Mr. Wake

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Location: Kamakura, Kanagawa, Japan

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Final Frontier

This stuff happened a while back, but I've been busy.

Took the ol' telescope for a spin. It came with a special telescopey digital camera that I had never used. I figured out how to connect scope, camera and laptop all together and had the whole arrangement spread out over the picnic table in the front yard. Kamakura is a city and there are lights. But Jupiter was up, and Jupiter is really really big. It's one of the biggest things around. And for this reason you can see it from a really really long way away even when there are street lights. Sorry for the all the explanations, but my mom reads this.

But before I hit the Jupe (that's what real astronomers say, "hit the Jupe") I went for a little lunar action ("lunar action" is all mine). Now, the moon is so much smaller than Jupiter it's not even funny, but it is much much closer. Because of this, it is even easier to see than Jupiter. However, the computer/scopecam combo blows for taking pictures of the moon (Note: I'm sure it's actually very good at this, but it blew when I tried it). So I took the rig apart and tried some afocal photography. This is a very fancy way of saying "holding a camera up to the eyepiece." In poking around the internet I found that people actually do stupid stuff like this, and they actually get decent results. Here's what I got with the scope and a regular digital camera.

Not bad if I do say so. Go ahead, click on it.

For Jupiter I got a little more technical than holding the camera up to the eyepiece. I should hope so, right? So I put the scopecam back on the scope, and plugged it into the laptop. The explanation that follows is less sarcastic and more interesting than the previous stuff. The scope has a computer in it and does not need any help from a dope like me on finding Jupiter. So it has a fix on Jupe, and through the scope software I could see Jupiter on my laptop. If you see Jupiter through the scope with your own eye it looks like a white disk with two faint grey lines (if you're lucky). The resolution on the scopecam is not so hot, so on the laptop it just looks like a white circle with nothing. Also, the atmosphere shimmers a bit, so the image goes in and out of focus. In order to get a nice, detailed picture here's what the scopecam does. It takes a bunch of pictures and stacks them on top of each other to make a single image. The stuff that is different in each picture gets filtered out, while the stuff that is the same (i.e. the planet) is highlighted. The trouble with this approach is that the image of Jupiter keeps jumping around. If the scope were still, Jupiter would gradually drift out of view due to the rotation of the Earth. The scope has motors so that it can compensate for this, but it's a little jerky (due to my lameness). So when you stack up a bunch of images you end up with a blurred piece of crap. It took me hours of experimentation, believing all my equipment was broken, and finally reading the first two pages of the manual to solve this problem. The software allows you to lock onto an object. If the image jumps around, the lock stays with the brightest object. So first I had to get a lock on Jupiter. Now, I had been waiting more that 20 years to "get a lock" on anything and the first thing I lock on to is a planet. The biggest planet around! Don't worry, I do not yet posses the technology to destroy Jupiter once locking on to it.

So I hit the Jupe twice. Slap slap. Once on the way in, once on the way out. I stacked fifty images to produce each of these. One of the post-stacked images has a exposure such that you can see some surface detail, but you can't see the moons. In the other you can see the moons, but no surface data. I combined them in Photoshop and then flipped it since everything you see in the telescope is a mirror image. Then to make sure I was on the right track I cracked open Starry Night, a program that can show how the planets and moons look on certain days. I entered the date of the photos and compared. See for yourself:


(sorry about the nerdy stuff in the corner. Astronomers do that).

Starry Night:

I don't know what I was expecting. What would I have done if they had been different? But the fact that they are the same allows us to do some identification. Those two little moons from left to right are Europa and Ganymede. You probably know that Europa has a surface of ice with possible liquid water beneath, but maybe you did not know that Ganymede does, too. Europa is about the same size as The Moon (The Moon), and Ganymede is about one and a half times as big. In fact, Ganymede is the biggest moon in the solar system. It is also bigger than two a planets, Mercury and Pluto. Europa has the distinction of being the "smoothest object in the solar system." Yeah, I thought Fabio was pretty smooth, too.

But this is the coolest part. If you have read this far you will be rewarded. Click on the Starry Night picture. See that little black dot on the upper left side of Jupiter. It looks like a flaw in the image. Now click on the picture I took. The black dot is in that one, too. That, my friends, is the shadow of Io. You are looking at the interaction of four heavenly bodies: the light from the sun, the moon Io, the surface of Jupiter, and then to Earth in the garden in Kamakura.

Update: My scope got a busted motor and I had to take it in to be fixed. The sky has been cloudy since I got it back, and Jupiter is gone, maybe for good.