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May Is Tehachapi Telescope Month!

Sky Watch: Keeping an eye above the horizon


After months of cloudy, turbulent skies, it's finally time to break out our telescopes. To mark this occasion, Lauren Hollen and I, by virtue of our non-existent authority as NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors, hereby declare May to be Telescope Month in the Greater Tehachapi Area.

To celebrate, we, in conjunction with the Greater Tehachapi Astronomers and the Tehachapi High School, will be holding a Telescope Clinic and Star Party in the Tehachapi High School courtyard on the evening of Friday, May 23. The event is open to the public and will start at 7:30 p.m. with demonstrations on how to use telescopes and binoculars, as well as the "Mark I Eyeball." Featured spectacles will include plenty of planets, star clusters and distant galaxies.

There are plenty of wonders that can be seen with just the naked eye – meteors, satellites, planets, giant dust clouds and several other galaxies. Even a modest telescope can enrich your view a zillion-fold.

The telescope was not invented by Galileo Galilee as is widely believed. It was invented (as best we can establish) by a Dutch optical maker named Hans Lippehey in 1608. Galileo heard about an optical device for seeing far-away objects, deduced its design, and made his own. He made a name and small fortune for himself by selling it to the Senate of Venice for spotting ships at great distances – never bothering to mention that he hadn’t actually invented it.

Galileo was, however, undeniably the first scholar to turn such an instrument on the night sky. He discovered that the planets showed a disk (as opposed to the stars, which are just pinpoint in even the largest telescopes); that Venus went through phases like the moon; that Jupiter had moons of its own and saw the “magnificent desolation” of our moon for the first time. In fact, our names for the larger features of the moon were given by Galileo. Considering the relative crudeness of his instruments, Galileo certainly deserves accolades for his discoveries, which lead to the overthrow of the idea of an earth-centered universe.

By 1616, it was known that a telescope that reflected light instead of refracting it would not suffer from chromatic aberration (the bending of different colors by different amounts). In about 1670, Sir Isaac Newton constructed the first practical reflecting telescope. Were Sir Isaac to walk into my parlor today, he would instantly recognize my telescope as being of his design – and no doubt demand royalties! His design is still quite popular with amateur astronomers for its sharp views, simple construction, light weight, and low cost.

Therefore, I recommend a Newtonian reflector as a good starter telescope for the beginning amateur astronomer.

My second recommendation is not to be too cheap. Inexpensive telescopes tend to give disappointing performance and often lead the budding astronomer to frustration and disillusionment. Plan to spend a few hundred dollars. I recommend a primary mirror size of at least 4.5 inches (114 mm), though I have noted that when Astronomy magazine refers to a “small telescope,” they’re usually talking about a six-inch scope.

There are many makers of fine telescopes in all sizes and price-ranges. I recommend that you pick up the latest issue of Astronomy or Sky & Telescope magazine. They’re loaded with advertising, which to me is one of the most enjoyable parts of the magazine.

A word of caution before you enter the telescope arena: Your favorite telescope will always be your next one! Astronomers always want to see brighter, sharper and larger images. You may never be satisfied with your present telescope. That’s okay; it’s part of the experience and pleasure of enriching your understanding and enjoyment of our Universe.

I look forward to seeing you at the Telescope Clinic/Star Party at Tehachapi High School on May 23!

Meteor Storm Watch

The only time I was in a meteor storm, I didn't see a damn thing. All I could do was listen to all of my California friends tell me about what I was missing on the telephone. For all of its virtues, Burlington, Vt. is no place for astronomy; it has more cloudy days than Seattle!

I may have another shot. On the Friday-Saturday night of May 23-24 the earth will pass through the orbit of Comet 209P/LINER. The comet recently passed close to Jupiter. Astronomer believe that, at that time, the giant planet pulled tons of pebbles from its surface and strewn them out along the comet's orbit. Just how much was pulled loose we don't know. We are now approaching that orbit. As we pass through it, our atmosphere will act like a force-field-umbrella tipped into a driving rain, burning up the rocks and dust to keep us safe and dry.

The radiant (the place in the sky from where the meteors appear to be approaching) is near Polaris. Orient your lawn chair so that you're facing roughly north. The waning crescent moon won't rise until after midnight and shouldn't be a bother.

The bookmakers are betting against a "meteor storm," but I say that if you can spare the time and the weather is good, it'll be well worth wrapping up, stretching out in your lawn chair and meditating on the depths of the Universe. You'll certainly catch a fair number of meteors and may well get caught in a storm!

Sunrise/Sunset (May 1) 6:02 a.m./7:40 p.m.


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