Monday, July 24, 2017

An observer from the Vatican

Not this telescope, a very modern Celestron scope with
an autoguider
It was a clear evening, hardly any humidity veiling the gardens as we came down from the terrace, one of the Jesuits wondered if it might not be a good idea to pull out one of the small(er) telescopes and look at the heavens. So at about 9:30, three Jesuit astronomers, a philosopher of science and I convened in the courtyard, lights out, except for the light in the pool of the fountain.  It won't be fully dark for another hour.

This telescope has an autoguiding system, you sight on four stars to calibrate, then you can just pull up a celestial feature from the menu and the telescope will twist and turn until it has the selected feature in its field of view.  Very cool. The hard part is figuring out what you might want to see and whether or not it is visible.

The visibility depends on whether a particular feature is "up" on this time of the year,  the light pollution in the sky,  and whether or not it is behind the roof of the Specola!  And if you are tall enough to see through the eye piece.  I had to stand on a chair (carefully, so as to not fall on the telescope) to see a couple of things.

What to look at?  Jupiter!  The moons again, strung out like a necklace of pearls, and just a wisp of its stripes to be seen. Saturn, where we strain to see the Cassini division in the rings, and wonder if that is one of the moons of Saturn we see, or....

We pulled out Turn Left at Orion (Guy Consolmagno SJ and Dan Davis' great guide to the sky, even without a telescope, just a good pair of binoculars, you can see fascinating things), to see what we might see. Astronomers suggested galaxies they had studied.  We saw Vega, icy blue. We looked for double stars.  We saw a ring nebula, which Rich Boyle SJ called a smoke ring, and for all the world that's what it looked like. Does God blow smoke rings?

There were things to be seen even if you weren't looking at the telescope.  I saw a meteor streak across the sky.  We watched a satellite sail majestically across the heavens, wondered if it was the international space station (no, you can find the ISS's orbits as a function of time on the web and I checked the next day).

There is something about looking up at the heavens, even when the scientific work does not actually require it, that pulls you deeper into the mysteries of both God and the astrophysics.

The title comes from a time when Br. Guy was visiting a telescope to do some observing, and went to Mass at a local  parish where the pastor announced they had a visitor:  an observer from the Vatican. Not that kind of observer!

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