Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Alan Shepard Observatory

First Light

On the evening of 25 May Alan Shepard’s bridge team watched a lovely spectacle from the bridge; only a few minutes after sunset the members of the watch could see a brilliant point of light about ten degrees above the western horizon. It was quickly joined by a slightly dimmer spark above and to the left of the first, and finally a third gleamed in the hazy twilight, a dazzling triangle of "stars" shining between the clouds.

What we were seeing that evening was a conjunction of three planets; Venus, Jupiter and Mercury. The four of us on the bridge enjoyed the view for nearly a half hour before the three worlds vanished into the dust-laden air of the horizon. They were a brilliant sight through binoculars; I could just fit all three planets into the 5-degree field of view.

I’d been aboard since 14 May, but between the murky skies to be found in the Persian Gulf and the hectic pace of the turnover I was receiving prior to assuming my duties as Ops Chief I’d not had any real opportunity to star-gaze; in astronomical parlance this conjunction of three ‘wanderers’ is known as “first light” for me aboard this ship. I find it quite appropriate, in fact, to commence astronomical observations aboard a vessel named for a Mercury Program astronaut with a sighting of the elusive planet Mercury itself!

Under the Dome

Alan Shepard is not my first sea-going observatory; since 1981 I have (rather selfishly) used nearly thirty vessels as roving platforms for viewing the heavens, staying up long after my assigned duty hours to watch the skies. In fact, the vast majority of the entries in my Observing Journal over the past three-and-a-half decades recount the observation of meteor showers, solar and lunar eclipses, planets, stars and other “deep sky” objects from pitching, rolling decks. Such is the nature of my career @ sea; that I am rarely to be found at home and able to use my telescopes there for their intended purpose of exploring the visible universe.

I have to leave my heavier instruments behind when I come to the sea; my telescopes packed carefully away, eyepieces, tripods and the hundred peripheral parts and pieces boxed and placed into storage. I have learned that in the shipboard environment they would be useless; extra baggage to carry to faraway ports only to languish in a locker, delicate optics and mechanisms risked to no advantage. Long experience has taught me that the best astronomical instrument for this environment is a pair of trusty binoculars; when I travel to meet my newest vessel I carry mine with me; sturdy 10x50 instruments useful for spotting that dhow on the horizon as well as observing the motions of Jupiter’s satellites or studying our own moon’s features.

Starry Night

Yes, my observations are limited but, Ah, the trade-off! Far from land and the light-polluted coastal realm, I am routinely able to see the night sky as few land-dwellers can; with no intrusive city lights to mask the heavens they blaze forth in dizzying splendor, much as our distant ancestors must have seen them in the time before artificial lighting. From Shepard’s deck I can see the Milky Way arcing overhead as no-one in a town can see, the light of its multitudes making as if to drown-out the dimmer stars of the familiar constellations, blurring the lines of Swan, Eagle, Fox and Scorpion.

And between those stars, wonders! Nebulae bright or dark against the background glow of a hundred-billion stellar candles, open clusters with their often oddly regular patterns of stars like strings of pearls, globular clusters blurry and spherical, and the galaxies, distant and often hard to spot, each a stellar “city” in its own right, home to its own multitude. They tease the eye, one moment invisible, the next an obvious spot of cosmic “fuzz”, and then vanishing again.

And still more to see; through my binoculars the classical planets lie within reach. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and his moons, Saturn and the far-away ice-worlds of Uranus and Neptune. The brighter asteroids I regularly watch as they silently play amongst their larger cousins, and the comets, slowly following gravity’s summons diving down into the Sun’s warmth before rushing to escape again, dashing back to the outer Solar System as if Sol’s heat had scorched their tail-feathers! They are the leftovers of creation; the flotsam and jetsam of the sky.

The Lights Go Down

This is my world of night, the time and place where I feel most entirely at peace. Deck rolling beneath my feet, wind whistling in the rigging, dolphins splashing and playing in the phosphorescence of the wake. And the sky above, slowly shifting from east to west as the night wears on, Gemini and Auriga setting on the port bow even as Hercules and Lyra rise from the haze on the starboard quarter. Arcturus overhead and Spica due south, paired with Saturn; all old friends to be greeted and admired. A flash of light to the north; a bright meteor has neatly bisected the “scoop” of the Little Dipper, leaving a fading trail of green mist.

Welcome to the Alan Shepard Observatory. I wonder what the night holds for us.

Tom Epps
Operations Chief
USNS Alan Shepard
The Persian Gulf

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