Granted it was cold this morning at 13 below (-25 C), but I figured it would be even colder tonight, making the wee hours “warm” by comparison. On went the insulated pants and out came the telescope.
Comet Lovejoy was too faint to see with the naked eye but my 10×50 binoculars revealed a bright head and 1.5 degree long dusky tail. I can’t even tell you how pretty it looked in the 15-inch scope. How I wish I were able to paint. Comet C/2012 K1 PANSTARRS, which may reach naked eye brightness this fall, joined Lovejoy in the constellation Hercules. Faint and small, it looked like an embryo that needed only time to gestate into something more wonderful.
Mars kept its ancient appointment, doubling up with Porrima in Virgo. You couldn’t miss the sight – it was the first thing I saw when pulling back the curtain at 5 to see if the clouds had fled. Saturn and the crescent moon had their own show going on in the southeastern sky. While a lunar crescent never fails to make me smile, it was the brightness of the earthshine that really caught my eye.
As I studied the brilliant crescent and contrasting smokey blue circle in binoculars I thought about the Chinese Jade Rabbit rover “Yutu” cooling its heels during the long lunar night.
To survive the extreme cold, mission control parked Yutu some 131 feet (40 meters) south of the lander and placed it in hibernation. Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) powered by the radioactive decay of plutonium will keep the rover’s electronics warm as temperatures dip to almost 300 below (-184 C) at the landing site. Ditto for the lander.
Both will be reactivated around Jan. 12 about two days after local sunrise. I pictured the great gibbous globe of Earth – nearly four times the size of the moon seen in our sky – reflecting from the rover’s foil insulation and solar panels. On this cold morning, a bit of that light returned back to the very planet that sent it, reminding us of our very human connection to the moon.