Friday, October 2, 2009

Up All Night

After I became habituated to GraveYard Shift, and once I had enough hours in my Cat to relax a little, I began to wonder what all the stars overhead were all about. I've been a "Space Nut" since NASA began blasting American Astronauts into Space. Astronomy was another science that I paid little attention to until I was twenty-one years old, and Comet Kohoutek promised to light up the night sky.

In the Bay Area of the early 70's, a whole Kohoutek Community blossomed, pending the coming of the Amazing Comet. Art Shows were staged, and art galleries were chock-full of comet-themed works. My friends and I attended several concerts performed by an ambient music artist (who's name isn't important) on a home-made instrument named "The Cosmic Beam"

The Cosmic Beam was 10 or 12 feet across and had piano strings strung from end to end, the artist had it draped in Persian Rugs and silk scarves, beads and the like. Various percussion pieces were integrated into the whole "Meta Instrument". We heard it at a few different venues, but I only remember the "Hippy Catholic Church" on the Cal-Berkeley Campus. Somehow, the organic architecture of the Church coupled with the otherworldly sounds of The Cosmic Beam etched an indelible memory in my mind, that's always aligned with Comets in my mind's database.

Hippies loved Kohoutek, so did "Hippy-Come-Lately" kids like me. There was something perceived as Spiritual by the Youth of the day. There was a palpable electricity in the air, leading up to Kohoutek's Big Show. Journey recorded a song on their debut album named "Kohoutek", the comet inspired the cover art of Weather Report's "Mysterious Traveler" album, and I'm sure many others.

Kohoutek was a complete fizzle, a no-show in fact. It was just an all around failure...Hippy Spirits were dashed, and along with them, any interest I'd had in astronomy went dormant.

Flash forward twenty-three years and another Mysterious Traveler awakened my latent astro-interests, Comet Hyakutake.

As it happened, Hayakutake was the Icing on the Cake for me. One of my crew had a deadbeat room-mate who skipped town owing their portion of the monthly bills. Said roomie left some dirty laundry, and an abandoned, abused telescope. My guy offered it to me, and I took it home.

I think I got the little 'scope the winter after Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted Jupiter in 1993. It's a Celestron C-90, an old orange one, that had a broken finder scope mount, and it was missing the diagonal and eye piece. I made a roadtrip off the mountain to visit Lumicon in Livermore to pick up a diagonal prism, and a 26mm Plossl eye piece. The next week, I took my telescope with me on a visit to ChicoDupre's place and I saw Jupiter's Galilean Moons for the first time. These are the moons that Galileo first observed in 1610. Who knew I'd get so much joy from seeing those moons! Even today I get a thrill when I see them, in fact my ardor for them is such that whenever I see Jupiter, my Mind's Eye thinks it sees them unaided by optics at all!

The first comet to visit after I had the telescope online was Comet Hale-Bopp, a beautiful twin-tailed visitor that had comet freaks all abuzz before it was forever tied to the Heaven's Gate Cult Suicide.

Art Bell's radio shows around Hale-Bopp time were really entertaining...lots of Tinfoil Hatters calling in with predictions of Extraterrestrial Mother Ships hitch hiking behind the comet, and other fantastic beliefs enlivened the nights leading up to the tragedy in SoCal and the comet's closest approach. Hale-Bopp had two tails, one white, one bluish...a stunner.

Hyakutake made it's entrance the following winter. It made the kind of appearance that we'd hoped Kohautek would make. On the night of it's closest approach, I was working on the Mountain, and the skies were crystal clear.

I planned my night so I'd have the fullest view of the sky around lunch time. As it worked out, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open about then, so I pulled up to my spot, and doused all the lights, reclined the seat and called one of the crew for a call back in 15 minutes. The Cat-Nap did the trick, and I woke up just before the radio call-back. I was in a Bombardier 275, and I had the Driver's Window open. Awakening with my night vision fully in force, I focused on Hyakutake thru the open window. I had to step outside to see the whole tail! It was the "Mysterious Traveler" Album Cover come to life, minus the dawn colors in the sky! What a sight...I was warmed by Pure Joy at the sight...I'll never forget it.

Saturday night is the Harvest Moon, Jupiter is up now too. Jupiter's Big Red Spot will be in full view with a decent telescope, dark skies and "good seeing" Good seeing is a stable atmosphere over the observing site.

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