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Astronomy's New Stars

Thanks to new technology, backyard stargazers have traveled light-years of late to join professionals in mapping the heavens

“Everyone who had waited in line got to see the Andromeda galaxy through the telescope, and after they left he said, ‘Show me what you know.’ He was just a graduate student, and he didn’t really know the sky. I showed him around, acquainted him with Messier galaxies and all sorts of things. We stayed up till dawn. The next morning he took me to the business office and they gave me a key, saying that if I helped them out with open houses, in return I could use the scope any time I wanted. So now I was a 14-year-old kid with a key to the Harvard College Observatory!”

For years thereafter the observatory was O’Meara’s second home. After school he would work afternoons in a Cambridge pharmacy, then spend his nights at the telescope, patiently making drawings of comets and planets. “Why draw at the telescope? Because what you get on film and CCD does not capture the essence of what you see with the eye,” he told me. “Everyone looks at the world in a different way, and I’m trying to capture what I see, and encourage others to look, to learn, to grow and understand, to build an affinity with the sky.

“Anyone who wants to be a truly great observer should start with the planets, because that is where you learn patience. It’s amazing what you can learn to see, given enough time. That’s the most important and critical factor in observing— time, time, time—though you never see it in an equation.”

In the mid-1970s, O’Meara studied the rings of Saturn at the behest of Fred Franklin, a Harvard planetary scientist. He began seeing radial, spokelike features on one of the rings. He included the spokes in the drawings that he would slip under Franklin’s office door in the morning. Franklin referred O’Meara to Arthur Alexander’s The Planet Saturn. There O’Meara learned that the 19th-century observer Eugene Antoniadi had seen similar radial features in another ring.

But the consensus among astronomers was that they must be an illusion, because the differential rotation rate of the rings—they consist of billions of particles of ice and stone, each a tiny satellite, and the inner ones orbit faster than the outer ones—would smear out any such features. O’Meara studied the spokes for four more years, determining that they rotated with a period of ten hours—which is the rotation period of the planet, but not of the rings. “I did not find one person, honestly, who ever supported me in this venture,” O’Meara recalled.

Then, in 1979, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, approaching Saturn, took images that showed the spokes. “It was an overpowering emotion, to have that vindication at last,” O’Meara said.

I asked Steve about his determination of the rotation period of Uranus. This had long been unknown, since Uranus is remote—it never gets closer than 1.6 billion miles from Earth—and shrouded in almost featureless clouds. He told me that Brad Smith, the astronomer who headed the Voyager imaging team, “called me one day and said, ‘OK, Mr. Visual Guy, Voyager is going to be at Uranus in a few years, and I’m trying to first obtain the rotation period for Uranus. Do you think you can do it visually?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll try.’” O’Meara first read up on the history of Uranus observations and then inspected the planet repeatedly, starting in June 1980. He saw nothing useful until one night in 1981, when two fantastically bright clouds appeared. “I followed them as they did a sort of dance over time, and from these observations, with some help, I determined where the pole was, modeled the planet, and got a rotation period for each cloud, averaging around 16.4 hours.” This number was disturbingly discordant. Brad Smith, observing with a large telescope at Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile, was getting a rotation period of 24 hours, and a group of professional astronomers at the University of Texas, using CCD imaging, were also getting 24 hours.

To test O’Meara’s vision, Harvard astronomers mounted drawings on a building across campus and asked him to study them through the nine-inch telescope he had used as a teenager. Although others could see little, O’Meara accurately reproduced the drawings. Impressed, the astronomers vouched for his Uranus work, and his results were published by the International Astronomical Union, a professional group. When Voyager reached Uranus, it confirmed that the planet’s rotation period, at the latitude of the clouds O’Meara had seen, was within one-tenth of an hour of his value.

We finished our coffee and made ready to go back out into the darkness. “I’ve always been strictly a visual observer, researching the sky with an eye to finding something new there,” O’Meara said.

“We’re all star people, in the sense that we’re all created from star stuff, so it’s in our genes, so to speak, that we’re curious about the stars. They represent an ultimate power, something we cannot physically grasp. When people ask, ‘Why, God?’ they don’t look down at the ground. They look up at the sky.”

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