Stand out in your front yard and photons from distant galaxies cover the grass like falling leaves. If you choose to sample some of these, point a telescope skyward and a few drop into your instrument where mirrors and lenses cup and then refract them into your eyeball. It sounds miraculous, but this photon rain from all corners of the universe drizzles down every day and night.
Last night, sunlight reflected from the barren, dusty moon lit the gravel road my dog and I walked. A contrail from a transcontinental jet caught the moonlight and glowed like a white snake across the south. Then an interesting thing happened.Â Winds aloft bent the trail in whole – without breaking it into pieces – until it stood straight up and down near Jupiter like a very skinny tornado. It was a weird sight well worth slapping the camera onto a tripod in a hurry.
While Comet Hartley 2 was visible through binoculars and telescope Saturday night, two things are happening that are changing the best times to see it. If you’ve been following the comet either from the armchair or at scopeside, you’ve noticed that it’s been zipping eastward and dropping lower in the sky night after night. Remember when it was in the W of Cassiopeia? That was just over a week ago. Now Hartley 2’s not far from the winter star Capella in Auriga the Charioteer. Auriga’s low in the northeast, so you have to wait until around 10 o’clock for a good view. One more thing. The moon’s out now, and its light brightens the sky, washing out the faint, diffuse comet.
What to do? Set the alarm for the early morning hours when the moon has set and the comet is high in the sky. That’s exactly what I did this morning. At 4 a.m. the comet was almost overhead. When the sleep cleared from my eyes, I sprawled out on the driveway and tried to see it with the naked eye. Yep! There it was. Not bright by any stretch mind you, but it was more obvious than any other time I’ve tried to see it with my original equipment. Through a 15-inch reflecting telescope at low magnification, the big blob glowed a pale emerald green. Tomorrow I’ll post a fresh chart of Hartley 2’s tour dates through Auriga and beyond.
I’ve always been an admirer of stars seen sparkling through bare branches, and I’m guessing you’ve noticed this beautiful juxtaposition, too. I’m reminded of Christmas trees and ornaments, or maybe it’s just the bold contrast between tiny, flickering lights and black branches. Whichever or both, I always feel compelled to stop a moment and soak in this vision of Earth and sky touching. When I walked into the backyard to photograph the zodiacal light before dawn, winter’s bright stars were busting through the branches.
I’ve described the zodiacal light in a previous blog. It’s a tongue-shaped, diffuse glow that extends from the eastern horizon to at least half-way up in the sky just before the start of dawn this month. And it’s BIG. You’ll need dark skies and an open view to the east to see it. The light is sunlight reflecting off comet tail dust and fine debris from asteroid collisions that collects in the plane of the solar system. When the zodiacal light cone is angled high above the horizon muck, as it on moonless fall mornings, it’s at least as bright as the Milky Way. My eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to it this morning – at 5:45 a.m., the light reached all the way from the bottom of Leo up to Gemini, a span of nearly 80 degrees. Yes, the sky was dark, very dark.
The night wouldn’t have been complete without a space station pass. While I put away equipment before hoping to grab a couple hours sleep, up came a star that rivaled Sirius, the sky’s brightest. Even better, it passed not far below that star, so for a time, we had two Siriuses. One stood still, the other had errands to run.
For Duluth and region, there are only aÂ couple so-so opportunities left in the morning sky before the station re-enters the evening sky on October 26. Tomorrow you can watch it for under a minute in the southeast at 5:16 a.m. On Tuesday morning, we’ll see a similar very brief appearance in the south at 5:42 a.m.