Chris McKitterick (mckitterick) wrote,
Chris McKitterick

Astro-Porn of the Day: Mars, Saturn, and the Moon

A couple of days ago, I managed to get outside and do a bit of backyard astronomy. Happily, my GPS-aligned telescope no longer thinks that this is the nearest city (as it did until I discovered this little setting buried deep within its programming):

Thusly corrected in time and space, my loyal guide to the heavens has sat mostly unused since fall due to, well, winter being frakkin' nasty this year. I've been anxious to roam the skies again, and fate served up a reasonably warm evening on Friday: below freezing, yes, but not single-digit frigid. I headed outside at about 11:30pm, set up the 'scope in the backyard on frozen ground near the fire-pit, had it self-align (without needing much input from me), and then pointed that 12" mirror at Mars. The face it had toward Earth was exactly this, though a bit less sharp and with more ice cap:

Wowza. Having just acquired a set of planetary filters on a neat selector-wheel, I tried viewing Mars in red, green, blue, and yellow (blocks out other colors), and then with a special "Mars filter" designed to block all frequencies of light except those that best reveal surface features. As you can imagine, that one showed the most, including the large dark areas in the University of Maine photo above. While viewing, I noticed a huge gap in my eyepiece selection: the 21mm Plossl is too low-power to show Mars large enough to see the features very well, but my next-shortest focal-length eyepiece is an antique 8mm Edmund Scientific unit I bought when I was 13 years old for my charming 4" Astroscan (which I had bought when I was 12 using saved-up dish-washing money):

As you can imagine, image quality with this old (orthoscopic?) eyepiece is not great. I also have a 5.1mm Orion ED eyepiece, which - when coupled with my high-power telescope - offers just way too much magnification to show much in the way of decent images. I tried using a 3x Barlow lens with my 25mm Plossl, which gave the best views, though all the extra glass in the way washed out the sharpness. *sigh* So tonight I just ordered myself a nice, medium-power eyepiece (big sale at Orion!) and look forward to seeing the planets both bigger and sharper than I can now.

Next I slewed over to Saturn, almost overhead at 1:30am. Its rings are still almost edge-on as in this (not great) photo I took last year:

Only with a big shadow beneath them across the planet's face and Titan like a diamond pinprick nearby. Wowness! At this point, because Mars looks so big and dramatic at its close approach and Saturn is always just amazing, I tried taking photos with my Meade DS-III CCD camera. After much setting-up on a couple of lawn chairs (one for the laptop, one for me to operate everything), I discovered that the camera wasn't sending any images. Hmm. I fooled around with it for a while, restarted the computer, but nothing. Hmm. I considered dragging out a borrowed DSLR camera, but figured that 0'dark-early in the morning when one's fingers were starting to freeze off was not the best time to try something new.

So I shut down the photographic equipment and decided to end the night with Ol' Faithful, our lovely Moon. Its phase was pretty close to that in this photo I took last year:

When viewing something as huge as the Moon, low-power eyepieces are best, so I went for my biggest, a 34mm wide-field unit. Because it was almost full - but not quite - the terminator (the unlit edge, not the robot) offered dramatic contrast and shadows. In fact, one crater was lit in such a way that only a thin band of its wall was visible, half the curve hidden in pure blackness (no atmosphere to scatter light), seeminly hovering above the surface of the Moon. How I wish I could have taken a photograph to show you!

About then, I could hardly move my fingers to focus the telescope and called it a night. Got everything put away and went inside at just before 3:00am. Can't wait for the next opportunity! And I'll be sure to take some photos next time.

Tags: astronomy, telescopes

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