Jupiter in the Eyepiece

A group of students, parents with kids, and astronomy enthusiasts gathered Friday, Sept. 19, at Santa Monica College to observe Jupiter at its primetime season. Wendy Hermosillo, SMC student and a long-time fan of astronomy, who attended Friday night's event, said that she's very glad about "an opportunity to look at Jupiter with a gifted educator" and to have an access to an actual planetarium. "This is my backyard, my school," Hermosillo said. "We are really fortunate to have it."

"Jupiter really is an 800 pound gorilla of the planets," said Jim Mahon, telescope operator at Griffith Observatory and contract lecturer at the SMC Planetarium in Drescher Hall. After being laid off from the aerospace industry, he started a business educating the public about astronomy. He does programs with K-12 students during the week, and hosts various events at the planetarium on Fridays.

This week the star of the show was not a star, but the biggest planet of the solar system. Jupiter is sometimes called the failed star, but Mahon says it is "an exaggeration." The planet has never reached critical mass needed to start the fusion process, like that of our sun.

Nevertheless, the pressure inside the giant's atmosphere could be great enough to have created a core of metallic hydrogen, a substance unimaginable on Earth, at the planet's center. So far, the nature of the core is speculative; none of the measurements so far were able to penetrate all the way through the gases of the Jovian atmosphere.

At the preliminary lecture at the Planetarium, Mohan recounted his favorite theory on Jupiter's core, one by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke, a famous science fiction writer and inventor, who died earlier this year, proposed that at the center of Jupiter lays a diamond the size of the Earth, "forever out of reach of De Beers."
Another one of Jupiter's puzzles that has captivated scientists is its unusual weather patterns, seen at the top of the planet's atmosphere as red and white bands, and most famously the giant red spots. As opposed to big storms on Earth, the spots of Jupiter are actually high pressure systems. This year Jupiter had acquired a new red spot, its third.

With a naked eye Jupiter looked like a bright star above the SMC gymnasium. Telescopes were set up outside. In the eyepiece however, it was the size of a dime, with light and dark bands clearly visible. Mahon explained that to an untrained eye all objects look black and white through the telescope, but after a while faint colors start to appear. Flanking Jupiter were some of its major moons, Ganymede, Io, Europa and Callisto, which looked like bright stars through the telescope. "Jupiter's moon count is getting out of hand," Mahon said. Thanks to the data still being processed from the Galileo mission, the count is "about 63," and there is still information to be processed. Europa is currently one of most interesting objects in the solar system, possibly being "the best chance for life." The surface of the satellite is covered with ice sheets, while its center, due to the constant brutal force of Jupiter's gravitational pull, remains active, creating conditions that could perhaps sustain life.

Spectators that cared to stay a little longer were able to enjoy some other astronomical treats: a look at Albireo, a beautiful yellow and blue binary star system in constellation Cygnus, and a ring nebula in constellation Lyra. The latter, one of the best known planetary nebulae, appeared as a faint grey donut in the telescope. Two of the people that stayed until the end were Jed Laderman and Robert Lozam of Santa Monica Amateur Astronomy Club. Their club, which meets every second Friday of the month, is open to people of "all walks of life," regardless of any previous knowledge of astronomy (for more information go to http://smaac.info).

It is important to keep in mind that some of the most important objects in the solar system, such as the Shoemaker-Levy comet, were discovered by amateur astronomers; amateurs are the key to discovering objects like comets and asteroids that may be a threat to our planet.

For those yearning to get away from the city lights and participate in more in-depth observation, Mahon will be assisting at a free public star party in the Vasquez Rocks State Park, in Agua Dulce, Calif. on Oct. 4. "We live in the city where we can't see the stars," said Mahon, an L.A. resident. "[In other places] people know stars like street names."