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Saturn, the ISS, and Something in the Dark

Posted by Kelly on June 21st, 2013

A UFO photo from the 80s or a poor shot of Saturn? You decide.

A UFO photo from the 80s or a poor shot of Saturn? You decide.

My 12-year-old son and I were the only ones home tonight, so we decided to observe Saturn through my 8-inch telescope. We found it easily enough even though the gibbous moon was encroaching on the view a bit. It got worse as the hour grew on because the sky became hazy and the light suffused throughout the region of the moon like a dusty shroud.

We could easily see Saturn’s largest moon Titan to the right of the planet (in our inverted telescopic view). We watched the rings and waited for moments of great seeing until the planet became crisper. I find it easier to see the planet when it is dead center in the eyepiece rather than after it has floated off to one side, but that means a lot of readjusting. I was also able to snag the planet for just a second through my iPhone camera while holding it up to the eyepiece and got off a crummy picture that looks a lot like the reported UFO sightings of the 80s.

We looked closely for any shadows around Saturn, either of the ring on the planet or of the planet on the ring, and after a while we could clearly see the dark patch on the lower right of the ring (again—inverted because of the telescope) of the planet’s shadow on the rings. This helps tremendously to make the object appear more three-dimensional, as we now knew that the lower ring ran behind the planet while the upper ring ran in front of it. I thought for a moment I could see a dark band or division in the ring but then the seeing was gone.

We also took some time to snag the moon, even though that blinded our night vision for a while. As my son was taking his turn I noticed a very bright, unblinking light smoothly sailing in from the west toward Arcturus. I told my son that I bet it was the International Space Station. He said he thought it was a plane. I told him that it wasn’t blinking or making any noise. I was sure that we had stumbled upon a pass of the ISS, so I made him go in and check the computer at Heavens-Above.com, and sure enough I was right.

We were getting ready to move our equipment in when we dropped one of the eyepiece caps and needed to get a flashlight to look for it in the bushes. As we started using the flashlight I thought I heard something. I stopped what I was doing to listen. I can best describe it as a “huffing” sound, or like a panting dog that would have been in the darkness just a few yards away from us, down a little incline and behind some plants. I noticed that my son was also frozen where he sat. I didn’t want to describe the sound to him for fear of scaring him, so I just said, “Do you hear that sound? What is it?” The telescope was between him and the sound so he answered, “The telescope?” But of course my telescope does not have a motor drive and makes no noise. I shone my flashlight around in the direction of the sound a bit to try to scare off whatever might be huffing at us (I was worried about both an animal that would attack and an animal that would spray, aka, a skunk) and then I grabbed the big telescope by the handle and ordered him to get the door for me. I got the telescope through the door and he shut and locked it behind us. Wherever that missing cap is, it will wait till the morning.

One person has commented

Zain said,

I have been trying my best to catch the ISS in the sky with all sorts of apps and websites and I haven’t been able to observe it once. It is 10 degrees above the horizon so I need a flat area where I can see everything. I really love to watch Saturn through a telescope. It is by far one of my favorite objects in the sky. I bought a Gallieoscope so that I could have more hands on with putting a refractor telescope together. I can only imagine how nice it is to look through your 8″.


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