Am I turning into an astronomy buff?

Originally written for Interlac #166, December, 2003 and re-written for this web site Jan. 2004.

I'm writing this Nov. 8, 2003 right after I came back from New York City's Central Park to see the total lunar eclipse. Mercy and I had a Mars party in September, when Mars was closer to the Earth than it had been in 60,000 years and went to Carl Shurz Park, on the East River. There were a couple hundred people, among them several people with telescopes. One of them was a birder friend of mine named Ben Cacace. He's active with a local astronomy group.

So when I learned about the total lunar eclipse visible from New York City, I e-mailed him to see if they were meeting somewhere for the eclipse. He answered me promptly that they were getting together at the south end of the Great Lawn (that's where most of the big concerts in Central Park that end up on TV are held). The radio was saying it was going to be a red eclipse, my favorite kind (that means the eclipsed moon would be a dark red color, which is the how my very first lunar eclipse looked).

That day, I spoke about the Indian Point nuclear reactor at a Clearwater energy conference organized by my friend Talbot then went to a WBAI-FM meeting then went to Central Park. Mercy was at the conference then went home then went back to perform at an Indian Point concert. She ended up on stage more than anyone else, singing with seven different groups of people. During practice, people would hear her voice and ask her to join them. In one case, Mercy knew the song ("Power" by John Hall) better than the person who chose to sing it (she's been singing it on stage for years).

The eclipse had already started when I arrived and at least 100 people were already there. Ben saw me approaching and waved. I took a long look in his scope. Details on the part of the moon that was in shadow were quite visible; the shadow really accented the contrast of the mares and craters. Ben said you could see the Doerfels, the tallest mountain range on the moon.

How can you make out mountains on something of a million miles away on 60 times magnification? They look like wrinkles on the edge of the lunar disk, as if someone was drawing the moon freehand and had an unsteady hand. I looked and saw the wrinkly edge and noticed one really stood up from the rest. "One of them is huge!" I blurted out.

Ben came to greater attention and took another look in the telescope. I was looking at the largest mountain on the moon. And it must be large to be seen from earth! It's 26,000 feet tall, almost as tall as Everest, but if you were to expand the moon to the size of the earth, it would be three times higher than Everest. No wonder you could see it from Earth!

But that's not all. It is usually on the dark side and not visible from Earth. Even though they say you see the same side of the moon all the time, you actually see up to 59% of the moon due to libration, sometimes a little from the west and sometimes a little from the east side. SO-o-o, the mountain is not usually in sight and I certainly would not usually have access to a telescope at that time, so it was quite a special sighting.

For the whole night, Ben was telling the other members of the Amateur Astronomers Assoc. that were there that I had "found" the mountain. It was like getting credit for finding a Prothonotary Warbler in Central Park or something. Oh, and the mountain does not have a name, just the range (The Doerfels).

But that's still not all! I asked him about Saturn and if the rings would be visible and he said they were, showed me a picture of the angle on his palm pilot and pointed to someone who had his scope aimed at Saturn. The angle was incredible! We got a really good view of the rings and could even see the space between the rings and the planet. They said that if there were fewer clouds, Titan would have been visible, too! I had a great time and really amused the other AAA folks by my first-time enthusiasm. Were they noticing someone in the process of becoming one of them?

Oh, and at one point one of the other AAA people said,"Ben, birds!" A skein of Snow Geese was migrating south. Naked eye, they were about the same red color as the eclipsed moon. With binoculars and the city lights reflecting off them, they looked like a line of lights flying through the sky. A great view.

One sad note. The AAA met in a church that evening and when they went out to dinner, someone stole their telescopes. There was no break-in, so it was probably an inside job! $50,000.00 worth of equipment was stolen! Ben happened to not be there, which is why he still had his scope. The AAA folks missed the beginning of the eclipse because they were filling out paperwork at the police station.

Mercy and I got home at about the same time, both in a tremendously good mood. I from all the great stuff I saw, she from all the singing she did and the compliments she got.

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