What happened last night:
So here’s what happened. The Finger Lakes Institutes formidable Sarah Meyer and I arrived at McDonough Field at 8:30, pretty much convinced that we see nothing in the sky, and that people wouldn’t come. We were getting ready to hang signs that said “Star Party Cancelled–We’ll try again!” when the cars started filing into the parking lot. Though we have our strengths, disappointing people is not one of them. And the people that came were excited–and not easily dissuaded.
In all, probably around 60 people had gathered. The weather did not cooperate. The main bank of clouds that kept yesterday cool pushed to the south, and just then a large cloud appeared on radar right over Geneva….and it stayed there. We could see that it was clear to the North, and to the West, but we couldn’t move our party to Lyons or Canandaigua!
Venus was setting, in a narrow bit of blue sky between the tree-line and the clouds, and with all the kids running around excited, I took out the telescope and showed about 20 people Venus, which looked pretty much like a smaller, yellower half-moon. (Venus appears to have phases as seen from Earth, like the Moon).
And that was that. I predicted to the crowd that the sky would not clear until we all went home, and that pretty much was the case. By 11pm Geneva had clear skies. Welcome to the astronomers life!
Seeing the Perseids: There is Still A Chance
The Perseids lasts for a week or longer. Our washed out party was scheduled for the predicted peak of the party, when most of the meteors would be visible. But a clear off-peak night of a meteor shower is still better than a cloudy peak night, and so: any clear night or very early morning over the next couple of days, find a dark spot where you can see a lot of stars and have a good view of the sky. Look up and be patient–my prediction is that you’ll be rewarded with some nice shooting stars!
How big of a telescope do I need to see Pluto?
I got this questions last night and am heartened that Pluto is still of interest despite its demotion by the IAU. The answer is that you would need, at a minimum, an 8″ to 10″ telescope (that’s the size of the objective mirror or lens) and be observing from a very dark location on a very clear night. You would also need to know exactly where Pluto is, as it will look like a very faint star. It’s so far away from the Sun that even if you looked over several nights, you would not be able to perceive its motion against the background stars. I’ve never seen Pluto!
What’s a good telescope for beginners?
You want to get one that’s easy to aim, easy to carry, and has as large an aperture as you can afford (the width of the main mirror or lens.) The aperture is important because it’s the objective that gathers light. That’s what you want, not magnification. Telescopes work by gathering far more light than our human eye can, and thus we can see dimmer objects, farther into space, and farther back in time. At a minimum, I’d recommend 4 to 6 inches of aperture as a good starter scope. I still use a 6″ and I’ve been in the hobby for over a decade. You can see a lot with that. An astronomer once called a telescope a “spaceship” and he’s more right than not. So, which spaceship to buy?
I’d recommend two off the bat, one for smaller children and one for slightly larger kids. Both are by Orion Telescopes, a mail-order company with excellent customer service. The first is the Starblast, a 4″ scope on a very simple and smooth mount. The second is the Classic XT6, a larger telescope than the Starblast that has 6″ of aperture and sits on a sturdy, simple mount. Both are easy to point, relatively inexpensive, and will not frustrate you or your child like the telescopes most department stores sell. A few other items that you’ll need or want. A few eyepieces (the Starblast even comes with them), a red flashlight of some sort (red is better for preserving night vision) and a free downloadable star map from http://www.skymaps.com/downloads.html You want the northern hemisphere version. Have questions? Post a comment and I’ll do my best to answer them. At some point I’ll offer a “telescope clinic” to show people how to use their telescopes.