My Observing Log: November/December 1998

4:00 p.m. 21 November 1998 PST (0000 22 November 1998 UTC)

I got my long-awaited (I ordered it ten weeks ago) solar filter from Thousand Oaks yesterday. Of course it arrived after the sun set. (I suppose that's a weak version of the new equipment jinx.) But today was sunny all day, and I got a good first chance to observe the nearest star through it.

I wasn't disappointed. There weren't a ton of spots on the surface of the sun, but what there was was visible clearly, with a nice, well-defined umbra, and a fainter and still well-defined penumbra. I'd estimate that I was able to see sunspots somewhere in the vicinity of a couple of thousand kilometers in diameter. Maybe smaller, it's hard for me to guess. The wonderful thing about these filters is that you can actually spend the time acclimating your eyes to the sun!

8:00 p.m. 21 November 1998 PST (0400 22 November 1998 UTC)

We had a family friend of ours come over tonight, a 10-year-old boy with some interest in astronomy. He mainly likes to look at planets, so we took a look at Saturn and Jupiter, both easy targets in the early evening this time of year. Then I thought that Uranus might make a nice little capper. Neptune was probably already too far down to see too well, but Uranus should still have been up far enough.

The catch was that I had never actually verifiably seen Uranus myself. The one time I had prepared myself, I left my Barlow at home, and ended up having to rely on a borrowed 9 mm eyepiece (actually, the one I used to have with my 4-1/2 inch reflector) to find it. It wasn't obvious if I saw it or not. I found a "star" that seemed to have a tiny disc to it, but I was't sure.

One of the things that I did during a recent spate of bad weather was develop my homebrew planetarium program to compute planet ephemerides and to plot them on my star maps. I also downloaded the Hubble Guide Star Catalogue—over 15 million stars—and installed that on my little Toshiba Libretto, so now I had a fairly sophisticated little tool on my hands (literally!).

With the aid of this thing, I made myself a little map of where Uranus would be, in a field about 6 degrees wide. I starhopped (or more precisely, starhunted) for a while until I found a recognizable asterism. I guided myself to Uranus, and sure enough, it was there. The disc was tiny, even at 167x (15 mm plus a Barlow), but it was undeniably a disc. Uranus had been nailed.

Who knows, Neptune might still be possible, I didn't try it. It would be a fascinating little exercise.

7:00 p.m. 30 November 1998 PST (0300 1 December 1998 UTC)

An evening of very good seeing—I'd give it an 8 out of a scale of 0 to 10. Jupiter was beautiful; even though I imaged it (this is the Fifth Imaging Session), I may draw up a sketch and scan it in for inclusion here. In the northern hemisphere, the dark brown NEB was robust, and the two NTBs were clearly visible and lighter orange. In the southern hemisphere, the SEB was broad and faint brown, and I could clearly see three major white ovals within it. Callisto was clearly seen crossing the southern extremity of Jupiter; it is the darkest of the four Galilean moons, and is the most easily seen. Its shadow was not scheduled to appear.

I next turned my attention to Saturn. Again, beautiful—the Cassini division was clearly visible almost all the way around. I just wasn't sure I could see it near Saturn's meridian. The crepe ring was possibly visible, though I couldn't tell for sure. The planet itself was a nice cream color, with banding generally more subdued than on Jupiter. The equatorial zone was a bright white, with a much darker patch in the south temperate zone. The rings cover most of the northern hemisphere of Saturn, but a bit of the darker brown pole (limb darkening?) did peek out. That may change in just a matter of months.

With such great seeing, I tried looking for the craterlets in Plato on the moon. This is apparently a common test for good optics and good seeing—and to my wonderment I found I could see some. I saw three of them, one near the center, the other two about halfway to the edge with about 120 degrees separating them. When I came in to check a picture of Plato in The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, I found out that's exactly how they're arranged. So I wasn't imagining it, they were really there!

Nights like these make me glad I bought this scope. It's just amazing!

Copyright (c) 1998 Brian Tung