High Strangeness: Planetary Objects

Monday, June 4, 2012

Planetary Objects

There are some pretty cool things in the sky, aside from UFOs. If the sky didn't exist, we would have to invent it, just to put all these cool things up there.

For example, over the weekend my wife and I took out my new telescope to do some stargazing, and saw something that to us was pretty amazing. First we spent a lot of time looking at the moon, and man it has a lot of craters. I mean, they are all over the place. It's a wonder Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn't both trip and fall into one!

NASA actually took this picture for me.

But then we turned our telescope to a bright spot about 15 degrees east of the moon, which we knew to be the planet Saturn. Now, this telescope, an Orion XT8 Dobsonian, is still fairly new to us, so we didn't know exactly what to expect. Boy, were we surprised. We were able to see Saturn and its rings and two of its moons very clearly, and my wife was the first to notice that you could actually see the rings' shadows on the surface of the planet!

Thanks again, NASA!
Telescopes rock. Hard to translate the experience into words and pictures, especially when the pictures don't quite look like what we actually saw, but peering through that magic eyepiece and seeing a world that you know is millions of miles away but looks as though you could drive there on less than a tank of gas is a stunning experience... And when you see moons and planets and stars in the telescope, you see them in 3-D. There are dimmer bodies in the background that you couldn't see with your naked eye, and so you have a very vivid perception that the object you are looking at is floating in space and isn't just a bright dot on a flat sky.

And, yeah, when you perceive the universe with such depth and clarity, it's easy to imagine other life out there, possibly looking right back at us.

As cool as that was (and it was pretty damned cool), there will be something else in the sky tomorrow (June 5th) that is supposed to be even more amazing: the transit of Venus.

The planet Venus is damn near the brightest thing in the night sky aside from the moon. But tomorrow it will not appear as a bright light. It will appear as a dark disc crossing in front of the sun, or "transiting." This is one of those rare and mystifying moments when everything in the solar system seems to forget where it belongs for a few hours, and so we have Venus getting between the earth and the sun and making life difficult for everyone. Venus apparently got a little confused in 2004 as well, and will continue do so again and again as long as we continue to let it.

NASA will be webcasting the event live from Mauna Kea, Hawaii tomorrow, which is a pretty transparent ploy to get a whole lot of NASA employees out to Hawaii for a big beach party, but I suppose it has some scientific value as well.

Venus, as viewed from a big beach party in Hawaii.

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