Jupiter, Venus and the crescent Moon (Outreach, 2008 Dec 01)
Tonight's close encounter between Jupiter, Venus, the young Moon & members of the public was all I had hoped it would be.
The weather forecast looked appalling. Late afternoon, Dieter calls, and we place our bets on the gamble that is a public star show with a 7/8ths cloudy sky.
At 18:30 we're set up on the Braak, and the first six people arrive. The clouds are slowly moving away, I assure them, fingers crossed. It was downhill from there.
The pale crescent Moon is sighted. As if by magic, the clouds move away completely, revealing the beautiful trio. More people. My phone keeps ringing. I ignore it and bury it deep in my backpack. More people. Some familiar faces. Evan, Fransie, Hermann.
Two long queues develop. From seven until just before ten, I show the Moon. Again and again. The faces at the eyepiece become familiar as they return for another look. Pamphlets are handed out. 80% Afrikaans.
One person gets to look through the finder, the other through the eyepiece. Each time, I can feel it in my back as I have to bend down lower to nudge Maphefo (the 8-inch Dobsonian) on target. The seeing gets progressively worse, but that seems to add to the enjoyment.
Just before 20:00, there's time for an impromptu fashion shoot. And again at 20:05 (which included a serenade). And again at 21:45.
Dieter is manning the 5-inch, and his queue is equally long. My voice starts to go. I ask Hilda to count how many folk there are. A few of them are on their cell phones, calling their friends to come and have a look. "Till what time will you be here?"
The posters are covered in dew, and the last of the paper handouts feel like used tea towels. "Does everyone have a Moon pamphlet? English? Afrikaans? OK, Afrikaans it is."
Francois borrows my camera and thoughtfully captures the conjunction.
Around ten, Jupiter sinks behind a tree. Through the finder scope, it is awesome – the crescent Moon ("soos 'n piesang"), Venus, Jupiter, and oak leaves. Net op Stellenbosch.
I move Maphefo outside of our candy-tape enclosure, and the queue, on cue, reforms. "Such a well-behaved crowd," Dieter later remarks. I yearn for an americano.
"I have a group of Norwegians here, can you please talk to them?" asks a tour guide. Switch over to English, point out Pegasus sailing right-way up. Nudge Maphefo. Point out the False Cross and tell its story. Nudge. Then Sirius and Orion. None of them are familiar with "Three Kings" as a name for Belt.
Eventually, the Moon has dropped so low that a distant street light now shares the field of view of the finder. Still with the looking. And the photographing. Cell phones and digital cameras are held up to the eyepiece for a keep-sake.
For most people, this was their first view of the Moon through a telescope. Just about everyone is amazed. Slip in the Barlow for a close-up view. Now THAT'S impressive. Yes, it's the Earth turning.
I finally turn the telescope onto Jupiter. It looks bloody awful – its barely a few degrees above the distant buildings. Popping in a wide-field eyepiece gives me a few minutes to scurry off and take a photo. Three other photographers have their tripods set up alongside and are snapping away. Then it's back to the Moon again. Nudge Maphefo, run to take another long exposure. Repeat. "Will you be here tomorrow again?"
Hermann really wants to see Venus. Next time. Meanwhile, some of the SMSs say: "Wow, die maan", "Wow. Dis mooi", and "Pragtig hier".
JJ uses his camera phone to get a decent picture of the Moon through the 25mm eyepiece, and bluetooth's it to me. Amazing, huh?
Not long past ten, Dieter and Hilda start packing up. It's a thankless task – gathering all the many many bits together into a transportable bundle.
Meanwhile, I'm still following the Moon right down. More people arrive. At last, the Moon is obscured by the horizon. Now the show's over, right?
Another group of Norwegians arrive. Show them Canopus. Yes, he was a Greek hero, sort of the Brad Pitt of his day. Oh, wow – Brad Pitt, huh? They're impressed.
It's nudging eleven when I pack up. I join Dieter and Hilda for coffee. At least one hundred, she says, were in our candy-tape enclosure. She lost count when we moved outside. It felt like one thousand.
Despite being exhausted, Dieter and I are soon engrossed in an energetic debate about cultural evolution. All the tables (except ours) have already been carried away and stacked neatly indoors. Our waiter waits. I bet we felt like a thousand to him, too.
Meanwhile, at Waterstone Village Mall in Somerset West, Martin Lyons and Rudie Loots set up telescopes for a public star-gaze.
"It was a last minute thing," Martin writes, because for most of the day the cloud cover was extensive. "By about 19:00 it was almost totally open, so we decided to go for it."
Martin brought along an 8-inch Dobsonian, an 8-inch Meade LX200 and a 6-inch f/5 refractor, which they set up strategically outside the mall.
"I've never seen so many people in a parking lot stop, look up, and stare," said Rudi. "Some of them were even holding up their cell phone cameras to capture the spectacle," he added.
Rudi and his father, Dana Loots, manned the Dobsonian, while Martin divided his time between the Meade and the refractor.
"Eish!! It was awesome," Martin enthused, "we had a large crowd gather and the 'ooh's and aaaah's' from everyone was very satisfying."
Through the wide-field refractor visitors could see the Moon, Venus and Jupiter together in the same field of view.
As the evening progressed, clouds obscured the Moon and planets, so they turned the telescopes to brighter deep sky objects. The Orion Nebula and 47 Tucanae wowed everyone, Rudi noted.
"I found that once one explained to the people exactly what it is they're looking at and why it's special, they grasped the enormity of it all and started appreciating the views," Martin explained. "In some cases we had to ask people to let others get a peep because they were so into it they were hogging the eyepiece."
"I enjoy sharing with other people my passion for the heavens," Rudi said. "After all, that's what sidewalk astronomy is all about ... to give others the 'wow' experience when they first look through the eyepiece – just like I experienced many years ago."
nothing more to see. please move along.