Hey this is me last week observing Saturn’s rings via a telescope atop the planetarium at the University of Wyoming, during Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop. I’ve always loved that Saturn simply looks like the quintessential planet, what with those pretty rings. Plus, the International Space Station chose that time to transit right over our heads. For those who have not seen the ISS, it moves rather fast, and looks bigger than an airplane. It can be distinguished by the fact that it has a curving path and it eventually fades from view. And for the first time, I peered through a pair of night vision goggles at what I was told were satellites. How wonderful it was! But I think my favorite experience that night may have been looking at Jupiter’s moons as they were aligned much like in one of Galileo’s drawings of his own observations.
The next day, I was reminded that it is at least as important–no make that more important–that Galileo not only had the forethought and patience to make systematic observations, but also to record those observations together with dates and times. That’s what made him a scientist and enabled him to come up with his great hypothesis.
The importance of writing down those observations was brought home to me when we did a lab in which we examined data collected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft in a search for extra-solar planets. The first image I looked at had not one, but three planets! I was so excited by what I had seen that I immediately zipped on to the next image, having neglected to record how many planets I’d seen, or what star they were orbiting, or its location. Oops. I had to go back and make notes of my observations.
One really neat thing about going planet hunting is that you can do it too, even if you are not a trained astronomer with access to the equipment that you’d find at a university astronomy department. You will be helping scientists to evaluate which objects may be planets. You can easily and quickly learn to become a planet hunter from the comfort of your very own home computer via a nifty web site called Planet Hunters, which is part of Zooniverse.
Before you set out, though, be warned that it can easily absorb hours at a time. Also, it helps to work on a big, clean screen in a dark room. The idea is that we can all help in the efforts to identify new planets.
Wow, my head is spinning and that was just a sample of the neat stuff I got out of a week at astronomy camp for SF writers.