By Collin Smith
Sunday night, December 20th, found me in my front driveway around 6:10 PM setting up my Celestron 130mm F/5 reflector telescope on the Stellarvue M002 alt-az mount under a cloudless blue West Texas sky. Got the Baader SkySurfer III red dot aligned up in the scope with the Televue Nagler 16mm T5 in the focuser for 41-odd power. My neighbor across the street, Beth, came over for a peek. They were there in the eyepiece to behold, and she was taken with Saturn’s rings, a majestic sight. The four century/60-year conjunction cycle was upon us.
Being a low-to-the-horizon event, low power was the order of the day, so the 16mm eyepiece would be the highest power employed for this centuries in the making conjunction. In my Newtonian, Saturn was below Jupiter with faint Titan past Saturn, farther still relative to Jupiter. Jove was majestic above Poseidon, with the four Galilean moons appearing in a perfect line and, extraordinarily in order, Europa, Io, Optimus Maximus, Ganymede and Callisto … but wait! What’s that “satellite” of Ganymede? Indeed, by coincidence, 7.45 magnitude star HD 191250 was just to the left of Ganymede, Callisto side, seductively close to the Trojan Boy. Then finally at roughly 18:35 CST, they embraced in a singular celestial tryst that would last a good twenty-five minutes or so. I wasn’t so cravenly voyeuristic to stare at them the entire time myself, mind you, allowing Beth her turn to gawk over the spectacle in her own good time, but the Trojan Boy must be worth the watch given Jove’s predilections. This animated gif by Santa Barbara astrophotographer Chuck Macpuzl sums up the conjunction on Sunday evening, after Ganymede had his way with HD 191250.
The Conjunction sped toward the horizon, entangled in the local trees and power lines, but the nigh 6-1/2 day moon beckoned, so I put the Celestron onto her form for more ooh’s and aah’s from Beth, looking something like this. Luna never fails to inspire at this phase, and this night she was no less rewarding.
I put the 30mm APM UFF into the focuser and the Pleiades came to life for my neighbor and your humble narrator, at a mere 22 power and 3.35°. Albireo was also quite nice. We called it a night and awaited the real conjunction on the 21st.
Monday evening, December 21st, found a small group of us gathered at the northeast corner of Tech Terrace Park. Again, I had my Celestron 130mm F/5 reflector, this time on the GSO Alt-Az Deluxe mount-head, AstroTech Voyager column extension, and Ho wooden legs with center metal tray stabilizer/eyepiece holder. Again, the Baader SkySurfer III red dot would be employed to put the target into the eyepiece, while the 16mm Nagler T5 managed the 40.6-power magnification. There was some cloudy haziness in the sky, but I inaccurately predicted things would appear better shortly, as the sun receded more in the sky and things darkened up. Little did I realize that as the sky darkened, the haze would increase. This annotated photo by Fritz Olenberger of Santa Barbara provides the general view …
… but unfortunately, the image was much less clear for us here in Lubbock, Texas, than it had been the cloudless night before on the 20th. Rather than getting sharper with the increasing darkness, things got mushier and less defined, the image drowned in a hazy humidity. Titan, the fainter of the moons in contrast to the bright Galileans, all but disappeared. Ganymede didn’t even show up, smothered into the giant body of Jupiter as he transited in front of him, lost to us visually at this low power viewing.
Again, I put the First Quarter Moon into the eyepiece, almost blindingly bright by contrast to the planetary duo sinking in the West. And again, Luna the exhibitionist put on a good show, despite the added fuzziness of the image due to the thin layer of clouds. Several masked strangers, a dozen or so friends, even the parents of a recent Mathematics Grad whom they called and dutifully showed up, came to look through the telescope. Zander and I talked of his life in Pittsburgh at the University and his studies during the pandemic, and discussed social evolution, amongst other things
It was a nice night, though the Conjunction high point, from a visual perspective on the South Plains of Texas, occurred on Sunday the 20th, not Monday the 21st. A couple of nice evenings and another rare celestial event I was blessed to behold on planet earth. Having seen two transits of Venus and Mercury, the American Eclipse of 2017, and several Lunar eclipses, I am one lucky fellow, and blessed, indeed. Happy New Year, everyone!