Tag Archives: amateur astromy

Planetariums vs. Observatories

As an amateur astronomer, I believe that planetariums and observatories have their place and that there is normally no cause for conflict, though my club, Amateur Astronomers, Inc., had a rather heated debate many years ago (long before my time) about whether or not they should have a planetarium and an observatory.  However, I imagine that the issue had more to do with limited space, resources, and funding than with anything concerning philosophy.

However, the lamestream media (while I would like to take credit for coming up with that term to describe the mainstream media, it was actually coined by the writer(s) over at the Anomalist website) seems to believe there is some sort of competition and they take sides (so much for journalistic objectivity).  Consider the following example:

Back on August 8th, the weekend section of the local Gannett newspaper had a piece that was billed as being about planetariums and observatories.  Said piece was on the two central pages of the section and consisted of one large article about a planetarium, along with some photos.  The remaining space was taken up with a listing of planetariums in the state (reasonably complete) and there was a very tiny section which had a rather incomplete listing of observatories (while my club’s main observatory was mentioned, the vast United Astronomy Clubs of NJ – UACNJ – complex of observatories at Jenny Jump State Park was not mentioned at all.

One might be tempted to consider this bias merely an isolated example.  But there was an article in the local Greater Media paper a few years ago where a columnist was talking about an interest in the night sky and thought the best way to satisfy it was visiting a planetarium.  No mention of astronomy clubs or their observatories whatsoever.  In the words of Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond): “Once is bad luck, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action”.  Based on the articles I read, we are well into the coincidence stage, but I suspect this phenomenon may be a bit more widespread.

What could cause this bias?  Perhaps reporters are intimidated by amateur astronomers, their clubs, and observatories.   Or do they feel that actually going to an observatory, listening to a lecture, and actually walking up to a telescope to use their own eyes to see something is way too much effort for them and their readership?  Could it be that they are so accustomed to watching movies that the only way they might find space interesting is if it is presented like a movie with special effects?  Which of these do you think is accurate?  Or do you have a theory of your own?

Where Were You on the Nights of July 16th to 22nd, 1994?

If you were an amateur astronomer back then with access to just about any kind of telescope, there is only one answer to the title question (unless you were clouded out) – observing Jupiter.

This was because a barrage of 26 comet fragments, the mortal remains of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, impacted Jupiter on those dates.  Since this was a truly unprecedented event, every telescope on Earth that could observe Jupiter (amateur or professional) and just about every spacecraft with a telescopic camera was pointed at the giant planet.

Before we get too much further into the story, here is a bit of background for readers who were either not born then or were too young to know what the fuss was about at the time.  In the 1920s, a small, unknown comet wandered a bit too close to Jupiter.  As a result, the comet wound up orbiting Jupiter.  Nobody on Earth at the time knew this was happening.  For decades, this comet was a rather odd satellite of Jupiter.  Then, one day in the early 1990s, the orbit of the comet was shifted and it got extremely close to Jupiter, so close that the gravitational pull of Jupiter on one side of the comet was stronger than that on the other side.  As a result, the comet broke apart into 26 large fragments.

Shortly after the breakup, Carolyn Shoemaker and David Levy were working on a project to search for near-Earth objects (NEOs).  Conditions were not too good for observing and they had a piece of questionable film.  Rather than toss it and give up on the evening, they decided to take an image near Jupiter.  When the exposure was processed, they discovered a comet.  Assuming it was a run-of-the-mill comet, the discovery was reported to the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT).  Upon further scrutiny, the comet appeared peculiar and elongated.  This soon led to the discovery that the comet was a train of fragments.  Then the orbit calculations came in.  These revealed that the comet was in orbit around Jupiter and that it would hit the planet in July of 1994.  Refinements in the calculations revealed that the impacts would take place on the side of Jupiter facing away from Earth.  While this was initially disappointing, it was soon realized that the impact sites would rotate into view from Earth rather quickly.  But there was still the question of whether there would be anything to see.  Back in the early 1980s, the late Carl Sagan predicted that anything impacting Jupiter would disappear beneath the clouds without a trace.

As the date approached, there was a near-total mobilization of astronomers, both amateur and professional.  After the first impact, it was soon apparent that Sagan was wrong.  Each impact left a dark blotch on the clouds of Jupiter.  Not only that, the blotches lasted for weeks and gradually faded.

In my 6-inch F/8 newtonian reflector, the blotches looked like bullet holes in Jupiter.  I’m sure that no amateur who has seen them has forgotten them.

On this anniversary, Space Daily ran a short little article in their “Jovian Dreams” section.  However, it just focused on the professional observations.  No mention was made of the amateur experience.

I remember this event.  Do you?