On capturing the great planet conjunction

Posted 1/7/21

I dusted off my telescope to observe the great conjunction of 2020 for myself. My Orion-brand AstroView 90mm EQ is a refractor telescope essentially no different from the instrument Galileo looked …

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On capturing the great planet conjunction

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I dusted off my telescope to observe the great conjunction of 2020 for myself. My Orion-brand AstroView 90mm EQ is a refractor telescope essentially no different from the instrument Galileo looked through back in the 1609, only much more refined.

Decades later, after the apple fell on his head, Isaac Newton invented the reflector telescope, a great leap forward technically and generally more expensive. One of my classmates at Northwood, Mark, owns a reflector telescope, and he piggybacks a camera on it, too. Mark is much more serious about astronomy than I am.

My Orion is perfect for backyard star gazing. I received it as a gift from my wife several Christmases ago, and except for the BB gun I got as a kid, it is my all-time favorite present. I have seen wondrous things in the night sky. I saw mountains on the moon. I watched Venus pass through phases not unlike our moon does; counter-intuitively, Venus is at its brightest not as a gibbous orb but as a thin green crescent, looking for all the world like some exotic Turkish slipper or the distal edge of someone’s painted fingernail.

Several years ago I observed Jupiter high in the summer sky with its reddish brown spot and strange striped weather bands, its four Galilean moons shining like tiny diamonds, the planet itself evocative of some unknown precious stone. I looked at pale, distant Saturn with its icy rings tilted wide open at 27 degrees. In a few years, the rings will be on edge, barely perceptible to the eye. I even saw its largest moon, Triton. Only dusty Mars was less than a revelation, but I plan to revisit it soon.

Setting up is a multi-step process. To start, I must extricate the telescope from its home among the houseplants and take it outside before dark for it to acclimate to the ambient temperature. This is called thermal equilibrium. After an hour, I add a 2X Barlow lens to effectively double the size of what I will see through either a 36X or 91X eye piece. I also add a “star diagonal” to allow me to observe the heavens beside the telescope instead of behind it. To finish, I align the image in the crosshairs of the finder scope to what I see in the eye piece. This step is called collimation. Because the telescope lenses bend incoming light, I see everything upside down and reversed. I suppose old-timey sea captains must have squinted for upside down pirates. Arrgh, indeed, matey.

Our back deck seemed a good place to watch this celestial event; only a few trees denuded of leaves need be avoided. But almost immediately after setting up on the deck I rediscovered why it is called backyard, not back deck, astronomy. Even the faintest movements shook the deck slightly, blurring the image in the eyepiece. If I had set up in the grass as I had in the past the ground would have absorbed the shock, but it was too late to change. I made a mental note to observe the great conjunction of 2040 from the yard and kept prepping in the rapidly approaching darkness. It was cold on the back deck. I shook from the cold and when I shivered the telescope shivered with me. I exhausted a great deal of effort steering and adjusting the barrel to the turn of the Earth. I had focusing issues, too, and high winds created turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere, further blurring the image.

Then in a flash I saw the two gas giants together in a single glance — Saturn looking like a double-handled mug, Jupiter looking like a striped pancake. This was the eyeful I wanted, truly a breathtaking sight to see. Unfortunately, as soon as I moved my foot the tripod shook and the image was gone. But that one satisfying moment of clarity made all the effort worthwhile. I packed everything inside and turned off the porch light.

It took less than an hour for the first photo-shopped images to show up on social media. I saw pictures of the two planets hovering beside crescent moons over water or full moons over mountains. Sure enough, when I went back outside to double-check I saw the quarter moon high in the sky.

But the next day my old school chum Mark posted photographs he took with the piggyback camera bolted to his telescope. He captured the real thing. Way to go, Mark!

Dwayne Walls Jr. has previously written a story about his late father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and a first-person recollection of 9/11 for the newspaper. Walls is the author of the book “Backstage at the Lost Colony.” He and his wife Elizabeth live in Pittsboro.


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