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Can You See Through The Clouds With A Telescope?

by Joe Rao

Of course not!  Although surprisingly, there are probably  a few people who honestly believe that a telescope is capable of revealing objects otherwise masked by cloud cover.  Here are two examples:

In December 1973, a special gathering was organized in lower Manhattan at dawn to observe the newly discovered Comet Kohoutek.  Prospective viewers were invited to view the comet through a variety of telescopes, followed by a chowder breakfast.  On the appointed morning, the sky was hopelessly overcast, yet thousands of people came just the same, many still expecting to get their promised view of the comet — despite the clouds — through the assemblage of telescopes.  After an astronomer — who also was my predecessor here at the Farmers’ Almanac, Dr. Ken Franklin — explained from a sound truck that the comet would not be visible he asked if there were any questions.  From out of the crowd somebody asked, “So what do we do now?”  To which Dr. Franklin replied:  “Have another bowl of chowder!”

Exactly one year later, in December 1974, a partial eclipse of the Sun occurred over much of North America.  In New York, the local astronomical societies had all gathered with their telescopes on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. A large number of reporters were also there to report on the viewing of the eclipse. Unfortunately, a solid deck of low, gray clouds completely obscured any possible view of the Sun (some attributed the bad luck to the fact that it was also Friday, the 13th!)  One reporter for a local news radio station arrived just moments before the predicted peak of the eclipse.  He pushed his way through the group and, somewhat out of breath, asked which telescope he could look through to view the eclipse.

When it was explained to him that the eclipse couldn’t be seen because of the clouds, he was incredulous, saying in exasperated tones, “You mean I came all the way up here for nothing?”  But in the end he had the last laugh.  Composing himself, he quickly filed his report from a nearby phone booth:  “The clouds eclipsed today’s eclipse, and this reporter was rather surprised to discover that not even these impressive telescopes could provide us with a glimpse.  If you ask me, this is the biggest cover-up since Watergate!”

Tip:
For best sky viewing with a telescope pick a clear, dry night free of haze and clouds. Check the phase and the rising and setting time of the Moon. A bright moon may shine too brightly and obscure the night sky, as will ambient light. Try to find a good location without a lot of light pollution.  Happy sky gazing.

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