by Gene Allen
Well, I did try to capture it on June 18. It was a fulfilling view: all the visible planets spread – in order – across more than half of the span of the brightening dawn. I walked away from home enough to see brilliant Venus low above the other houses. No way could I get clear of enough houses and trees to even think of glimpsing Mercury.
I had just woken on my own at 0417 and bolted up, realizing what might be visible if those persistent New Jersey clouds were not denying me yet another astronomical event. No, I would have had to set an alarm and driven somewhere to peer close enough to Mother Earth herself to tease Mercury from the impending daylight. It was too late for that.
Up quite a bit from Venus, hung dim ruddy Mars. Mostly to the right giant Jupiter glowed unmistakably, nearly as bright as Venus. Still more to the right, just above an expiring Last Quarter Moon, floated Saturn. I breathed in the expanse of it, inhaling the photons reaching me from all those distant worlds, cherishing them.
Then I tried. Set up the Nikon D750 on the Gitzo tripod. Tried the SharpStar2 focusing screen on the 20mm f/1.8 on Jupiter. Nothing. Couldn’t tell a thing. “Regular” Bhatinov masks are known to be unable to work on wide angle lenses, but the SharpStar claims to. I’ll research it more, try to see if it’s just that ever-threatening curse of “operator error” or I wasted money on the screen and a Lee 100mm filter holder. I know that the infinity focus stop on this lens is not at infinity, because that novice presumption trashed a couple dozen Milky Way photos from Monument Valley. Jupiter didn’t show big enough so I settled for making the Moon as small as I could. Then I reframed to get Venus in the lower left corner and Jupiter ended up near the upper right. Saturn and the Moon might have fit in the field of my 12-24mm zoom, but that is a DX lens, only f/4, and I hadn’t prepared to try that or my 10mm fisheye. Besides, the Moon was so much brighter it would have blown out that part of the sky. I began taking wide open aperture photos at all sorts of exposures.
The results were most disappointing, not worth keeping. One could make out only Venus and Jupiter. It was a bust.
What you could have seen at 0430 on June 18, and what others have probably captured, is something like this:
Uranus, Neptune and Pluto joined the string, invisibly, making it indeed a full house. They were in sequence with each other, but displaced conveniently sunward, as if to make them all fit into the same sky. It was quite a show, and I was glad to have experienced it, even though I failed to capture it.
But hey, I got another chance! The Public Night at the observatory on June 24 was a good one, with decent skies and plenty of folks enjoying the views afforded by the eyepieces and the camera. We finally wound things down and closed up at midnight. A bunch of Keyholders and faithful had talked about gathering at the soccer fields at 0330 to experience the planetary alignment.
I had put the camera and tripod into the SQ5, along with the 10mm fisheye this time, just in case. That meant I could choose between making an hour round trip home for something like two hours in bed, or napping as much as I could in the car. The wild card, as always, is the cloud cover. From home, I could check and maybe save the return trip. Hanging out at the soccer fields, the whole night was pretty much trashed either way.
All nighters used to be what I did for a living, so it shouldn’t be all that big of a deal. Of course, the last time I captained a triple seven to Heathrow overnight was a month short of fourteen years ago. Whatever. I’d save the gas. I maybe slept an hour, in part because the fully reclined seat still needed a pillow, and that I had not anticipated.
The clouds did not encroach, and eleven hearty souls gathered to witness the alignment. It was somewhat more complete this time, because the Moon was less illuminated and had moved to properly represent Earth in the line up. There were several telescopes that nicely brought the planets to life, and my Fujinon 14×40 did a passable job revealing the four Galilean moons. Saturn was not so hot in them, looking just oval.
I set the camera on the tripod, this time with the 10mm. Its field got all the visible ones, and I shot a bunch of exposures a bunch of times. Several came out fairly respectably, capturing all the visible planets, but I have no idea how well it will show in the newsletter.
In case it shows poorly, or to provide labels for the photograph, here is the same view as shown by Sky Safari.
We hung around to try to catch Mercury, and we did! It rose above a low band of clouds, found first by a go-to scope but afterwards by even my binocs. It was great fun to experience the entire string of planets, and it was not all that painful!