Jupiter at Opposition: 5C Student Take In Some Astronomical Sights

By Megan Petersen ’15, Copy Editor Claremont students and professors broke out the telescopes last week to take advantage of an opportune chance to look at the solar system’s largest planet. Jupiter was ogled through telescopes at the observatory on Pomona’s farm, hosted by the Pomona Astronomy Department, on Oct. 27, and at the Bernard Field Station, sponsored by the Keck Science Department, on Oct. 29.

Bidushi Bhattacharya, the director of sponsored research and research programs at Keck Science Department, explained that the Earth, Jupiter and the Sun were all aligned in late October. This time, called opposition, is when Jupiter is closest to Earth, and it was therefore is the best time for viewing it.

Jupiter was visible both nights, though to the naked eye it simply looked like a very bright star. With the aid of telescopes, Jupiter appeared to be about the size of the head of a thumbtack depending on the telescope. Four moons, famously discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610, were also visible. (We now know that Jupiter has more than 60 moons total.) The stripes on the planet itself were also apparent, but according to Bhattacharaya a large storm which had been around since the 1800s has dissipated, meaning that the famous “Great Red Spot” is no longer visible—disappointing and surprising news to many of the people at the viewing on Saturday night.

Many people at the viewing on Saturday came simply for the fun of it, and a number of people said it was the first time they’d ever looked through a telescope. Keck Science Physics Professor Stephan Naftilan, who spearheaded the project, noted the importance of sharing science technology with people beyond the science department. The joint science department of has, according to Naftilan, “been fortunate enough to obtain a great deal of high-tech scientific equipment over the past few years...[These instruments] allow us to better instruct students, especially science majors.” Naftilan added, “However, I think we should also invite all students and members of the college community to see our ‘toys’ and learn something about what they can do.”

Bhattacharya, whose doctoral dissertation was on the Aurora Borealis phenomenon on Jupiter, said that, though much is known about Jupiter, there’s always more to be learned about the gas giant. She said that one of Jupiter’s moons could have liquid water beneath an icy surface, meaning that scientists could someday find evidence of life there.

Bhattacharya emphasized the importance of astronomy in our everyday lives. The light from Jupiter when it is at opposition takes about 32 minutes to reach the back of a person’s eye, but many stars are so far away that their light has been traveling for millions of years to reach Earth, she said. “The distances are so vast, that it puts our lifetimes and little planet into context in the grand scale of the universe.”

On both nights of the Jupiter viewings, additional telescopes were trained on other heavenly bodies. Pomona’s one-meter telescope on Table Mountain sent images of the Andromeda Galaxy back to campus on Thursday night. On Saturday, viewers could see the moon and several star formations, including a pair of stars orbiting one another.

More than 60 people made the trek to the field station Saturday night for the Keck-sponsored viewing party, complete with cookies, candy and hot apple cider.