At The Eyepiece When A Star Disappears

Lunar occultations make me giddy. They're so simple, yet so visually engaging. Tonight I had a telescope set up at Fiddler's Hearth on Main Street in South Bend, IN, even though the clouds were thickening so much you could see the moon naked eye, but Aldebaran only sporadically. As people scurried along the sidewalk in the winter chill, all but one ("I'm on my way to work") stopped to look through the scope when I invited them to do so. Every one of the sidewalk observers expressed joy at seeing the moon with Aldebaran nearby, the star suddenly revealed with the optics.

The moon viewed through a telescope never seems to let people down. The image above of the moon and Aldebaran, taken tonight with my cell phone, certainly doesn't do the moon justice.

As an aside, I must share something I learned about being dressed for cold weather, courtesy of Fiddler's Hearth proprietor Terry Meehan. Terry gave me a pair of latex gloves to wear under my winter gloves--a trick he had learned from some firefighter friends. I've lived around the Great Lakes all my life. How come I never heard of this practice? It was amazing. With the latex gloves on, as soon as I donned my winter gloves my chilled fingers (setting up cold metal telescope in about 15 degrees air temp) were promptly warmed. When my gloves got wet, no problem. Greatest winter stargazing tip ever.

For the hour leading up to the occultation, a steady stream of people in ones, twos, and threes entered and exited the pub and shuffled along the street, though never bunching up at the telescope. Everyone seemed to have sufficient time to themselves at the eyepiece if they wanted it, or until the wind chill drove them away. Some lingered long enough to share memories of star fields they had each seen as a youth under dark skies.

When 9:04 p.m. arrived, I suddenly found myself alone on the sidewalk. I was convinced someone would scoot by asking, "What are you looking at?" in the next 70 seconds. I was convinced I'd then pull my eye away and say, "Take a look" just in time to miss the phenomenon. Alas, my cell phone alerted me to 9:05 p.m. and I remained frozen, as it were, to the eyepiece. I'm not giving up the eyepiece now.

Sure enough, at 9:05 and about 10 seconds, the dot of Aldebaran just winked out. Gone! I was jubilant. No one was there to see it but me, and no one was there to see me either, thank goodness. Again, I was downright giddy. The occultation was elegant yet dynamic, testimony to the solar system in motion.

Afterward I headed into Fiddler's Hearth and warmed up with a monster bowl of hot soup. People at the counter, some of whom had chatted at the telescope, lamented having missed the occultation. I shared more about the occultation and they shared about the Pleiades and stargazing in mountains as a kid and "Hey, did you know the planets are lining up tomorrow?" (Yes, I did.) It seems the morning alignment of planets got some airplay recently in local media, though some pub patrons interpreted the alignment as being one day only.

Despite it's simplicity, the occultation was a rewarding personal experience. I hope you saw it, and if not, I wish you could have been at the telescope with me tonight. Thanks to all who were a part of it.

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