I have discovered Jupiter

I am 46 years of age and I have just discovered Jupiter.

This is a surprising revelation, even to me. I have strong memories of being a child besotted with things astronomical. Looking back now, however, I have to wonder at the superficiality of my interests.

I was certainly a devotee of space and space rockets. Though too young to properly comprehend the significance of the Apollo 11 moon landing, I soon caught up with later missions and have since kept at least one eye on our forays into space. I remember scouring the library for titbits on the planets of our solar system and the stars and galaxies beyond. But my familiarity was almost entirely bookish. Perhaps it was effect of the near permanent grey skies of my youth in Northern Ireland, but I never really thought to look up.

The trajectory of my childhood interests carried me to Imperial to study for a degree in physics. There I learned the maths of Kepler’s laws governing the motion of the planets and of the gravity that slings them around the sun, once even measuring G, the gravitational constant, in a laboratory practical using apparatus that conformed closely to Cavendish’s original design. I also delved into the nuclear reactions that power the stars. But despite increasing my comprehension of celestial mechanics, the planets and stars remained distant, not just in space but also in my imagination. It’s a puzzle to me that this separation was not bridged sooner: I could see things in fantastic detail on the page but was still not connecting with reality.

Later I found myself lecturing at the same physics department but by then had hitched my star to the life sciences and ended up teaching molecular biophysics in a timetable slot shared with cosmology. I used to start my lectures by congratulating my students on the tremendous sagacity of their choice. Cosmology was all very well, I declared, but it was a subject concerned with the investigation of a universe that was largely invisible, being mostly composed of dark matter. Even those parts that could be perceived were too far away to see in any detail. Far better, I opined, to focus our attention on the one corner of the universe where something really interesting was actually going on — by which I meant the superabundance of life on planet Earth. The media frenzy whipped up by NASA at the discovery of the tiniest particle of water on some distant planet or satellite, I noted, was an inadvertent admission that life–or even the merest possibility of life–was the topic that excited humankind’s most passionate interests.

Although I was only practising my jaundiced cosmological eye as a piece of rhetorical trickery, I suppose it may have had the effect of distracting me still further from my latent interest in astronomy. (Perhaps I was also partly motivated by envy: cosmology was always a more popular course among the physics students.)

Blue Moon - 31-Dec-2009

And then in the past several months an unusual conjunction of events conspired to reignite my enthusiasm. In September astronomer Alyssa Gilbert popped up on Nature Network, clearly determined to tell the world about the wonders of her subject. At about the same time my daughter joined an astronomy after-school club led by one of her more enthusiastic science teachers so the topic started to come up at home. I realised then that, despite my own long-standing interests, I had never in my life peered at the heavens through a telescope. That was something I wanted to change.

Thanks to Alyssa and NN’s very own Londonista, Matt Brown, I found out about the public observing evenings held at the Greenwich Royal Observatory and promptly booked tickets for myself and my son and daughter for a moon viewing in late October.

But alas, an evening that I was almost surprised to find myself looking forward to with bubbling excitement turned to sour disappointment when the cloudy skies stubbornly refused to break for the entirety of our session. At the observatory they didn’t even bother to remove the lens cap from their magnificent 28-inch refractor telescope. I was forced to swallow a second bolus of dismay when one of their resident astronomers (@Skyponderer) posted a beautiful picture of the moon on Twitter, taken by just holding his iPhone to the telescope eyepiece the following evening!

I was gutted.

And faced with a dilemma. I could try to book for another night hoping for clearer skies; but the tickets weren’t exactly cheap and the risk of another disappointment was palpable. This fear, and the remark by one of the Observatory’s speakers that a modern amateur telescope would produce images almost as good as their huge but elderly refractor, triggered a thought about buying a telescope of my own.

And so it came to pass that on Christmas night I was out on the patio fiddling with the optics of a Sky-Watcher Explorer-130P SupaTrak Auto, a motorised Newtonian reflector with a 130mm diameter mirror. It was a clear night and bitingly cold. For a first session I set my sights on looking at the moon which hung luminously, three-quarters full, in the night sky. But the practicalities of setting my sights proved a little tricky since the spot-finder, an accessory fixed to the barrel of the reflector that conveniently places a red dot wherever the telescope is pointed, had yet to be properly aligned. I swung the telescope around to put the red dot in the centre of the moon and squinted into the eyepiece.

All I could see was a blurry glow which leapt and wobbled as my numbing fingers twisted the focus knob. But no amount of adjustment seemed to sharpen the image. I then realised that since the spot-finder had yet to be calibrated, the telescope was not actually pointed at the moon, though it must have been close. Grabbing the controller I nudged the telescope barrel towards the glow and was immediately rewarded as the bright disk of the lunar surface slid into view. For the first time in my life I gazed at the cratered, pitted surface of our silent satellite, thrown into sharp relief along its shadowed edge. No amount of reading or studying, I suddenly discovered, had prepared me for the amazing intimacy of that encounter. I called my children to come outside and share in the lunar glory.

A couple of nights later I was out again – just looking. I haven’t yet made much effort to read up on the ins and outs of star-gazing, to navigate my way across the night sky. It was my brother-in-law who reminded me that the ecliptic–the plane that, give or take the odd deviation, contains the orbits of the moon and planets–would be defined by the path of the sun (well, duh). For now, I am content just to explore.

Spotting a bright star low in the sky over towards the west I marked it with the red-dot–now correctly aligned–and was pleased to see this, a pale disk flanked by points of light:

Jupiter Sketch 1

Keen eyed readers will have noticed the similarity between my drawing (I hadn’t yet acquired a bracket for my camera at that point) and one produced some centuries earlier by Galileo Galilei:

From Galileo’s book, ‘The Starry Messenger’; image hosted at www.lettherebenight.com

Galileo’s observation of Jupiter, and what he correctly interpreted to be its moons, were a vital part of the observational evidence that not everything in the visible universe orbited the Earth. It was these observations that initiated his collision course with the Catholic church.

I claim no affiliation with Senor Galilei, a far greater scientist than I will ever be, but as I gazed with my own eyes at Jupiter aligned with its satellites that night, I could nevertheless sense something of the transformative power of seeing things for the first time. What an incredible moment that must have been for him, as the carapace of stars was punctured by the moons of Jupiter.

Tonight I was out again and, turning my view towards Jupiter once more, was thrilled to see that in the four days since I’d last looked the moons had changed position:

Jupiter Sketch 2

There is nothing original or new in this. But for me, it means that the universe has come alive and I am attuning to its rhythms. There is something wonderfully fresh and vital about the night sky that I had simply–shamefully–been ignoring.

Last night, though the cloud cover prevented me from sighting Jupiter, I managed to catch the glorious “blue” moon, the second full moon of the month of December. I was able to try out the camera attachment that I purchased hastily this week and took the photograph above, that hovers serenely, anciently, over the mess of text.

It’s by no means a great picture of the moon — it could be sharper and there is a rim of chromatic aberration along the top edge. But I am utterly delighted with it.

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35 Responses to I have discovered Jupiter

  1. Åsa Karlström says:

    wow, a great post Stephen. I like the solution of the “I don’t know if the skies will be clear next time I visit the observatory” 🙂
    Looking at the sky is really fun. I haven’t done it in years, but your vivid description of it brings it back to me. I don’t know where you live, but can imagine if you take the telescope with you outside of any big city and am in the dark on a hill far away from civilization, it’s so much more stars to see away from the light pollution… then of course, I mostly focused on the stars and their formation and the greek mythology stories surrounding them, not exactly physics or astronomy really – but fun times when you tell stories and look at the sky.

  2. steffi suhr says:

    What a wonderful present for you Stephen – to rediscover your secret passion like that! I wish you lots of clear skies in 2010 🙂

  3. Henry Gee says:

    Lovely post, Stephen. Here at the Maison Des Girrafes we have a Celestron Starhopper 8″ reflector that looks a bit like this.

    The mount is a self-assembly point-and-shoot Dobsonian with no sophisticated tracking at all, but the scope has got a big enough aperture that light just falls into it. Using a low power it’s just lovely. When I got it about three years ago (ostensibly for Gee Minor) we spent some time looking at Saturn, and the Moon, and then it stood idle in the corner of the conservatory.
    Until, that is, we were visited over the holidays by a science-mad former rabbi who insisted we bring out the scope to look at Jupiter, on much the same nights you did – and we delighted in the same sight. The joy was heightened by the risk – the best place to see Jupiter was to mount the scope in the middle of the street. Luckily it was quite late at night and we live in a cul-de-sac.

  4. Sara Fletcher says:

    I spent a very cold night just before Christmas on Salisbury plain looking through telescopescwith a bunch of astronomers. We went to see the winter solstice but were lucky enough to have a wonderfully clear night, Jupiter was clearly visible and I too saw it’s moons for the first time. I did study cosmology and loved it, but never got into studying the stars for myself, but that night reminded me of how fascinated I am by what is beyond our planet.
    It is six months until my birthday but I will keep a telescope in mind!

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks Åsa – you are right to suppose that my patio is not the ideal viewing platform. Apart from the light pollution of London, the whole of the southern sky is obscured by the house and large parts of the rest are caged in tree branches. I have had to wait until later in the evening for the earth to swing round so that I can see the moon. A definite project for the new year is to find a quiet country location further away from the city lights so that I can see even more.
    It was an inspired choice of gift Steffi – I am more pleased with the telescope than I imagined, though I am casting an ever-so-slightly slightly jealous eye over Henry’s 8 inches of light collecting power.
    I knew I wouldn’t be alone, Henry, and am glad to hear that you also shared in the pleasure of witnessing the rearrangement of Jupiter’s moons. Magic. So, where do I find Saturn…?
    Thanks for your comment, Sara. I think you know by know what I would recommend for your birthday…

  6. Clare Dudman says:

    Well I think that picture of the moon is just wonderful! And your enthusiasm is infectious. Like your daughter I first saw the moons of Jupiter through the efforts of an enthusiastic science teacher and your post has reminded me of the sense of awe I felt then. I suppose at that moment the world beyond ours became real to me and not just something I heard about in books and on TV.

  7. Tim Jones says:

    Great post that brought back my own memories of discovering the night sky. I tried to make my own reflecting telescope at the age of twelve or so; but the mirror was from a WWII morse lamp and focal length was 3 inches (eh hem – quite). At this point my parents took pity on me and financed a more usable instrument from Fullerscopes – a 6″(152mm) reflector. I remember my first breathtaking look through it – at the full moon – not the best phase; but I can still remember exactly where I was standing in the garden at the time. With Jupiter, I’ve always been impressed by the sense of scale that seeing the satellites gives – even with powerful binoculars; somehow the satellites make the whole Jupiter system seem closer to us.
    Ironically perhaps, as I write, I’m sitting only 7 miles from the 100″ Hooker reflector on Mount Wilson (visiting family in California); but tks to your post I’m wishing I had my little Meade ETX125 with me! Could go on all night :-).

  8. Richard P. Grant says:

    Brilliant, Stephen. I remember the first time I saw Jupiter with a pair of binoculars (in my early 20s). I was gobsmacked.

  9. Henry Gee says:

    So, where do I find Saturn…?
    What you need, old son, is an utterly brilliant iPhone app called Starmap. This will tell you that Saturn is currently not appearing in this film, unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere.

  10. Austin Elliott says:

    I will confess to be another one-time telescope owner – in my case a 4 in reflector I got as a Birthday or Xmas present when we lived in the US in the late 60s. As a kid I was fascinated by the Apollo Programme then going on, so it was probably linked to that.
    Anyway, it is amazing how frequently the same things (like stars and telescopes) turn up in the youthful experiences of scientists I have talked to. I often find myself arguing that “wonders of the natural world” are the entry point for kids getting interested in science (see e.g. here from a few years ago), which is why I get a bit splenetic when the UK Govt talks about dumping the funding for things like Jodrell Bank.
    Astronomy also belongs, of course to that interesting subset of scientific disciplines where amateur observers and collectors can make serious contributions.

  11. Åsa Karlström says:

    Stephen: the night sky on the country side is magnificent. Just getting into the more deserted areas of the country, like Scotland I would assume 🙂 or Sweden…., and then you see so many more stars. I guess though, with a telescope you might not be as restricted as with your own eyes? I recently talked to a couple who went to US on a cruise and they talked about being out in the front of the ship in the middle of the night when they were in the middle of the Atlantic. Something about being in a dark room with all the stars in the world in front of them. How cool to bring a telescope with you there!

  12. Matt Brown says:

    An early contender for ‘best post of 2010’ methinks.
    I’m very jealous. We live near the centre of London so have way too much light pollution. Oh, and no garden.
    Jupiter has four large moons, right? Any idea which three you were observing?

  13. Heather Etchevers says:

    Fantastic post, Stephen! (I was thinking the same as Matt!) I also think we should pay not only for schools to have computers, but a decent telescope each, and passionate amateurs to come in and enable every kid in each country be able to see the moon, Jupiter and its own moons, and anything else that strikes their fancy at similar distances.

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks to all my latent astronomer friends for their comments! I am particularly impressed by Tim’s engineering ambition.
    Thanks for pointing out that app Henry, looks like a must-have.
    Sounds like Starmap might even help to answer your question, Matt. You are right that there are 4 larger moons (though no less than 63 in total, if Wikipedia is to be believed). I’m presuming that one of them has been occluded by the planet on the two nights that I made my observation.
    I had another go tonight but left it too late to catch Jupiter clearly – it had dipped behind a distant tree (and into the glow of London’s light pollution) and though I could glimpse the planet from time to time, the covering of branches and the additional background light prevented me seeing the moons. I’m now keener than ever, Åsa, to set up shop somewhere deep in the country-side. I remember spending a night in deepest Arizona once and being absolutely stunned by the quantity of stars in the night sky. Nowhere in the south-east of England can compete with that but I’m sure I can do better than the London suburb.
    And I can certainly echo Austin’s and Heather’s sentiments about the inspirational power of astronomy. If the comments on this blog are anything to go by, there seem to be plenty of amateurs who would be able to guide school-room observations.

  15. Alyssa Gilbert says:

    Love this post – you really bring out the feeling of seeing these amazing things for the first time! This is what I loved about doing public outreach. Being able to give that moment to hundreds of people was so rewarding.
    There is a great star gazing book called NightWatch by Terence Dickinson that could help with navigating the skies.
    As for the four moons of Jupiter, it might be fun for you (and your family too) to observe them over a period of time and calculate their orbits 🙂 I did this as a lab with some first year students and they really enjoyed it. There are some good instructions here (although you can actually observe them, instead of using a computer program).

  16. Alyssa Gilbert says:

    Oh, and some other software you might enjoy are Starry Night, and Stellarium (a free program). Both show you exactly what the night sky will look like from any location at any time. They are just fun to play with too.

  17. Stephen Curry says:

    Many thanks for the tips on the books and software Alyssa (Stellarium downloading as I type). I’ve already grabbed Starmap, following Henry’s suggestion.
    And that’s a great suggestion for a fun project. So far I have only managed to spot three of the four major moons of Jupiter – on three separate nights. So I am beginning to suspect that the light pollution here in the ‘burbs may be too much to catch the fourth (dimmest?) moon. It was noticeable tonight how the moons disappeared as Jupiter dipped toward the western horizon where the ambient light is greatest.
    I really must find a countryside location…

  18. Ken Doyle says:

    I had a lot of fun building telescopes as a kid. It also helped that I was living in a tropical country–the nights with best viewing conditions here happen to be the coldest.
    Another great piece of (free) software is Celestia.

  19. Richard Wintle says:

    This is making me think of things telescopic myself, particularly since the photos I took of the moon were awfully tiny and pixelated. Well the moon was. The photos in general were nice and detailed observations of black sky.
    Methinks I need more zoom, although a massive reflector and an iPhone Blackberry might just do the trick…

  20. Alejandro Correa says:

    Alyssa in relation – They are just fun to play with too
    On the evening of New Year 2010 – with my family watching the fireworks at Valparaiso, I thought that God was the first shooter with mortar the cosmic egg, producing the bing-bang and “Universe in expansion”.
    Is thing of observing how it expands the artificial fire when taking place the radial explosion and expansion
    Is funny.

  21. Alejandro Correa says:

    I have discovered the universe in expansion.

    Photo by A. Correa

  22. Sabbi Lall says:

    I thought you’d discovered the religion of ancient Rome when I saw the title, but very poignant- nice post.

  23. Alejandro Correa says:

    No, but it’s funny, I be just occurred at me in that precise moment, to me that someone…. must have made the first shot or launching.

  24. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the link to Celestia, Ken. Being a 3D view of the universe, it looks like a nice complement to Stellarium. I am also impressed by yet another person who built their own telescope!
    A reflector and camera phone might do the trick, Richard, if you have a big enough eye-piece but I found I couldn’t hold mine steady enough to get a decent shot. Hence the further investment in a bracket which allowed me to fix my compact digital camera to the eyepiece. Apparently this is called digiscoping, a new word in my lexicon! I can get decent shots of the moon but my camera doesn’t allow me to adjust focus manually so I may be tempted to step back into the world of SLR…

  25. Stephen Curry says:

    I guess it’s a typo Alejandro but I love the idea of a “bing bang” – sounds a lot more fun (and less dangerous) than a “big bang”!
    No Sabbi, it wasn’t a religious experience, though I did pause to think that there might be something in the astrologer’s view that the heavens can influence a person’s life. It’s just that in my case, the influence produced emotion—awe—rather than affecting my destiny…

  26. Alejandro Correa says:

    Thank you Stephen – We will have to register it and be patented, before someone be us ahead.

  27. Åsa Karlström says:

    Alyssa: THanks so much for the link to Stellarium! What a wonderful program. I was staring at it for looong time when I down loaded it. Considering ho confused I have been looking at the Memphian sky, this was exactly what I needed!
    off to stare at the real sky since it is a clear COLD night 😀

  28. Ian Brooks says:

    bq. What you need, old son, is an utterly brilliant iPhone app called Starmap. This will tell you that Saturn is currently not appearing in this film, unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere.
    I downloaded the “Google(tm) Nightsky Map” for my Droid(tm) htc(tm) phone. it has reawakened the thrill of just star gazing. I nearly bought a telescope when I lived in rural PA years ago, because the nights could be so clear compared to London or Leicester.
    I moved recently, from one of the neighbourhood to the other, and now have much less light pollution (until next door turn on their security light, the bastards). I often spend a few minutes each night outside, smoking a ciggie and trying to learn my constellations again.
    Excellent post mate.

  29. Stephen Curry says:

    Good luck with your viewing under the clear skies of Memphis, Åsa and Ian. Alas it’s been cloudy here for 2 night running and I’m missing my fix. 🙁

  30. Alejandro Correa says:

    In any case I doubt the author of BING-BANG the first cosmic shooting was Billy the Kid or Pat Garrett.

  31. Ian Mulvany says:

    This is appropo: http://xkcd.com/681/.
    My top tips are use a red bike light (low powered) when you need a light source outside to look at books, or anything. It won’t destroy your night vision. Look at the terminator of the moon some night, and try to have a crack at Orion’s belt.

  32. Stephen Curry says:

    Ha. – I’m such a neophyte that I had to look up ‘terminator of the moon’ on wikipedia (sounded worrying). So now I know it’s the border between light and shade and realised I’d already enjoyed it’s benefits on the nights before the full moon since it gives much more contrasty illumination of the lunar surface. We had seen plenty of craters with the little peak in the middle. I guess there’s a word for that leaky thing too…

  33. Stephen Curry says:

    This is not the best picture in the universe but I managed to snap Mars tonight, hovering over the house:

  34. Richard P. Grant says:

    Oh well done sir.

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