While many people are satisfied spending nights staring at television, a more enlightened segment of the population is ever aware of a truly fascinating world just outside and above their heads. For them, the sky is continually providing never-ending awe inspiring cosmic experiences and occasionally a “once in a lifetime” celestial event.
One such experience occurred recently in September 2003, when the orbits of Mars and Earth came unusually close in a celestial conjunction that hadn’t taken place in 60,000 years. For the millions upon millions of people that were curious enough to venture outside and look up, the Red Planet was shining as bright as the planet Jupiter or Sirius, the brightest star in heaven. Another amazing celestial event occurred seven years earlier in March 1996, when the previously undiscovered Comet Hyakutake appeared out of nowhere. This incredibly beautiful comet filled up an unusually large section of the sky and was discovered by amateur astronomer Yuji Hyakutake.
But what has to be the rarest and most spectacular event occurred back in early 1994, when astronomers announced they had not only spotted an unfamiliar comet, but its orbit was on a direct course to impact the planet Jupiter. From July 16 through July 22, 1994, pieces from this disintegrating comet, designated as Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 (named after the amateur astronomers who discovered it), would be colliding with the largest planet in our solar system. This would be the first collision of two solar system bodies to ever be observed in human history.
Since this was one of those “once in a lifetime” events and our crew insisted on observing the event live, we needed an observation spot that would give us optimum viewing power. Scientists informed us the 18th or 22nd of July would be the only day’s the impact would be visible to west coast of the North American continent. After meticulous investigation, our resident super-brain Chase came up with a mountain top in southern California near Palm Springs. This particular summit is the highest point in the Santa Rosa Mountains at 8716 feet and aptly named Toro Peak.
The roads were a nightmare and took most of the afternoon to reach the summit, but the view was worth it when the road ends. At the very top of Toro Peak was a building and tower for the repeater equipment housed there. Chase immediately climbed to the top. He said he could see the area below where our camp and telescope was set up on what level ground we could find. We prepared a feast and patiently waited for night to fall with hopes of seeing the greatest show on or off the planet Earth.
As we waited with ice cold beer and tequila, Chase said that Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 consisted of at least 21 discernable fragments with diameters estimated at up to 2 kilometers. But because the planet Jupiter is so large, scientists originally believed the impact would have little or no effect to this gaseous giant and observers would see very little if any disturbance through the planets cloudy surface.
The results were beyond expectations and the effects of the comet impacts on Jupiter's atmosphere astounded us as well as astronomers all over the world. The impact was not only visible, but produced huge dark spots as the comet disturbed the atmosphere. This was evidence that such a collision would be catastrophic on any planetary body.
As amazing as this event was to observe from afar, how would you like to be at ground zero when such an object impacted Earth? It can happen and one day will. To see one example of what a small object can do one need only look at the Meteor Crater in the state of Arizona. It is the first crater to be identified as an impact crater and occurred between 20,000 to 50,000 years ago. A small asteroid about 80 feet in diameter impacted the Earth and formed the crater; the size of a three bedroom house.
It instantly killed everything in a radius of 200 miles. This is the best preserved crater on Earth and measures nearly a mile in diameter. For many years, scientists had denied that there were any impact craters on Earth. The origin of this crater has been a source of controversy for many years. But the discovery of fragments of the Canyon Diablo meteorite helped prove that it was in fact an impact crater.
Will we be hit by a Planet Killer? It’s more of a matter of when, rather than if we are impacted by rouge object large enough to destroy life on our planet. Sooner than later an object will intersect Earths orbit and strike our world the way Jupiter was impacted. What are governmental authorities doing about safe guarding us from this very real and inevitable threat? Very little. Like most ineffective bureaucratic operations, very little money or scientific investigation has been assigned to address an issue that means life or death for the people of Earth.
The effects on Jupiter illustrate just how devastating such an event can be. Hunter In The Sky strongly urges you to write to your state and federal representatives and urge them, to create funding for a project that is vital to safeguarding the planet. This would not only revive our space program and provide America with thousands of new jobs, but inspire a whole new generation to look up and see the light.
In 1994, sky charts indicated an annular eclipse would be crossing the southern portion of the North American continent. There was only one thing to be done about this situation…FOLLOW IT and CATCH IT! Chase, a very astute amateur astronomer and organizer of the trip, calculated the most accessible spot that would provide excellent viewing for the eclipse. He not only achieved this, but he also found some of the very best new moon night skies in the world.
After weeks of preparation, our caravan headed south toward Baja California in the very early morning hours. We successfully made it through the complimentary cavity search / passport checks on the US / Mexico border and then headed 500 miles southeast to the Sea of Cortez. Wow, what a country drive! Trucks and buses shared a two-lane highway with autos when there was really only room for one or the other. All along the 500 miles, markers with dead flowers, crosses and ribbons dotted the roadside as humble memorials to those who didn't go wide enough when some 18 wheeler or cattle truck straddled the road. About 300 miles into our trip, the leader of this expedition decided he would challenge a Baja big-rig for road supremacy and found himself escaping into a field of cattle to keep from becoming road kill. For the rest of the trip Chase was known as "Dances with Cows."
After fourteen long hours we arrived at our destination. I was dark and we set up camp as best we could for the night. Our priorities were to make a place to collapse and pop open some cold ones to celebrate our safe arrival. The next day we realized that we virtually had the bay to ourselves as we were properly setting up camp and the scopes. Tomorrow morning was the big event and we were going to be ready. We strapped an eight-inch Dobsonian onto a thirteen-inch Dobsonian. This way we had an effective finder scope for our photo equipment. "OVERKILL," we chanted. "Anything worth doing was worth doing BIG!" When that was done, we cast out our fishing lines into the bay and BAM! ..we had a fish fry. When we were sick of camp food, there was a café right on the water that served the most amazing fish tacos and the coldest Negro Modelo beer.
That night we sat back and waited to see what the night skies would bring. As it got dark we noticed foreboding clouds in the sky. NO! This could not be happening! We drove all this way and now cloud cover!? As the clouds never came any closer, but continued to rise in the sky, we realized these were no ordinary clouds. They were the galactic clouds known as the Milky Way. This vision was beyond amazing! The detail was astonishing! In addition, the lack of air and light pollution provided so much star light that we didn't need flashlights to walk around in the dark. The women danced around the fire and we all celebrated with more cold ones.
It was the morning of the big event and time to get ready. Wm Seven was down checking out the scope and Denver Bill was fishing…again! As it was getting close to countdown, everyone assembled, and all eyes were on the eastern skies. We put "Dark Side of the Moon," by Pink Floyd in the CD player and the event was underway. "Run rabbit run, dig that hole, forget the sun. And when at last the work is done, Don't sit down it's time to start another one..." went the song. Considering there's a great rabbit shadow on the moon we though the timing of the song was quite interesting.
Closer and closer the moon came toward the sun. Before us were the most ancient of deities dancing one on one. Dimmer and dimmer the skies became, until the dark side of the moon covered the sun. "There...there it is," cried Raven as a huge celestial ring had formed in the heavens. At that moment the music was at crescendo. The cameras were clicking and Pink Floyd sang out, "And if the band you're in starts playing a different tune, I'll see you on the dark side of the moon".
We were so moved that we danced around and broke out the cerveza. Why? Because that's what astronomers do.
Most people have a misconception about the average astronomer. They are not the stereotyped drooling book wormy nerds you see in movies and television. Astronomers are more like the characters portrayed in Carl Sagan’s “CONTACT.” They are normal, sensible professional and amateur scientists with poetic and artistic hearts and minds.
While you live your daylight lives, they sleep. When the night sky rises in the east, they begin to stir and spend the dark sky hours looking into the face of God searching for their holy grail in the form of celestial phenomenon. Astronomers are a very peaceful and gentle breed. That is until they get together at a Star party. Add a few hundred pounds of rare steak, cold beer and tequila, stir lightly with a few dozen giant telescopes and let simmer. The result of this recipe is anyone’s guess. Usually, it’s a great feast enjoyed by everyone, but occasionally it gets really WILD!
Every year the RTMC puts on a wonderful Memorial weekend star party at Big Bear Lake in the Mountains of Southern California USA. They have lectures, parties, swap meets, and drawings for fabulous prizes. RTMC provides food for sale and a dining hall for eating and other big events. Every day and every night is filled with activities for the whole family.
In fact, one very cold night a lecture on sky asterisms was just concluding when someone emerged from the dining hall and began to illustrate his knowledge of the heavens by pointing out constellations with a high beamed white light hand held mega watt search light. This did not sit well with the astronomers that had their scopes pointed in the same region of the sky. (As you know, it takes a while to get “night eyes” and any white light can destroy hours of pupil dilation. And if anyone was taking astro-photos with long exposure times, such an error on the part of some thoughtless bone-head might ruin many hours of work.)
Anyway, someone loudly said, “Hey! Turn that @#%* light off!” The instructor either ignored the request or just didn’t realize that he was being yelled at. The white light intrusion continued and many more astronomers began to scream in rapid fire that the light should be turned the heck off. Finally a voice came out of the dark from what was presumed to be the person holding the light, “Shut the hell up!”...or something to that effect. Suddenly the verbal abuse escalated and everyone standing around watching this event unfold was becoming quite amused at this unusual confrontational entertainment.
Now remember...it was very dark. No light is allowed in the scope area other than low “Red Light” that won’t affect the astronomer’s night eyes. It was at this point that someone who didn’t appreciate being told to take a flying leap by the instructor, decided to toss a rock in the direction of the offending white light. “SON OF A @#%*,” was heard for a two mile radius and the fight was on. I couldn’t see much, but the fight that ensued was short and sweet. And that white light. It was gone for good.
Everything was quiet now and it was time to enjoy the night. The sky was great and the scopes were finely tuned. Everyone was happy...And then it began to snow. And snow. And snow. Well, time to go in and break out the hot coffee and the cold beer. Yeah, I’ve been to many star parties and quite frankly they are a BLAST!