When I borrow the Mineral Point Public Library’s telescope it is a 60-degree day with nighttime lows in the cool, but manageable, 40s. When I actually use the telescope there is snow on the ground and it is 27 degrees. But more about that later.
First, the telescope. Last year the Iowa County Astronomers donated a telescope to Mineral Point’s library. The club’s John Wunderlin got the idea for the library loan program from the New Hampshire Astronomical Society. “As far as I know, we’re the first library in Wisconsin to do this,” John says.
Before you take the telescope home, the librarian will give you a short lesson on how to operate it. Then you strap it into your backseat just like you would a two-year-old and you are on your way to exploring the night sky. Library patrons must be 16 years old to borrow the telescope, and the loan is for one week.
Excited about the night ahead, I ask John about his stargazing experiences. John – a High Street Beat contributor on all things celestial – recalls some standout night sights. During the 2010 Mifflin Meteor he “happened to be outside in Madison … Even from Madison, the entire sky turned blue like daylight for a couple of seconds. I saw the meteor directly and it was like a welding torch. It actually hurt my eyes to look directly at it. It went across the sky and then broke up into dozens of pieces. Amazing!”
John also recalls dramatic evenings watching the northern lights. “On one occasion I saw ‘blobs’ of lights building in the sky. It looked like a green and blue glowing anthill being built in fast-forward motion. On another occasion, faint green waves were racing across the entire sky from my house here in town.” Read John’s post about how to sign up for the Iowa County Aurora Alert system.
Now it is my turn to watch. April 15 was the first in a series of four lunar eclipses over the next two years. NASA has a pretty cool video explaining lunar eclipses.
Here’s how it went at our house:
11 p.m.: I set up the telescope in my (warm) hallway, trained on the sky where I thought the moon would be disappearing at 1 a.m. and went to sleep. This is me stargazing, glamp-style.
1 a.m.: My husband wakes me, we spend five minutes trying to focus on the moon through a dirty window, screen and tree branches.
1:15 a.m.: We are now set up outside. After nights of rain, snow and limb-snapping wind, the still clear night is perfect for observing the sky. Except for the bitter cold, that is. The sky is spectacular. Just to the right of the moon is Mars. According to John, Mars is “currently at opposition, which means it’s as close to the moon as it’s going to get.” Like the northern lights, you don’t have to have a telescope to observe the lunar eclipse, but without it you can’t see the details of the moon’s gray, cratered surface.
1:30 a.m.: As we watch the moon darken, we decide to rouse the kids. One by one I wake them up, point out the window toward the half-moon, explain that just 30 minutes ago it was completely full, and ask them if they want to go outside and look at it through the telescope. One by one they rub their eyes, stare up at the sky for a few seconds, and decline the offer.
2 a.m.: The moon has all but vanished. The last viewable eclipse here was in 2011, and the next one will be in October. We try to enjoy it, but we are cold. In our frozen delirium we sing a few lines of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The neighbor’s dog barks. We decide it’s time to pack it in for the night.
6:45 a.m.: The kids ask “Why didn’t you wake us up for the eclipse?” We promise them we will borrow the telescope again, when spring has finally arrived for good.
– Contributed by Susan Webb