Observing Behind the Front

11 November 1998

"Well, the weather outside is frightful..." is how the old song goes, and that was certainly the case around here the past few days. With one of the biggest "Gales of November" (think Edmund Fitzgerald) racing through the upper Midwest, there was no way I was even thinking about doing any observing. We were having winds gusting well over 70 mph, and sustained winds over 40. About the only good thing was that the constant south-southwest winds blew all our leaves up the street. It's not our problem now!! :)

Wednesday dawned still windy but its temper was abating. The winds had switched to the west, and - traveling over the waters of Lake Michigan - brought the usual clouds and a hint of precipitation. I spent the day downstairs, working on some projects that I had been neglecting.

Arriving upstairs for dinner in the evening, I was surprised - nay shocked - to find that the skies were perfectly clear despite the westerly winds (anyone who knows about West Michigan meteorology will realize that this *never* happens in the colder months). Somehow the astronomy Gods had been appeased (and I don't even remember making any sacrifices). Quickly checking the weather conditions, I saw that there were clear skies to the west, almost all the way to Iowa.

Well, this is a chance not to be missed - some observing in November. From November through March clear skies can be very rare. You almost have a better chance of seeing a live dinosaur (or an honest politician). Even though it was clear, I didn't take any extra equipment with me because I knew that the seeing would be atrocious. After the passage of this cold front, with the wind field still strong, there would be no imaging tonight. I envisioned taking a quick look at Jupiter and Saturn before the cold weather drove me back to the warmth of the house.

Arriving at the observatory, opening the dome and preparing the optics, I went down into the library for look some things up while the dome and the outside air reached equilibrium (it was actually colder in the dome than outside by 5 degrees). Around 8.30 (ET) I went back up and set the instrument on Jupiter. My God! The seeing was tremendous! I've looked at Jupiter for years, and never have I seen it with such clarity and distinction. The disk actually looked three-dimensional. The transparency of the sky was phenomenal, the seeing steady as a rock. I was able to make out many subtle features on the planet's cloud decks, including the small white ovals, festoons, whorls, and other meteorological nightmares of the Jovian atmosphere. The atmosphere was so good that the disks of the Galilean satellites were clearly evident (remember we don't get this good seeing ever), and the colorations were visible.

Having taken note of Jupiter's striking appearance, I slewed the scope over to Saturn. Again, I was stunned, amazed etc. Saturn was just as steady in both instruments (a C-14 and a 4-inch refractor). It sounds like an old, worn-out saying, but Saturn was "hanging majestically in the velvety blackness." Oh, there were a few seconds where the seeing degraded to what is usually "normal" for our area, but most of the time is was like looking at a 3-D image. The rings were so crisp and sharp, and the subtle banding on the planet was quite evident. The facing hemisphere (South, I believe) was very dusky, with the hemisphere darkening in layers (bands) right up to the pole. A few of the Saturnian satellites not usually visible close to the ring system stood out with surprising sharpness thanks to the excellent seeing conditions.

I switched back and forth between the planets for an hour or so and finally the cold drove me to close up and head for warmer climes. If it was just 30 degrees warmer, it would have been an excellent night to stay the whole time (can you tell I hate winter and cold? If anyone in Australia or - at least - Arizona would like to sponsor a visiting amateur astronomer, let me know). This night will never be repeated here for a long time, perhaps ever. Did I mention that I was kicking myself for not bringing any cameras? Who knew that it would be so good?

The equipment that I used was a Celestron C-14 and a Takahashi 4-inch refractor. I had approximately 560x in the C-14 and 170x in the refractor.

The night was (probably) once in a lifetime. To purposely misquote Shakespeare: "Here was a night! When comes such another?"


Return to the Articles Page