Thursday, February 21, 2008

Freezing my ass off for astronomy

I remembered almost at the last minute that there was a full lunar eclipse last night, so after dinner I bundled up and hustled over to Carl Schurz Park on the East River to check it out. The last lunar eclipse I saw was in 1989 or 1990, and I camped out in front of my house in a lawn chair with binoculars, and all the neighbors thought I was either spying on them or watching for UFOs. When I got to the esplanade, I found a small crowd of fellow amateur astronomers and an assortment of telescopes. Members of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York were there with information about what the eclipse was, how long it would last, and what other stars were visible during the eclipse. When the moon was about halfway shadowed by the Earth, Saturn became visible just below and to the right of the moon. One of the astronomers reoriented his telescope to point it at Saturn and people lined up and took turns gazing at Saturn and its rings. I'd never seen Saturn's rings before, but there they were: a little line angling through the small disk that was the planet. I could also see Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and another unidentified moon of Saturn, both of which were visible just as tiny specks. The moon itself turned a light reddish color, and through another telescope I could see seas and craters more clearly than on a full moon evening. Later, as the moon was totally shadowed by the Earth, other stars appeared over Manhattan: Sirius, Rigel, the constellation Orion, the Big Dipper, and Polaris (the "North Star"). I hadn't seen stars over Manhattan since the blackout in 2003 and while there weren't as many stars out as there had been that night, it was still a better show than we get in the city on any given night. I called Kate, who was at home in Park Slope, and she could see all kinds of stars out while the moon was obscured. I really do have to move out of Manhattan.

By 10:45 I'd been outside for about two hours, and while I was enjoying the show, I was also freezing. The total portion of the eclipse was nearly over, so I walked home as fast as my chilled legs and feet could take me. Once inside I realized I could have been watching the eclipse from my window, as the moon had risen high enough that it cleared the buildings across the street. I had a cup of hot tea and got my blood circulating again, and today I'm happy to report that I don't seem to have frostbite or any other permanent damage. The next lunar eclipse is scheduled for late 2010, and I just hope it's a little warmer. Why can't the universe schedule all eclipses for warm summer nights?

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