November 16, 2018

Coming Clean: Tales of Astronomical Wins and Woes

Beware of the “Pacman Moon…”

It’s true: I once slept through an eclipse.

Well, OK. I didn’t sleep all the way though. Hard to believe, there was a phase of my life where I didn’t eagerly await every occultation and conjunction. Like many skywatchers who return to amateur astronomy later in life, an early interest in high school waned during enlistment in the military.

That particular morning on February 9th, 1990 saw me working the graveyard shift on the flight-line at Kadena Air Base. Often, if the work was done and the aircraft were prepped for the next day’s missions, our shift supervisor looked the other way if we wanted to crawl in the back of the truck and catch some shuteye. Hey, it’s how a graveyard shift worker survives. The two rules were that we would promise to 1. bring a radio so we could be contacted and 2. were out of sight, lest the Base Commander or his friends decided to stop by unannounced.

“Cool, the Moon is Full” I noticed as I lay back on the truck bench and nodded off.. but I couldn’t say the same an hour later, as I awoke to a curious Pacman shaped Moon, lower in the sky. I realized then, that an eclipse was underway.

Even today, I occasionally still miss out on what we’re aiming for astronomically. Satellites fail to show. Meteor showers are a wash. Comets are faint and elusive. We’ve yet to successfully nab an asteroid occultation. We only caught a very brief view of the 2012 transit of Venus through thick clouds, along with arguably the worst image of the event. Usually, clouds—the nemesis of every astronomer—is often the culprit, though light pollution and the capricious whim of the Universe can occasionally play a roll.

We’re not even afraid to admit that we missed totality during the ‘big one’ last summer, as fast moving clouds stole the climax of the Great American Eclipse of August 21st, 2017. We have our final shot of the slim, dwindling crescent Sun time-stamped at less than 30 seconds from totality to prove it.

Such is the game we play, and you might be surprised to know that we don’t resort to hubris, shaking our fists at a spiteful cosmos. We knew that going to the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in the Smoky Mountains was a toss-up in terms of weather, though we graciously accepted the press invite and had a good time. Maybe the “Smoky” part of the name should’ve been our first clue…

Instead, we remember the tale of French astronomer Guillaume le Gentil, who braved the perils of 18th sea travel, the whims of weather, disease and war only to miss the transit of Venus… twice, once in 1761 and again in 1769. Talk about bad luck of astronomical proportions. Even today, eclipse chasers will make the arduous journey in pursuit of a few extra seconds of totality only to get rained on… when they would’ve had clear skies, if they had simply stayed put.

We also remember how lucky we’ve been over the years. We’ve seen aurorae from Alaska and Maine that would knock your socks off. We caught the Great 1998 Leonid meteor storm from the deserts of Kuwait, an event far rarer than a even a total solar eclipse. And we were fortunate enough to journey south of the equator on three continents (the southern hemisphere has all the good stuff!) and catch to great comets as they went circumpolar as seen from Alaska in the late 1990s: Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake.

Sure, it’s tough not to feel like we’re missing out sometimes… but rather than curse the cosmos, we like to fight the good fight, and get out under the stars on every clear night… just in case fate throws us a cosmic bone.