Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

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Memories Beyond the Glass

by Perry Pezzolanella, MVAS

Many great astronomical events can happen in a lifetime and for Refractor Man there is no exception as he has accrued countless hours under the heavens. There are a few memorable events that did not require a dark sky. The following are the top ten of the best astronomy events that he has experienced.

10. Christmas Crescent. Christmas Day is always special, but Christmas Day 2000 brought a beautiful partial solar eclipse in the early afternoon and the weather could not have been clearer, although brutally cold. The low Sun became a plump crescent in the biting cold barely hovering above 0ºF. The freshly snow-covered landscape was only slightly dimmed, but having a crescent sun shining above a winter wonderland on Christmas Day was truly something never to forget.

9.   Maine Eclipse. A Full Moon rising over the ocean is always a beautiful sight and such was the case on August 16, 1989 during Refractor Man’s first visit to Maine, but there was an added treat. As the Moon rose higher above the ocean at Cape Elizabeth, it became eclipsed and the moonlit world became steadily darker. The beautiful sight of a copper-colored Moon and its reflection on the ocean was a rarity never experienced since.

8.   White Hurricane. Saturn is normally a dull, golden world that never offers much cloud detail, but October 1990 proved that Saturn has storms that rival Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. A huge white spot was easily visible in telescopes as small as a 3-inch refractor and was at its brightest and best on Halloween night. Eventually it elongated into a bright, but duller belt and then faded away returning Saturn to its blander normal appearance, which has remained to this day.

7.   Bruised King. Jupiter may be the King of the Planets, but it does not mean that it will get respect. Nearly two dozen fragments of shattered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter starting on July 16, 1994. The impacts were so powerful that they blasted dark holes into the clouds that were easily seen in telescopes as small as a 3-inch refractor. The dark spots were like giant bruises as several were larger than Earth. Jupiter bore its scars long into the rest of the year. Such a rare event has left a lasting impression.

6.  Aurora Rose. An aurora is a special event seen by those who watch the sky on every clear night possible. A dull greenish glow or a low flickering curtain in the north is often about as good as it gets around here, but on November 8, 1991 the evening sky caught fire! Huge greenish curtains radiated upward from all directions including the south with pulsations of light flickering upwards within the curtains. It was like looking up into a giant cathedral. The center turned pink and began to pulsate downward and soon appeared like a huge pink rose radiating overhead. No other aurora event has ever approached the size, energy, and beauty of this one.

5.  Meteor Storm. The Leonid meteor shower is a perennial favorite that is guaranteed to please as long as it is clear and moonless, but November 18, 2001 was the best ever of any meteor shower. Meteors were streaking in every direction radiating from Leo and were even seen in the brightening twilight as sunrise approached. In hardly 2 ½ hours Refractor Man counted 537 meteors; this is one personal record that most likely will never be broken.

4.  Mankind’s Comet. A “once in a lifetime experience” often proved frustrating as foul weather hampered viewing of Halley’s Comet, but Refractor Man observed it on 26 separate occasions from November 15, 1985 to May 12, 1986. The first time it was seen was magical as the clouds parted briefly to reveal a bright puffball below the Pleiades. The best views of Halley’s Comet came during March 1986 as it passed below the Sagittarius Teapot with a beautiful tail in the wee hours of the morning. It eventually faded into memory, but not soon forgotten. A lingering question remains; will Refractor Man be able to call Halley’s Comet a “twice in a lifetime experience” when it returns in 2061? At 101 years old, he may decide to ride the comet back out to eternity!

3.   Solar Halo. It is usually considered a given to have to travel to see a solar eclipse whether it is annular or total, but May 10, 1994 brought an annular eclipse conveniently over Refractor Man’s house! The Sun became a dazzling ring of light as the smaller Moon crossed directly in front of it for 5 minutes and 50 seconds centered on 1:34 P.M. It was exciting to see the sunlight grow dimmer until the entire scenery was bathed in a softened, dusky light. In spite of a chilly day in the low 50’s, the entire eclipse was observed as the next one to pass over his house will not be until July 23, 2093.

2.   Magnificent Mars. The August 28, 2003 opposition of Mars was billed as the closest to Earth in nearly 60,000 years. While Mars could never look as big as the Full Moon, it was exciting to see tremendous detail nightly for several months surrounding opposition through the new 16-inch Meade reflector at the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society’s Apollo Observatory. This big event actually landed Refractor Man on WIBX radio to talk in part about this great Mars opposition and he heard his voice on the radio several times in the days ahead starting on August 30. It was on that day that the best public star party held by the club took place. Thanks to his announcement on the radio, over 300 to perhaps as many as 500 people showed up at Lee Town Park in Lee, New York to observe Mars and the last person did not leave until shortly after 12:30 A.M.! The 2003 Mars opposition rates as nearly the best of the best astronomical events and will not be repeated until August 2287.

1.   Tropical Totality. A total eclipse of the Sun is regarded by all who ever have seen one as the best astronomical event of all and on February 26, 1998 Refractor Man found out why. This total eclipse had the rare luxury of passing over Aruba, which gave the perfect excuse to escape the winter cold and gloom of Upstate New York. The most memorable day of all for astronomy was almost not to be as a tropical wave rapidly blew in from the east before the start of the partial phase, but it quickly left after a light shower. It did nothing to break the heat as it was 88º, but the persistent trade wind was a blessing as it also blew away the clouds. The entire desert landscape was plunged into an eerie twilight as totality began. The Moon covered the Sun perfectly for 3 minutes and 34 seconds and looked like a black hole with streamers radiating from the Sun like giant magnetic field lines. There were a few pinkish prominences and all who witnessed this most awesome sight in the heavens were treated to a beautiful diamond ring as totality ended. The advancing shadow rising above the turquoise Caribbean prior to the eclipse like a giant thunderstorm to herald the approach of totality was the best adrenaline rush ever and there is nothing that can ever top a total eclipse of the Sun. Everyone must experience one at least once and is worth the travel and money. Astronomy gets no better than this.

Several other events such as the Venus transit of the Sun in 2004, Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, Comet Hyakutake in 1996, and the Saturn ring occultation of a bright star in 1989 are also fond memories. Hopefully there will be many more decades ahead in the life of Refractor Man to revise the Top Ten List, although it is doubtful the total solar eclipse in Aruba can be topped. Most often it is not necessary to look through a telescope or binoculars to witness beautiful astronomical events. The eyes are the best tools to witness the best that our universe has to offer and to create memories that last a lifetime.