. . . the real thing is there for all to see and Gooseberry provides a special opportunity not only to see it – not to simply know it in your head – but to experience it in your bones.
So it was last night as 17 of us gathered there – the core group an astronomy class from the Westport Senior Center – but they were joined by three families, so we literally had folks from 4-to-70ish. And we all were there to watch the ocean come up and swallow the Sun – then 10 minutes later turn around and watch the Moon emerge dripping wet from the waters of Buzzards bay.
That to me is the real game – to suddenly understand in your gut that you’re on this huge ball of rock with all these other wonderful creatures and the rock is spinning – in the latitude of Gooseberry, about 800 miles an hour. And that spinning rock creates the illusion we still – despite 400 years of science to the contrary – call a “sunset” and a “moon rise.”
So it was that a few of us gathered just beyond the southwestern corner of the parking lot on one of those all too rare July evenings when the air is clear and crisp and there’s just a hint that autumn isn’t that far away. And we watched a beautiful red Sun as it vanished below the steadily rising horizon.
And we chatted idly. And we talked about the Moon which would be making an appearance exactly opposite the Sun, as it always does at the time of full Moon, in about 10 minutes. And when someone finally got a glimpse of it, we all turned 180 degrees and walked quickly to the east for a better look.
And the Moon didn’t disappoint. In many ways it was more awesome than the Sun. Though just 1/400th it’s size, it benefited from being 400 times closer – and like the Sun, got a red face thanks to our dusty atmosphere.
And then came the planet show.
The arcing link of our brother orbs. As they emerged in the gathering twilight, they formed a natural chain to connect the Sun and Moon events and to show as plain as it can be shown, the plane of our solar system – formally known as the “ecliptic.” This took time, of course. People chatted quietly and looked, vying to be the first to to catch a glimpse of brilliant Venus.
Later they found it more challenging to capture fainter Mars and Saturn, first in their binoculars, then with the naked eye. And in the small telescope I had packed along – a Unitron 60mm with about as many years on it as those using it – people saw that Venus was really half an orb now as it was getting between us and the Sun – and they saw that the rings of Saturn were like a knife edge, cutting across the planet – awesome, but a bit shy. And some even spotted Saturn’s huge Moon, Titan, nearby.
All this time the sky was getting darker, but fleeting Mercury was keeping his secrets and getting closer and closer to the western horizon. It’s always a contest with Mercury. It never appears very high in our sky and while it can be as bright as the brightest stars, we’re trying to see near the horizon where the atmosphere is the thickest and the light of the Sun, though now several degrees below the horizon, is still quite strong. And at a point where I had pretty much given up hope that we would see it, Paul pounced on it with his binoculars and pointed it out to the others – just a few degrees above the horizon against a red and yellow sky – and in the binoculars you could see Regulus, a first magnitude star, nearby.
All in all, I love these turnings of the Earth. They happen all the time, of course. But being at Gooseberry on such an evening to watch it with good company made it special. And to top it all off we were joined by a an enthusiastic young park officer with a creative attitude who really made our staying there to watch the whole sequence possible.