03/12/2012 07:10 pm ET Updated May 12, 2012

Among the Wanderers

I mentioned last week that I was spending most of the past two weeks occupied with midterms. What kept me going was the knowledge that on Wednesday, the day after my last midterm, Mars would be at its closest to the Earth all year. Hopefully, I'd get to see it through the telescopes at the Colt Observatory during the Boston University Astronomical Society (BUAS) meeting.

That was, if it wasn't cloudy.


At the beginning of last month, I wrote about how hard I wished for clear skies on February 1st, so that I could honor the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia by educating people about the Universe on the anniversary of their loss. I got my wish, but it seemed that I burned out all of my "wishing energy" in the process, because that was the only clear Wednesday night we had for the whole month of February!

That's not to say I hadn't enjoyed the meetings -- it's always a treat to hang out with my friends and talk about space. Wednesday night is the only time I see some of my friends from BUAS, because astronomy majors and archeology majors don't typically take the same classes. We spent the cloudy nights working on our outreach projects, like the scale model of the solar system we want to put across campus.

However, I was really starting to miss working at Public Night, answering people's questions and getting to look through the telescopes. Monday night seemed pretty clear, and my east-facing dorm window gave me a great view of Mars over the Prudential Center. On Tuesday the gibbous moon joined the show and I was able to photograph them both together over the skyline. Wednesday was clear and cloudless, and I could already see Mars and the moon together, like the day before, as I crossed the street to the College of Arts and Sciences building. This was it! We were going to have Public Night for the first time in a month!

But when I reached the fifth floor and saw the computer screen displaying the latest information about the observatory, it read: "Public Night for Wednesday, March 7, 2012, is cancelled due to clouds."

Clouds? Clouds?!? I hadn't seen any clouds outside, except for a few low to the horizon. I headed for the meeting room to ask the other members what was going on. Apparently, in the time it had taken me to walk up those five flights of stairs, the clouds had risen and the air had become misty, providing less-than-ideal viewing conditions. But still, it couldn't be that bad, could it? At least we had our one-hour meeting before observing started. There was plenty of time for the weather to change back. Right?

One of the other members gave a presentation about Galileo and Copernicus, and how they had discovered that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of our solar system. To demonstrate why planets display retrograde motion -- why they sometimes appear to move backwards in the sky -- he'd brought a mechanical model of the solar system enclosed in a sort of cylinder. There was a light bulb on the model of the Earth, and the shadows cast by the other planets on the outside of the cylinder showed how the planets appear in the sky from Earth.

If the other planets all did revolve around the Earth, they would always be moving the same way in the sky. But because the Earth is just one of the planets orbiting around the sun like runners in an eight-lane racetrack, every now and then, the Earth will overtake another planet and be further ahead. The overtaken planet will appear to be moving backwards, just like a car you pass on the highway appears to recede until it can only be seen with the rearview mirror.

"What can you tell from the shadows?" The student who was giving the presentation asked.

"That we aren't fixed. We're moving among the planets." I said. It really was beautiful to think about.

After the presentation, our club president, Trey Wenger, told us to get back to work on the projects we'd been working on over the past month. But, just in case, he told one boy to go up to the observatory and see if the weather had improved. I tagged along.

When we got to the stairs to the observatory, something very unexpected happened. There was a group of women sitting on the stairs already. They said that they were teachers for a High School group from Texas that was on a school trip to Boston, and that they'd made arrangements to come to Public Night. We weren't sure to respond, so I ran back and asked Trey what to do. He came up with us to the roof, and decided that since the clouds were mostly in the east and only really blocking out the moon, we should have Public Night for the school group after all, even if conditions weren't perfect.

I was overjoyed. I waited on the fifth floor to direct the High Schoolers up the stairs to the observatory. (One teacher, whose group hadn't been able to find the elevator, asked "MORE stairs?") When the last group had arrived, I headed up to the roof to join them.

The roof was packed! I took my place beside the telescope pointed at the planet Jupiter and explained to each student what they were looking at. They were all very interested, especially because they could see three of Jupiter's largest moons clustered around it. We had lively conversations about Jupiter's Great Red Spot, its habit of sucking up comets and asteroids, and why you should never ask a professional astronomer if he or she tells fortunes. One boy was trying to get his girlfriend to call the telescope a "microscope" in front of members of BUAS to make her look silly, but I called him out on it and made him stop.

Jupiter and Venus were very close together in the west, something my east-facing window hadn't allowed me to see on the previous nights. Rising above the eastern clouds, the moon and Mars were stunning, too. A little while ago, I'd been looking at the mechanical model of the solar system down in the meeting room, but these were the real planets, making their way through the real solar system.

Some girls asked me how someone goes about getting an astronomical object named for him- or herself. I explained that people who discover asteroids get to choose the names of these bodies if they aren't already named or within special groups that have their own naming conventions. Comet names aren't quite as flexible, but they do bear the last name of their discoverer.

"For instance," I told them "In the '60s, two astronomers in Japan independently reported a new comet on the same night. Experts confirmed it was a new one -- but they also discovered that it would be coming very close to the sun and create a spectacular show! And it did! Soon, Mr. Ikeya and Mr. Seki were being talked about all over the world, because everyone was talking about Comet Ikeya-Seki."

"I should start looking for comets... " The girl responded.