Last night was clear and cool, perfect weather for stargazing. I recently bought a mount for my iPhone, designed to hold it against a telescope eye-piece. As I wrote a year ago, here, the phone takes impressive photographs through a telescope. I hoped the new equipment would improve its performance. I spent the afternoon plotting my celestial foray: I set up the telescope in my lower field, then ate dinner of pasta, roasted brussel sprouts, and beer. I went outside as the sun settled and the moon appeared in a crescent to the southwest. After twenty minutes—waiting for darkness and adjusting the camera alignment—I got some good clear shots of the moon: With the moon and earth in motion, I needed to track the moon, refine the focus, adjust the contrast between the reflective edge and the shadowy interior, then wait for the moon to drift through the image center before snapping the picture. As the air cooled, mist settled onto the telescope, coating the lens and sending me inside for towels to clean it off. Still, the pictures are pretty good. Here’s a close-up of the densely clustered craters at the top: In the image below, we see the Sea of Tranquility, the large central plain, emerging from shadow. This of course was the site of several moon landings, including Apollo Eleven, the first mission. Above Tranquility, the circular plain surrounded by mountains and craters, is the Sea of Nectar. The name invokes balmy citrus groves: In the image below, the two large craters near the center are Hercules (smaller and closer to shadow) and Atlas. Hercules measures about forty-five miles across and 12,500 feet deep. Atlas is fifty-four miles in diameter and some 10,000 feet deep. The moon is about 240,000 miles away from Earth. It amazes me that we can so clearly resolve such details. I took aim at two other targets. First, our planetary neighbor Mars. The average distance from Earth to Mars is about 139 million miles. Mars is just one-half the size of Earth. It appears small, round, and red: Finally, I tried to photograph Saturn, the sixth planet from the Sun and, for practical purposes, the most distant planet visible from Earth. Saturn is much farther than Mars: ranging from 750 million to about 1 billion miles from Earth. Saturn is also gigantic, about 750 times the size of Earth. My first shot was fuzzy: When Galileo first observed Saturn, in 1610, he described it as a “planet with ears.” The ears, of course, are Saturn’s massive rings. The rings are composed almost entirely of ice. They span about 175,000 miles and are incredibly thin, in most spots only about thirty feet. The telescope view was sharper than the iPhone could capture. Still, not bad for a guy standing in Vermont with a phone. At this point, the lens needed re-cleaning, the phone battery began dying, and I remembered work, early in the morning. I took one more shot. It’s a great one, I think. You can clearly see the gap between planet and rings; you can even see Saturn’s shadow on the posterior rings. The picture captures Saturn’s beautiful yellow glow. It also resembles the spooky, grainy photos from the X-Files, which is beautiful in another way. I waited five minutes for UFOs. Seeing none, I packed up my telescope, lantern, and star charts, and slept well.
All pictures by the author. Note: the telescope reverses the images. This is most notable for the moon, in which the north-south axis is reversed from nature. If you enjoy these posts, please consider subscribing. Just scroll to the bottom and click ‘Follow This Blog.’