After the turkey is gone

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Monday, November 19, 2007

Comet HolmesHappy Thanksgiving! Many of us will take this holiday as an opportunity to reunite with family and friends. We'll cook, enjoy a variety of food, nap, and watch our favorite football teams. Ok, then what? I have a suggestion.

If it's clear, pull out your telescope. Better yet, have it already set up and ready to go. If you're like me, you won't be helping out much in the kitchen. Not that I don't want to, mind you. My talent just happens to lie in other directions.

If you haven't conducted a family observing session, here are some things I've learned. First, concentrate on the bright stuff. Hmm, I wonder what's up? Oh, yeah — the comet!

Comet 17P/Holmes continues to impress, and it's well-placed for early-evening viewing, roughly halfway up in the northeast. On Monday night, November 19, the comet lies only 17' from Mirfak (Alpha [α] Persei). It won't be much farther away by week's end. On Saturday night, November 24, the comet sits 1.1° west of Mirfak. Through binoculars or a low-power eyepiece in your scope, 17P appears like a multi-layered cotton ball. It's a most impressive sight to non-observers.

This week, our lone natural satellite is waxing to Full Moon on Saturday. I know, I know. Full phase is the worst time to observe the Moon. But if your family and friends have never looked at it through a telescope, get ready for some "oohs" and "aahs." To them, even washed out lunar features with little shadow detail will be pretty cool. And each night before Saturday will show at least a little more detail at the terminator.

What about planets? Jupiter's too close to the Sun to observe, and Saturn is a morning-sky object. If the party's still going 3 hours after sunset, Mars will be a target low in the east. The later you look, the higher it will appear, and the better the view will be. Unfortunately, it's not the greatest sight through a telescope, but everyone will be able to say they saw Mars. This might be a good time to dispel the myth that Mars will appear as large as the Full Moon to the naked eye anytime soon.

Second, don't go into long-winded explanations at the scope. You can field individual questions later, and, believe me, you'll get them. Hit your audience with some fast facts: The Moon's a quarter-million miles away; the comet brightened a million times over a 3-day span; Mars' ice cap is a combination of ice and frozen carbon dioxide.

Third, if you're traveling, take the biggest scope you can. Not only will objects be brighter and better-resolved, but you'll impress your family through sheer technology. So, in my case, while others are cooking, I'll be setting up a scope in an easily accessible spot. A quick survey will tell me which locations in my in-laws' backyard have natural shielding (due to the house) from nearby lights.

Fourth, easy on the preaching. Rather than delivering a long diatribe against light pollution, a few short comments might work as well: "You should see this object from a really dark site," etc.

And, lastly, accentuate the positive. Be an ambassador for astronomy (or, in my case, for Astronomy). Mention some cool recent discovery (check out Astronomy.com for the latest news), how astronomers are working to save Hubble, or just what a great night it is and how much you've enjoyed sharing the sky with people you love.

After you take down your scope, have a second piece of pie. You've earned it. And, eat slow — you'll still be talking a lot.

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