Crab Holding The Beehive

We took a break from packing last night and went to the astronomy society’s public opening for Summer ’08. The Powell Observatory is an amazing site to visit. It houses our club’s telescopes and a 30-seat room for weekly presentations May through October. If you’re in the KC area, I urge you to stop by some clear Saturday night. We’re quite friendly with newcomers.

Come soon if you can. The Spring’s evening skies are rewarding, and the action started even before sunset.

A few members had their solar telescopes set up so we got a look at the sun (safely) through filters. Personal first: I saw solar prominences through the H-alpha filter.

This isn’t the exact image, but it’s close to what we saw:

Notice that little extrusion on the lower left? That’s a solar prominence. Never saw one before. When I was a boy, my mom would start freaking out when my friend Stephen and I would set up his telescope in the daytime. We would use his mirror to project the sun’s image onto a big piece of white cardboard. I don’t know we were aware this can be hazardous for telescope equipment.

One of the members related a story in which a friend of theirs, new to the hobby, had set up his new scope and was observing deep into the night. Deciding it was better to curl up in a blanket and catch some zzz’s in the car rather than drive home fatigued, he left his equipment out. He woke to the smell of something burning. After the sun rose, his scope just happened to be pointing in a bad direction and the sun’s magnified image fried one of his eyepieces. Lesson learned: always pack up your equipment when you’re finished observing. Corollary: when camping the smell of sizzling bacon and hot coffee is always preferable to melted plastic.

We tried in vain to spot an iridium flare, a communications satellite with polished aluminum antennae briefly reflecting the sun down to earthling observers. The sky was pretty bright just after sunset and the predicted flash was only going to be as bright as the star Sirius. Two people claimed to see it, but they had to know exactly where to look in the still-blue sky. The rest of us had minor neck cramps.

One of our club members did a nice presentation on the sounds of space: detection of radio frequencies coming from planets, black holes, pulsars, and other objects translated into sound one can detect through a radio receiver.

One young girl (not mine) persisted with club members to find the Cat’s Eye Nebula for her. Note the processed image on the left. We didn’t see all that, but it was still impressive. When Brittany was climbing the stairs to view it in the big 30-inch scope, I started meowing.

“Just providing the ‘sounds of space'” I said.

For me the highlight of the night was reacquainting myself with M44, the Praesepe (for those who prefer the vernacular over Latin, the “manger”), otherwise known as the Beehive. If your eyes are good and the skies dark, you can see what the ancients referred to as the “cloudy star” in the middle of the constellation of Cancer, the Crab. Through binoculars or a small telescope, you can see a close gathering of similar stars. M44 is an open cluster, a loose collection of stars bound together by gravity over a handful of light years. It’s likely they formed from the same nebula and are all around the same ages. They travel through the galaxy, and over millions of years, will eventually disperse and go their separate ways.

Praesepe is about 520 light years away, or about 3 quadrillion miles from Earth. How far is that? Look at the nail on your pinky finger. Imagine the sun at the middle of it and the Earth orbiting where you need to trim. The Beehive would be about ninety miles away. And we can still see it as a “cloudy” patch in the constellation of Cancer.

A much closer open cluster (about fifty light years) makes up most of the stars of the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major. Not as impressive from close up, some astronomical sights.

See that dashed red line in the star map of Cancer at the top of this post? That’s the plane of the solar system, along which we see the sun, moon, and planets. Every so often a planet moves in front of the cluster as it orbits the sun. And that’s a very nice sight I have yet to see.

And speaking of Cancer, you were taught that if you were born between 21 June and 22 July then Cancer is your sign, right? Wrong. The astronomical sun signs are different from astrology’s. If you are looking for the dates when the sun is in Cancer (along that red line) they are 21 July to 9 August. My sister, for example, thinks she’s a Leo. But as my younger brother and I have always suspected, she’s really a Crab.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Crab Holding The Beehive

  1. Dustin says:

    Huh. So all this time, I’ve been a closeted Gemini.

    Despite being limited to inferior eyepieces, I’ve had some good fun with my 4.5″ reflector. I haven’t done the full Messier Marathon yet, though I’m sure I’ve passed by some indistinct, if significant, smudges without recognizing them for what they were.

    I’ve noticed that “possibly related posts” section on a lot of blogs lately. It’s quite a helpful feature. That Hopkins poem is just divine.

  2. Pingback: The Dogs of Winter « Catholic Sensibility

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