Number 6: Ten things to do before you die, part 3: numbers 3 through 1

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Monday, November 13, 2006

3. Plan to be surprised by an astronomical event.
My list's cryptic and somewhat variable item requires you to be in the right place at the right time. In such cases, you're either surprised by how terrific an astronomical event turns out, or you're surprised because something unplanned happens. Some examples from my recent past include viewing the aftermath of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 striking Jupiter, observing a brilliant daytime fireball, seeing Comet Hyakutake at its brightest, marveling at the 1997 Leonid fireball shower, and seeing an aurora from El Paso, Texas.

I'll yap a bit more about one item from the above list. On March 25, 1996, I planned to observe C/1996 B2 (Hyakutake) when it lay closest to Earth, but I never imagined how spectacular it would appear. From a site about 50 miles from Kansas City, I measured the comet's tail stretching more than 100° across the sky. And the colors! Blues, greens, purples, and all combinations thereof made this the finest comet I've observed. Was I surprised? That's the mildest term I'd use to describe the view. The more events you observe — be they meteor showers, comets, eclipses, or whatever — the better chance you stand of being surprised by astronomy.

2.  See Pluto.
Most inhabitants of Earth consider Pluto a planet, but most amateur astronomers never have observed it. True, there's not much in such a sighting, but at least you can say you've identified it.

Before you start looking, you'll need to do some prep work. Start by finding Pluto's position for the next half dozen or so summer nights you're likely to be out observing. Print out a detailed star chart with Pluto centered that covers about 0.5° and reaches down to magnitude 15. An easy way to accomplish both of these steps is to use a planetarium software package like TheSky, Starry Night Pro, or an equivalent program. Then, using an 8-inch or larger telescope at a dark site, find Pluto.

1. Observe solar totality.
Nothing you ever will do related to amateur astronomy (or anything else, really) compares to standing under the Moon's shadow during your first total solar eclipse. You've seen partial eclipses, you say? The difference compares to almost being pregnant and feeling another life growing from within; almost winning the lottery and holding the big ticket; almost dying and, well, you get the picture. If you're a dedicated observer — or if you just love astronomy — you owe it to yourself to experience the awesome majesty of totality.

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