Monday, December 21, 2020

The Conjunction Station in the Red HIlls: A Report, and a Santa Claus Sighting

The view with my handheld camera
The weather gods decided to make things difficult for us in regards to the rare celestial event that took place tonight. We finally got rain last week, and when the rain comes to the Great Valley of California, the Tule Fog follows. Earlier this week the fog cleared in the late afternoon allowing me to get a few experimental shots of the approaching conjunction, but the fog has not relented for two straight days. If we were going to see the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction (the closest approach visible in 800 years), we had to do something a little drastic. We headed up into the Sierra Nevada foothills to get above the inversion layer that traps the fog at low elevations.

The telescopic view using the smartphone

I knew of a likely spot in the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern near Chinese Camp that would have a good view. We got there a bit before sunset and set up our gear. 
Preliminary shot with the telescope and phone
I don't have fancy astronomical gear. I borrowed the old Questar telescope that we keep in the department at the college, and brought my own Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot (but with the 60x zoom; good for my birdwatching). Lacking any attachments, I used my phone to snap shots from the telescope lens.

You've maybe noticed that it is easier to identify an oncoming car in daylight, since the headlights overwhelm the details in darker conditions. It's like that when viewing planets. The first picture above was taken as soon as I could see the planets in the darkening skies. The rings of Saturn are clearly visible (and in fact this was the first time I've ever captured a distinct view of the rings with my camera). Later in the darkness I took the picture below and the planets are too bright to see the rings well. On the other hand, three of Jupiter's moons are visible. There's always a tradeoff!

I guess we shouldn't have been surprised that a bunch of other people had the same idea of coming to this particular spot, but they were doing the right thing and masking up and keeping to their own groups. I had to wonder though if we weren't in the presence of a rather famous person...

 You'll have to be the judge, but the man's telescope is red, and presumably could pass for a giant candy cane. And he doesn't really have to work for another couple of days...

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