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We Saw Pluto Last Night, and Other Adventures in Brookline Astronomy

On Monday night, Nomi (LJ: gnomi) and I were interviewed by the Brookline TAB for an article about the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet. The TAB wanted to get a photograph of us that would be relevant to the idea of saving Pluto, so we ended up going to The Clay Center, an astronomical observatory that is part of the Dexter-Southfield School in Brookline, Massachusetts. This is a real observatory, up on a hill, with a dome and a 25-inch reflector.

We spent about an hour being photographed and another hour being interviewed. For those of you who are interested, the article will appear in tomorrow's TAB, and I'll provide a link to the on-line version. However, this isn't about the article, but rather about the opportunity Nomi and I took to go back.

We were so impressed with the observatory on Monday night that we decided to return last night for one of their Public Telescope Viewing nights. All throughout the day, the sky was rather clear, so we expected a good night of observing. We were most definitely not disappointed.

We arrived at the Center a little before 6:30 pm, and we were met by Robert F. Phinney, their Science and Technology Director. We had met him the day before. Mr. Phinney showed us some of the meteorites and other artifacts, and then we went upstairs to an observation deck. As the sun set, we looked out over the city of Boston and its environs with a pair of binoculars. Nomi managed to find her office building, and I picked out Copley Square, which wasn't too hard thanks to the Prudential and the Hancock.

Around 7 pm we entered the dome, where John Briggs, a teacher at the school, had been getting the telescope ready for viewing. We were the only ones there, although other guests showed up about an hour after we did. Now years ago, when I trained on the Loomis-Michael Telescope on the top of Harvard's Science Center, I learned a valuable lesson. When doing astronomy, you should always keep a log book of your observations. If you don't write it down, it's as if you didn't see it. So I took out my little Moleskine notebook and kept a log of what we saw. Mr. Briggs used a computer program to move the telescope, and here's the log.

7:10 pm: I saw Altair.

7:22 pm: I saw Beta Cygni, or Albireo, which looked like a yellow star next to a blue star. From what I've read, Beta-1 is an orange-yellow K-class giant and Beta-2 is a main-sequence B-class star.

7:33 pm: I saw Epsilon Lyrae, which through the 7-inch refractor looked like two stars, but through the reflector resolved into four.

7:44 pm: I saw M57, the Ring Nebula. It looked like a smoke ring.

7:57 pm and 8:03 pm: I saw M13, the globular cluster in Hercules.

8:09 pm: I saw Vega.

8:22 pm: I saw the central heart of the Andromeda Galaxy. It looked like a blob.

Now, at this point, Nomi and I had expressed our interest in seeing Pluto, since, truth be told, neither she nor I had ever seen it through a telescope before. Pluto was low in the sky, around twenty to thirty degrees above the horizon, but the gentlemen running the scope found it for us.

8:33 pm, 8:46 pm, and 8:50 pm: I saw Pluto. It was an extremely faint dot, but it was there. To think of all the fuss that one little dot has caused.

8:59 pm: I saw the double cluster in Perseus, NGC 869 and NGC884

9:03 pm: I saw Uranus. It appeared as a bluish-green disc. (First time!)

9:08 pm: I saw Neptune. It appeared as a blue-white disc. (First time!)

9:16 pm: I saw the globular cluster M15 (NGC 7078).

At this point, Nomi and I decided it was getting late, especially since the season premiere of Gilmore Girls was now on our TiVo. So we bid farewell to the Clay Center, but we've promised both them and ourselves that we will be back.

Sadly, I can't share any direct photos of what we saw last night, since there wasn't any sort of camera attached to the telescope. And anyway, the point of observing is to experience the wonder of the universe directly and immediately for yourself. Of course, if you want to see some pictures of what we saw, there are no doubt plenty you can find on the web.

But for those of you who want a picture, I share with you a link to last night's post from the Bad Astronomy Blog, Jupiter from a height. Phil Plait reposts a picture of Jupiter that has been taken by the New Horizons spacecraft, which is speeding towards Pluto. Check it out; it's way cool.

And while you're at it, if you live in the Boston area, consider dropping by the Clay Center on one of their public viewing nights. You'll be glad you did.

Copyright © Michael Burstein


Altair?! Any monsters from the id? :-)

What a cool way to spend an evening! I have big envy and complete delight for you.
What was also fun was that not too many other people showed up, so we had more telescope time. One who did show up was a kid who was just as amazed at the universe as we were.
Oh, those notebooks are so cool! Thanks for the link --- I've been wanting a music notebook just like that!
Sorry we didn't realize, sdavido has been using those for a while, we would have gotten you one. They are pretty neat!
I'm just curious -- what does sdavido use the music staff Moleskines for? Or does he just use the Moleskines in general?
I meant the notebooks in general - sorry to be unclear.
Hey, btw, I just requested Arisia do a panel on Pluto and Save Pluto this coming year. :)
That is an excellent idea. I shall have to tell them as well, and urge them to put us on this panel together. (It's been a while since time travel...)
It so totally rocks to see a planet appear as a disk in a eyepiece. It well and truly does. :D
It was a shame that we couldn't see Jupiter or Saturn at the time we were observing, but yeah, seeing the disk rocks.

I thought I saw Pluto as a disk as well, but it might just have been my imagination.
Cool stuff, but... the heart of the Andromeda Galaxy? I thought that was a Southern Hemisphere sight?
The Andromeda Galaxy, or M31, is in the constellation of Andromeda and so is visible from the northern hemisphere sky. Maybe you're thinking of the Magellanic Clouds?
I may have been thinking of Alpha Centauri, but I really thought the Andromeda Galaxy was a southern hemisphere sight.
OK, this reminds me of something: I never got an answer from NASA folks I e-mailed right after the fact, and others weren't sure, so I thought I'd try this on you, figuring you won't think I'm nuts in non-writing-related matters. :)

Back in October or November of 1997 (I might be able to get a more exact date if I find my scrapbook--it was the night of a big college dance) I walked outside and saw flashes coming from the direction of Mars. To make sure I wasn't seeing things, I pulled my Mom outside and she saw the same thing. A good pair of binoculars demonstrated that they were indeed coming from Mars--primarily the southern hemisphere, as it happened. The flashing lasted for nearly another hour, until I was almost at the college for said dance.

Martian meteor shower, maybe? I can't find any records of such a thing, but most of my searches were hampered by not having an exact date handy.
My first thought is that H.G. Wells's Martians must have been test-firing their rockets. :-)

That said, I have no real idea what it would be. Your explanation sounds reasonable, although given how tenuous the Martian atmosphere is, I wonder if a meteor shower would be visible from Earth.

December 2016

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