Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thursday night, September 18 ...

The stars were out tonight and George, who knew them all by name, was ready to have them put on a show for us. It didn’t matter that he didn’t bring the most powerful telescope in the world, and maybe not even the best one in his collection, because he arranged a nearly perfect night for viewing. The moon would rise late tonight so the sky was dark and there were only a few clouds that frustrated him at times. Even then he moved seamlessly through the night sky. If M31 moved behind a branch we could look over at Alberio. If Jupiter was hidden in the clouds he’d just find something else of interest. George could find everything except Indiana.

George talks fast and sharp and sounds like he might be from the east, but claims San Diego as home. I think he said he’s a retired engineer or something like a retired engineer and that astronomy is only a hobby. But he knows his way around the night sky well enough that I would place him in a category beyond hobbyist. Perhaps he’s an addict … He and his wife have been coming to the North Rim for around eight years. The visits started as short vacations but the vacations expanded themselves to the point that they’re now both volunteers with the Park Service. He still brings a bunch of cameras and a telescope or two, only now he and his wife spend three to four months here every summer giving an assortment of these Ranger talks.

This Night Sky Show is one of his favorites and since he takes up a considerable amount of room on the balcony he starts claiming his space on the deck long before the sun sets. So while we’re all on the west balcony crawling over each other trying to see a sunset George is alone over on the east side and he’s calmly setting up for a show that will be even more remarkably remarkable. Over the years George has found the best spots for the tripod – depending on the season and phase of the moon - to allow us the best field of view for a little star gazing. From the balcony the northern and northwest portions of the sky would be hidden by trees and the lodge itself, but all he needed was a clear view of Polaris to complete his set up.

The set up is more important than most of us commoners realize because the earth has this annoying habit of constantly moving. Of course, we know this happens, but if you’re an ordinary dork with a telescope at home or a set of binoculars and you’re like me trying to look at the moon it doesn’t really matter that much. It’s just not a huge issue.

In fact, not too long ago, some friends gave me a telescope. It’s amazingly compact but it’s powerful enough that I’ve seen the stripes on Jupiter and as many as four of its moons. Of course, the earth does its annoying thing and rotates so that the telescope eventually moves out from underneath Jupiter so I can’t see it anymore and I have to readjust everything and accommodate for the telescope turning everything upside down so I have move to the left to see something that just moved to the right … It’s a pain, but doable. Kinda like trying to back up a trailer. Or cutting your own hair while looking in a mirror. But not as dangerous.

But George didn’t have to worry about any of this. All he needed to do was take aim at the North Star and push a button and this computerized motor takes over and moves the scope at whatever speed necessary so that whatever we’re looking at stays in focus and in the field of vision. It didn’t matter if we looked north, south, east, west and even directly overhead; the scope tracked everything perfectly. All we needed to do was put our eye where George told us and not trip over the tripod, the feet of which were cleverly illuminated with tiny blinking red lights.

So in the midst of this weird illusion of little airplanes at my feet I spent the rest of the evening taking a personalized tour of the heavens.

George also does a presentation on “Photographing the Night Sky” and I hoped to learn enough to post my own pictures of the star tour. Unfortunately, the photography presentation isn’t until Saturday (so I don’t even know yet that my puny digital camera from Radio Shack is totally useless for night photography) and the Telescope isn’t coming out with George until next Thursday … So, except for the picture of Venus ( a bright dot above the sunset), I nicked some pictures from the Internet of some of the sights George showed us…

The M31 (Andrommeda) and M32 galaxies

Venus at sunset

Alberio - double star found in the Cygnus constellation

The "Coat Hanger" constellation