An unforgettable night on Mount Wilson.
WHEN ASTRONOMY HISTORIAN Bill Sheehan contacted me a few months ago to write an article for S&T about the Mount Wilson 60-inch telescope's centennial (page 38), it immediately brought back fond memories of the most intense observing experience in my life.
In 2002, during my tenure as editor of Mercury, the magazine of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, I belonged to five San Francisco Bay Area amateur astronomy clubs, including the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers. The group organized a night of eyeball-to-eyepiece observing on the great 60-inch reflector, courtesy of the Mount Wilson Institute. About 25 SFAA members signed up to participate, each chipping in to cover the $900 cost for a full night's use of the telescope.
We .flew to the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, and some of us rented a car to drive to Mount Wilson. I remember roaming the observatory grounds and thinking about all the great astronomers--Edwin Hubble, Walter Baade, Harlow Shapley, and others--who revolutionized 20th-century science using its 60- and 100-inch reflectors.
That night, we lucked out with subarcsecond seeing. We observed mostly deep-sky objects such as the Orion Nebula and numerous planetaries. Even though I had to wait long periods for a minute or two at the eyepiece, I was ogling details I had only imagined from astrophotos.
But the highlights came shortly before dawn. One wouldn't normally associate a 60-inch scope with planetary observing, but Jupiter and Saturn were both near opposition. With subarcsecond seeing, the views through an ultra-high-power eyepiece were phenomenal, and they remain seared into my memory cells. The planets appeared three dimensional, and the details in Jupiter's cloud decks, whirls, and eddies were unbelievable--like looking at the planet through a spaceship porthole window.
The Galilean moons, and Saturn's large moon Titan, were easily resolved as disks, and Titan looked as orange as in Voyager or Cassini images. The only "problem" was Jupiter and Saturn's intense glare, the result of the mirror's 18 square feet of light-gathering surface. I could only soak in the view for maybe 15 or 20 seconds at a time before discomfort would cause me to turn my head away. Happy 100th birthday, 60-inch!
Before I sign off, I want to congratulate S&T contributing editor Gary Seronik for winning the 2008 Simon Newcomb Award from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Gary earned this award for his outstanding articles in S&T over the past decade. I also want to recognize astronomer C. Renee James of Sam Houston State University in Texas. Her article "Solar Forecast: Storm Ahead" in the July 2007 S&T won this year's Popular Writing Award from the American Astronomical Society's Solar Physics Division. Well done Gary and Renee!
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|Publication:||Sky & Telescope|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2008|
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