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Blog: Serendipity Through the Clouds

By Dave Morton

I couldn't sleep tonight. A severe toothache had kept me up the past several nights, and when it had finally let up this morning, I succumbed to sleep for most of the day, so I was pretty much unable to close my eyes. This is fine with me, since I'm usually up this late anyway, working on web pages, or playing games. Well, tonight my usual activities held no appeal to me, so I went outside to try and catch the tail-end of the Perseid meteor shower. As luck would have it, though, that endeavor was doomed from the start. In addition to tonight's nearly full moon, there seems to have rolled in some moderately thick clouds, which obscured much of the sky. The moon was little more than a pale, out of focus blur above the clumps and strands of water vapor, and the light that was scattered spilled over most of the cloud cover, making it impossible to see any sign of the tiny specks of dust from Swift/Tuttle's debris trail. I was just about to go inside and give it up for the night when I noticed a dim pinprick of light to the east. Realizing that it must be the planet Jupiter, I decided, "what the heck", and grabbed my brother's telescope, set it up, and took a look. Sure enough, there the old boy was, a tiny, pale disk, it's normally visible bands of color a grey wash of lightness of varying degrees; but Jupiter, all the same!

Slowly, the clouds seemed to thin as I watched our fifth planet slide slowly across the eyepiece of the telescope, and more details came out. Soon, not only was I seeing the cloud bands in it's atmosphere begin to take shape and definition, but I also noticed that, one by one, four of Jupiter's moons were becoming visible; Ganymede, just above, and slightly left (remember, some telescopes give the image upside-down), Io, next closest, then Europa just to the right, and much further out, sat Callisto, faintly at first, then brighter, until there was no doubt that's what I was seeing. What wonder, from a cloudy sky!

Now, this wasn't the first time I saw "Old Jove" with a scope, but given the circumstances and conditions at the time, I was truly amazed to be able to see what I saw, and it served as a reminder of why I so love astronomy, and why I sometimes stay up so late at night. I just wish I could do this more often. I'm still a little disappointed over missing the Perseid shower this year, but I feel that the "consolation prize" was a more than adequate alternative. :)