of light - a column. I found that it was even more obvious with averted vision. The last time I saw a display of this type was at a Mount Lassen Star Party perhaps five years ago. Several of us saw it form the Devastated Area parking lot, and Marsha Robinson took several excellent pictures of it which I may still have. Solar displays are a treat.

Since the sky was so poor, I was looking for ways to pass the time. I had not brought my 10" f/8 mirror (there's a lesson here)... so I visited the Mars Exhibit. Some of the old sci-fi movie clips they have in a mini-theater are amazing. Some just plain funny, others, old classics like The Day The Earth Stood Still, are still fun to see. I went back into the telescope maker's workshop, heard stories about people mistaking blimps for UFO's, head-on micro-meteorites, and all sorts of fun stuff.

Then I walked outside again and, amazingly, it had cleared. The bright planets and Oakland's mag 3 skies... Gemini dropping into the west, Regulus and the sickle Leo looking dim compared to Jupiter just to their east. My target lay between the two constellations...

Twinkly stars and a definite object du jour helped me decide to leave the telescopes packed, grab the binos, parallelogram mount, and head toward the observatory.

Soon I had Comet Neat and the Beehive Cluster in one field of view. It as not really even dark yet, and the coma was obvious. The pinpoint stars of the big cluster were brilliant, pairs and chains.... this is the way to look at M44, with the fuzzy glow of the comet in contrast, a uniquely interesting pair.

Several telescopes were set up outside the observatories, maybe some manned by Chabot volunteers, others were perhaps like me, local amateur astronomers setting up scopes for the public. I was the only binocular observer.

I knew what I was doing. The wide field of the binos were a perfect frame for this great sight, a bright comet next to the biggest cluster this side of the Hyades and Coma B. As I expected, the public was interested in the telescopes - obviously thinking "what good is a binocular when there are telescopes here?"

So I was on my own for a while. Soon my friend Ken Head arrived, and we began inviting people to look through the binocular.

People were amazed at the parallelogram mount. Thank you Glenn Hirsch for selling it to me! The way you can lift and lower them while the field of view remains unchanged is just great. Tall, short, kids, you name it, they all were able to have the same view by just moving the parallelogram up or down. A great piece of equipment.

It really was the view of the night, and I began telling people so. The reaction people had ranged from "wow" to "gasp". They kept coming back. This view was a highlight that I won't forget. As the sky grew darker, the tail began to tenuously display.

People I'd met months ago stopped by and looked. Fun.

The big scopes were showing Jupiter and who knows what else, but not the comet. To my north the big 36" Cassegrain would silently slew... I'd look over at it and think about the old movie clips I'd just seen in the science center, and I could not help but think of the big scope as Gort. Maybe Michael Rennie took a peek through my binos, Klaatu posing as Carpenter.

The telescope making class ended and some ATMers came out and looked through the binos. I had a line of people - people from all over the world drawn to the science center.... and looking through perhaps the smallest aperture instrument of the night.

Around 10:20 I looked over toward the west and saw billowing dark advancing toward us. The fog was coming up. A cold breeze picked up and suddenly the clouds were blowing through. The night was done.

It was very easy to pick up the binocular mount and get to the truck to escape the cold. Inside, my two telescopes had sat unused.

I had a great night sharing views of a truly amazing sight. It was fun to share the experience. Several people told me the binocular was the show of the night. So, there's an exception to the saying "aperture rules"...

Hope some of you got out and saw the comet and the cluster. I'm looking forward to seeing the photos some of the talented astro-photographers took of this sight....

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