Saturday, May 22, 2004

My Driveway as Observatory

Hilo's an interesting place to be, as far as the night sky is concerned. On one hand, it's the rainiest city in the country (valid whether you define "country" as Hawaii or the United States), so there are a lot of nights where there's nothing to see but rain, or at the very least, clouds.

On the other hand, Hilo's the primary gateway city to Mauna Kea, which many people would argue is the best place on the planet, bar none, to look at the night sky. The 4200-meter summit of Mauna Kea is home to more than a dozen world-class observatories, including the largest dedicated optical, infrared and submillimeter radio telescopes in the world. Even the Visitor Information Center at 3000 meters (where I can be found volunteering most Wednesdays, as well as some Tuesdays, Thursdays and the occasional Friday) has clear skies most nights, and the viewing, be it through one of the various telescopes (ranging from a 14" catadioptric down to a high-quality 4" refractor on a computerized equatorial mount, with a slew of Dobsonians in the middle) or even one of the pairs of Oberwerk 9x60 binoculars, is spectacular.

The presence of all this astronomy creates some political pressure to discourage light pollution, so Hilo manages to be darker at night than many cities its size, but I live right smack in the middle, only about 12 meters above sea level, so even on a clear night (or more likely a clear part of an otherwise cloudy night), I don't get my hopes up.

Tonight, I spotted Venus and Jupiter on the way out to get dinner, and Sirius on the way home with dinner. After I ate, I could see Arcturus from the porch, and once my family finished eating, we all went out to the driveway. Big Dipper, check. Polaris, check. Hmm, I wonder, if I look the other way... yup! Crux (Southern Cross), check. Castor and Pollux, check. Through 8x21 compact binoculars, I could see comet C/2001 Q4 NEAT continuing to move off to the right of M44, my wife could see at least one moon of Jupiter, and we each saw one satellite go over. I waited a couple hours for some clouds to blow over, then went back out and saw Scorpio/Maui's Fishhook, Alpha and Beta Centauri, and Vega. Overall, it was a pretty nice view.

I'm definitely going to have to get some better optics, for those clear nights!

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