Monday, September 06, 2010

Astronomy with Jerry Oltion

Last night Jerry Oltion and I went traveled a little East and South to the hills above Eugene for a little star party.

I was kicking myself for not packing a camera so I could take photographs of Jerry's telescope, which is a large reflector (I want to say he has an eighteen inch primary reflector) with a focal length of about eight feet. I'm trying to remember if Jerry's built this one from scratch, or merely (?) ground the mirror. He's able to fold it up so that it fits in his VW bug. There is no tube; the eyepiece and side reflector are held in place with by a kind of scaffolding of metal struts. Jerry has machined the struts so precisely that he doesn't have to worry (too much) about the optics not working after telescope assembly.

Jerry knows the sky very well, so he swiveled the telescope around to stars like Antares, a host of globular and open clusters, and various nebulas. I think one of the coolest sights through the telescope was a ruby red carbon star. It's a star that has accumulated a carbon ash atmosphere, which the sun heats up so that it is glowing like BBQ coals.

We also spent the evening looking for Sol-like stars within twenty light-years of Earth. This meant we spent an awkward moment or two realizing that we could remember back to 1990 and what we were doing then and what we would have done differently. Luckily there were no twenty-year-olds there to chime in, "I was a baby back then."

The most dynamic viewing was of the International Space Station. With Jerry helping out -- OK, really doing most of the work -- I was able to track the ISS in his telescope as it appeared in the west and arced north through the sky. Doing so was counter-intuitive as the image is reversed, so I had to push the telescope up when it appeared the ISS was falling down out of the field of vision.

When the ISS first appeared, I saw the sun reflecting off of its solar panel array. This appeared as a bright, yellow-white square. As we tracked the ISS, the solar panels were tracking the sun, so they appeared to change from a white square to a reddish diamond. Jerry's telescope was able to follow the ISS after it had dimmed beyond human eyesight.

And, of course, I got home very late.
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