Watching Jupiter take its lumps


They came, they squinted, they saw. Night after starry night this week, earthlings entered the bunker of telescopes at the University of Maryland's observatory and gawked at the effects of the comet-bashing of Jupiter.

The observatory, usually a quiet outpost stashed off Metzerott Road in College Park, was downright popular this week. Hundreds of people filled its Open House to hear textbook lectures and stand in line at the $50,000, 20-inch telescope aimed at that news-making white dot to the southwest.

"You get a sense of history," university astronomer Dr. Ed Grayzeck said Thursday night.

Twenty-one fragments of the now-spent comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 have pelted Jupiter causing dark plumes that will remain visible for several days even to smaller amateur telescopes. In the Truly Big Picture, the bombardment of Jupiter may provide clues to some of the most fundamental riddles of comets, the planets and the solar system.

The event also caused amateur astronomers, fair-weather star-gazers and scientists to collectively smack their lips and get excited.

It's better than I expected. It's very dramatic," said Dr. Grayzeck, who is not a man to toss the word "dramatic" around lightly. He was running the show this week at the observatory and was the celestial guide and walking information desk for the arriving guests.

"I didn't get to see enough pretty pictures in the paper, so I came here so I could see more," said Rachel Jacobs, who studies marine biology at UM.

"We're suckers for telescopes," said biologist Laura Galloway, who lives two blocks from the observatory. She and her friend, Eric Nagy, stumbled on the scene thanks to a home-made road sign.

They and about 50 other visitors followed the "Comet Parking" sign on Metzerott Road, turned at the smoking, red road flare, and found the observatory and more pretty pictures of Jupiter. They took turns climbing the stepladders in front of the telescopes and took turns guessing where the eye pieces were. Kids were hoisted on parents' hips. Scientific questions were asked.

"Does someone know where this is pointing at," said a hushed voice in the cramped, intimate observatory.

"Jupiter," someone deftly answered.

"Come on clouds! Move over. There you are, now go for it!" people said, cheering each other on.

Thursday was not the best night to see the 1,000-mile-high plumes or whatever they were hanging off Jupiter's rim. The weather was not permitting. Gray waves of clouds kept washing over Maryland's sight line to Jupiter. The clear night before, about 200 people had rushed this place creating Disney World-like waiting lines.

"It's better to be here tonight and have more telescope time," physicist Chuck Dorsey said Thursday, taking his merry time at the telescopes.

At the helm of these monster scopes, what exactly could be seen? 1. The orange-ish bands of Jupiter. 2. Four of Jupiter's known 16 moons; three below (like a short string of pearls) and one moon above. 3. If you looked hard and the clouds gave you a break, you could make out relatively small, dark spots at Jupiter's lower left and right -- the so-called Q impacts. These were some of the comet's biggest fragments that slammed into Jupiter with forces far greater than the Earth's nuclear arsenal.

If you didn't see the impact points, your imagination might have fudged them.

"You want to see them. You think you are seeing them," said Rob Nissen, who was visiting from Texas. The astronomy buff was in his element. Toting his nonplused, 3-year-old daughter, Mr. Nissen was downright giddy. He acted like a man who was told his town just got its football team back or something.

"This is great," he said a few times. "They say this doesn't happen in a lifetime, it happens in a millennium."

While everyone was fawning over gaseous Jupiter, a full moon was in full sight. "That poor moon. We were going to move a telescope over so people could see it," said Dr. Grayzeck.

"If a comet hit the moon, that would interest us," Mr. Dorsey added.

Jodi Bunnell, a UM grad student, was pondering the cosmic significance of the comet-bashing of Jupiter. "It's a great thing for the scientists to keep themselves busy with," she said. Mainly, she wondered what effect this event was having on people -- like when the crazies come out when the moon is full, she said.

Also, she said the group failed to do what an astronomer once told her to do every night at dinner.

"We all forgot to talk at dinner in very loud voices. YES, IT WILL BE CLOUDY TONIGHT. NO CHANCE OF SEEING ANYTHING TONIGHT, NO SIR," said Ms. Bunnell. Say that at dinner and "the fates" will hear it and clear the skies, she said.

Clearly, the group didn't know this. At 10 p.m. and closing time at the observatory, the clouds were stuck in the sky. And Jupiter, the star of the show, was left to lick its deep wounds in privacy.

"Let's call it a night," someone said, as the bunker emptied.

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