Jason Kendall
William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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The Rapturous Conjunction
December 15, 2008

OK, there are those out there who may be rolling their eyes, but hear it from the perspective of the older Puerto-Rican woman that I clearly stunned with my swooping arrival on December first.

I was at work in Midtown Manhattan, watching the clearing sky and noticing the darkening sky from the concrete canyons of 59th Street. I had to get uptown fast for the conjunction. It was an official AAA event, and I did not want people to arrive before I did. So, as the cab sped home, and got stuck in George Washington Bridge traffic, I nervously looked back over my shoulder out the rear view. The skies were completely clear of clouds, and I could already see the Moon and Venus in the still blue sky.

The car driver was quite chatty, having never come up this way in his cab driving career. Old and persnickety, he just wanted to get out of the traffic and back downtown for bigger fares. Anyway, when I get home, I raced upstairs, nearly bowled Donna over as I grabbed everything for the race to the Dyckman Fields. Again, I grabbed a car, a cool black town car by a local car service. He saw I was carrying a huge telescope, and just plain stopped without so much as the inquisitive honk of the horn. I jumped in, and we went the 10 blocks over to the fields. Now the sky was starting to be the deep blue of early evening, still no clouds, though the prediction had rain later in the evening.

But we went all the way to the end of Dyckman Street, by the old Tubby Hook cafe. As we approached, I saw a couple of people there, looking up at the sky, alternately clutching at their breasts, and covering their mouths, all the while pointing up. An older woman and a male companion were out on a walk to just be in the park for the evening. Then my car screeched (yes brakes applied hard and all....) to a halt right in front of them. I leaped out with my black jacket and telescope, and ran for the trunk. The woman was just a few breaths shy of panicking. As I quickly set up right in front of her and paid my cabbie, she started to cry and become more than a little concerned. She asked me if everything was all right, if we were safe, and if the planets in the sky "meant something." As I was showing the cabbie the beautiful configuration in the scope, (those Celestron Starhoppers were pretty good...) I also consoled her and assured her it was just that the planets were simply in the same line-of-sight due to where they were in their orbits, and that nothing was wrong. But that just seemed to allow her to express her true emotions about it. She said it was the most beautiful thing she had seen since she moved up from Puerto Rico. She was so overwhelmed with emotion, that she went to her knees and prayed and cried.

She was excited to see it through a telescope and was just as curious as she was passionate. The evening had taken on some great majesty and surprise for her. Just imagine from her perspective that you see something of great beauty and rarity, then someone arrives in a great hurry to show it to you close up right there. One could easily prescribe some greater power to getting us together that night. As she left, she took my card, and a small poster about comets. She must have went home and had a good sleep. I knew I did that night.

But for me it still wasn't over. We had an interesting evening before the clouds showed up. Andre buzzed in with his scope, and set up in the park. We had a few others, a couple of the area police showed up and also looked through the telescope. As a responsible member of my community, I am pleased that I can help in little ways with making the parks a desirable place to be at night.

In the park proper, we set up as the clouds started to threaten. But the conjunction was a grand sight. The moons of Jupiter clearly visible and the gibbous Venus and the ghostly earthshine on the Moon, made for quite a show. Two other showed up who knew quite a bit Elvin Garcia and his friend Isador. We hope to see more of them at other events.

Dave Teich, a fellow Explainer at the AMNH, showed up just as the clouds had forced us to take down our telescopes. We all looked up longingly at the sky, and wished, as the park lights came on their schedule, that New York City would have just one dark place to see the sky. Just one. But tonight was good, and we kept some truly great memories with us.

Here are pix from others around the world:

http://spaceweather.com/conjunctions/gallery_01dec08.htm



About Jason Kendall

I am currently adjunct faculty at William Paterson University teaching astronomy. I hold a Master of Science in Astronomy from New Mexico State University. I am also a board member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. Since 2008, I have led the Inwood Astronomy Project which brought over 200 events of stargazing and public astronomy outreach to upper Manhattan, including the historic Inwood Star Fest, where Inwood Hill Park lights were turned off as part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy event in IYA2009. This was the first time in New York City history when park lights were turned off for an astronomy event. I've also focused on park safety due to an uptick in sexual assaults in Washington Heights and Inwood during 2011. I've worked to make our parks safer by encouraging public use of parks at night through night-time events with Park Rangers. I have led numerous "starwatching parties" and astronomy events in New York City, New Mexico, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut and Texas. I am also proud to have been part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Program from 2009 to 2012. It all started way back in the fourth grade by the encouragement of two noted astronomers, Charles Schweighauser and Bart Bok. I saw Saturn through Charlie's telescope at then Sangamon State University on a clear Illinois night, and Bart encouraged me under those stars to study hard to come visit him at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I finally did make it down there about a decade after Bart passed away, and I found the favorite spots in Tucson, Arizona, where Bart and his wife Priscilla would spend when they were not gazing at the stars. Bart and his wife were pioneers in the study of the Milky Way, and their studies of the starforming regions called Bok Globules. It's even in my family. My great-grandfather was a Midwestern minister who used to preach his sermons out under the dark, cloudless nights. He always believed that getting out and experiencing the wonders of the natural world was a central part of being human. My family has always been inspired by his words: "We look up to look within." I hope that you'll join me under the stars or at one of my talks.

Come see what's up in the sky!

Jason Kendall

We look up to look within

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Astronomical Society of the Pacific Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

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