Monday, September 01, 2008

One of them nights

Session name: 20080831.1950

I'm easy to please. The ingredients of last night combined to make for a greater experience than the sum of its parts. There was proper mix of friendly interested people, clear skies, lube in my joints, and sky full of celestial gems. A fine recipe for joy.

I arrived at TotL shortly after sunset. As passersby looked on at the Teleport reflector with curiosity and amazement. Responding to questions of "What is it?", I anticipated the next question with a finger pointing to Jupiter, shining in civil twilight. I continued setting up the scope while people stopped and gathered round. I see others point to the sky and announce Jupiter is there in the southeast. Infectious!

In what seemed like moments we began to point out brighter stars appearing in the twilight sky, a sky brightness that pedestrians could mistake for daytime. As the number of stars increased so did the crowd of people standing around. As Earth rotated to the east the Sun continued descending below the horizon. The sky darkened. Antares appeared in our South, Vega cramped our necks when we looked to zenith, and Arcturus, the brightest star of early summer sky, sets to our west. To our good fortune, the night sky was clear and transparent.

There are scales that observers describe transparency, atmospheric clarity, however, I assess our night skies with a subjective test. I look to the south from TotL, a skyscape (the picture under the blog's title) punctuated with light pollution. If I see entire constellations culminating above the CitiGroup Building or just above Times Square and the obnoxious light cones from the usual suspects radiate dimly and sharply up the sky, then I judge the sky to be very, very good.

I didn't wait long for the scope cool down before offering views to the pedestrians. Unlike the visual acuity of experienced observers, casual observers do not require the fidelity of a perfectly tuned instrument. In just 10 minutes of setting up, the scope turned on Jupiter, we were fortunate to see in addition to the four moons of Jupiter and the two equatorial belts, Io's shadow transit on the edge on the northern equatorial belt. Not everyone was able to confidently detect it, but those that did see it stated so with confidence and certainty.

This evening Scorpius is entirely visible from the 3 vertical stars of its head through Antares to the east down along the curve of the body and tail to the Stingers. If your scope is pointed in this direction, have a look at one of my favorite open clusters, NGC6231, in the Table of Scorpius. For New Yorkers, it doesn't rise high in the sky because of its southern declination at -41.48°.

East of Scorpius, I see the entire Teapot and Teaspoon, asterisms found in Sagittarius. Jupiter is the bright drip falling from the Teaspoon. Later in the evening when their times arrive the fainter constellations, Capricornus harbors Neptune (very easy starhop!) and Aquarius hosts Uranus, rise above the trees challenged by the sky brightness. With moderate effort one can find the brighter stars and trace each constellation. Realize their size in the open sky and shrug off that NYC claustrophobic nag.

It's not an exaggeration to say that about 3 dozen people passed through, most in groups of 3 - 5 people. Of course, Jupiter was the highlight and both Tom & I offered views from bins and scope. For those that stayed for a while, like trio Sean, Jonas, & Carol, I showed other objects including Albireo, Ring Nebula, Andromeda Galaxy & M32, and a bunch of open clusters along the line of Perseus and Cassiopeia.

At the end of busy evening, I stand before a familiar sky filled with an overwhelming feeling of joy. I stood alone in the middle of the Central Park. Not afraid. Crickets' chirps mingle the constant hum of cicadas. I ignore the bright strret lamps around me the brilliant buildings to my back. The Fall sky rises from northern Manhattan. I flatter myself thinking of amazed pedestrians telling others of the worlds they saw. I remember how I would end evenings just like this with other Team TotL'ers. I remember that in a month I celebrate 5 years of observing from around the Great Lawn. Despite the absence of Ben, Charlie, and Kin, the night sky from TotL elicits a sense of unmatched joy.

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