Hot Tub Astronomy: Halley’s Comet Aug10


Related Posts

Share This

Hot Tub Astronomy: Halley’s Comet

Pulling the Plug and Hitting the Road in Search of Halley’s Comet

The year was 1986. We watched the last of the hot water gurgle out of the Hot Tub and spill out under the surprised rose bushes. We snapped on the cover then threw our star charts and magazines into the camper with our warm clothes, and about a weeks supply of camping stuff and a couple days worth of food and drinks. Everything else we’d buy as needed.

We would head for the mountains and hopefully open skies away from city lights.

This was brought on by a business trip we had recently experienced in Palm Springs. Out on the high California desert we expected to find dark, open skies that would give us a good view of the expected Persied meteor shower. That night we bundled up warm and went outside. Not another soul was in sight. Obviously the rest of the guests hadn’t heard about it. The air was dry and sharply cold. Straight above we could see stars were up there, but only straight up. The rest of the sky was obliterated by the lights around the pool, tennis courts, parking lot and bright neons blinking yellow red and blue atop the Hotel. So much for the dark desert sky!

This time we would go where there were no hotels, tennis courts or lights.

We pulled the plug on the comforts of home and headed up to the mountains. We didn’t expect too much competition for an R.V. site as it was October.

Our main goal was to find Halley’s Comet.

At our first camp in many years we found a lovely spot at the edge of the giant redwood trees, a short stroll to an open field.
We crept quietly out in the middle of the night. Our feet crunched on the soft pine needles as we made our way into the open. I wondered if other campers turned over in their sleep and thought they heard bears walking by. I wondered if bears really did walk by. Then suddenly in the open I was so overwhelmed by the stars that I forgot about the bears and just stood looking up. There were so many stars I was lost! Together we scoped out our old hot tub friends, Orion, Tarus, Pleiades, and worked our way out from there. It was marvelous, but no Halley.

Each day we drove and each night we camped and looked. No Halley!

Finally we found Halley! In San Francisco! In the Golden Gate Park Planitarium at 9:o’clock in the morning!

We arrived just in time to march in with a large group of third graders being herded in two by two, led and followed by two teachers.

“I’m sorry,” We were told at the door “The lectures are for schools by reservation only. This lesson is aimed at the seven and eight year olds.”

We asked if we could please sit in. Hopefully the third graders were not too far ahead of us..starwise. We were asked to wait until the classes were seated and then they would see. “But the lecture is for the very young,” they warned.

Soon we were ushered to a pair of seats in the rear.

I felt rather large in the back row behind the tiny wide-eyed eight year olds.

The lecturer, taking the age of the audience into concideration went carefully and slowly into the night.

A large dome above us became pink with sunset and after pointing out North, South, East, and West, she drew our attention to the buildings that were silhouetted around the rim just below the dome:all landmarks of San Francisco. With a magic light wand that placed an arrow on the dome, she pointed out the Golden Gate Bridge, then where Jupiter could be seen as a bright dot, then a full color NASA photo of the real thing. One by one she described Jupiter’s moons. Slowly the sky grew darker and stars appeared. She paused and looked at the children.

“Students,” She said, “We have a problem. We are still in the city and lights are making it difficult to see the stars. Let’s all work together and see if we can turn the city lights out.” Take hold of the right arm of your seat and squeeze hard, maybe we can turn the city lights out together.” The lights behind the black silhouettes of buildings and bridges etc. dimmed to off and it became amazingly dark. A darkness that in many circumstances would have set some of the children to crying for their mothers. Instead, sitting in the darkness of their own making, the room was filled with oohs and ahhs as the children took in the breathless beauty of a very realistic sky, just as we had seen in the mountains, but without the pine scented breeze.
Slowly the sky turned, or as our lecturer skillfully pointed out, WE turned, and were treated to sky lore with brilliant pictures occasionally imposed atop the stars.

At Halley’s Comet time we were shown some pictures from the past. Then told exactly where we could see it tonight. Just what we wanted to know.

The dawn turned the east pink all too soon. The children buzzed with excitment of all they had seen. Not single child had fallen asleep. Some walked to the center of the room for a closer look at the machine that had created the sky for them. It was wonderful. I would gladly share my sky with the third graders again. We thanked the young woman who had conducted us on the tour with such skill. Soon we would find Halley for ourselves.

That night it was cloudy.

We camped our way North. In Oregon we lost our Astronomy Magazine to a couple who read it one day and even got up at night to look at stars with us. When it was time to leave we didn’t have the heart to ask for it back. We bought another in Reno.
The Grand Canyon beckoned us, but they were booked up. We drove up anyway just for a look. However the news was good and bad. They had so much dense fog hiding the famous canyon, that some vacationers had left and we a got a charming little log cottage right on the edge of the canyon, which the young man showing us the way, said was really and truly there, and tomorrow if it clears we’ll be very happy with it. Whereas it was semi-clear on top where we stood, we looked down at such dense clouds it seemed as if we could walk on them.

The young man was right! We woke up to a breathtaking view of the entire Grand Canyon. We sat on the edge of the world with our coffee and just watched the colors change as the sun moved across the rocky cliffs. Later we took the fabulous helicopter tour of the Canyon.

That night we stood on the edge of Earth and actually found Halley’s Comet. Really! It was just a white smudge but we had a feeling of accomplishment.

Now that Bob knew where it was and what it actually looked like, he knew he could continue to track it from home. So home we went to enjoy Halley with our family.