It was my first visit. Bradley is the observatory on the campus of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA -- one of the fomerly separate towns now enveloped by Atlanta. The telescope is a 30 inch Cassegrain.
The night began with a lecture by the Chris De Pree, Director, Bradley Observatory Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy -- "Sixty Years of Amateur Astronomy". I expected a 75 year old man sharing his own experiences, but instead De Pree is much younger than 60. The "60 years" in the lecture was the life span of the Atlanta Astronomy Club. He did a great job, and made a lot of interesting points.
He ended his lecture with a definition of amateur astronomy, pointing out that "amateur" comes from the Latin word, "amator" - meaning lover.
"Lover of stars."
I like that.
Well, it is interesting, but not amazing.
We went into the small planetarium and Amy Lovell, Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy, conducted a program for us. She did an awesome job, and she had a great group of young people asking lots of questions.
As good as Amy did in the planetarium, that was not the amazing thing I saw tonight.
When the planetarium program was over, we climbed the dark stairway to the observatory. It was completely cloudy when I arrived Agnes Scott, but now it was a very clear sky.
We looked first at Alberio, a double star that has a dramatic difference in color. You can see this difference in this photo from my files, which I snapped in August 2004:
As interesting as this double star is, it is not what I found to be so amazing tonight.
We then looked at Comet Holmes. For this we did not look through the main telescope, but through the smaller 6 inch refractor mounted on the side of the larger 30 inch telescope. After observing this for several nights, I was stunned at how dim the comet was. I could barely see the nucleus, and only with great effort with averted vision. The smaller, inner coma, and the larger halo that I've seen previous were not present - it was just one squashed halo.
When I got home, I looked through my Questar so I could compare "apples to apples" in terms of using the same telescope I've used for the past several nights. The view was the same. Comet Holmes is disappearing.
The remote observatory in the Canary Islands was shut down for clouds by the time I got home, but earlier this evening it was up and running. Olaf from Belgium shot these images using both the higher powered 14 inch SCT and the wide field of the Televue 85 APO refractor:
But the fading of the comet is not amazing - it is expected.
The most amazing thing I saw tonight came while I waited in line in the observatory.
The dome was open and you could see the light-polluted skies of Atlanta through the slot. There were red lights throughout the small, circular room. In the center of this room is an old telescope that once belonged to an amatuer astronomer (lover of stars), which was then sold to Agnes Scott.
The first person to look through the telescope was a child. He climbed this ladder, which from his perspective must have been hugh. Each step was an effort for his tiny legs. When he looked through the telescope he was silent.
"Can you see anything," someone asked.
The child said nothing.
"Can you see the stars," someone asked.
The child said nothing.
An adult climbed next to the child and said, "Let me see if I need to reset the telescope so you can see it."
"That's OK," he said, without moving his eye from the eyepiece.
"What do you see?"
"I see a blue star and a white star," the child said, still not stirring from the telescope.
I had the feeling that what the child really wanted to say was, "Leave me alone. It's taken 385 years for this light to arrive to Earth, and I need to savor this moment."
That was what I found amazing.
Or perhaps the word is "moving."
I was witnessing a child becoming an amateur astronomer - amator - lover of astronomy.