Friday, June 21, 2013

What Would Our Fragile Oasis Look Like from a Billion Miles Away? Astronomy: The Humblest of Hobbies

How many of you out there have a telescope at home? Did you have one when you were younger? Do you want one when you are older? Have you used one at your local observatory, or perhaps messed around with one at your grandparent's house, not really knowing what it was when you ran out of things to do before you went to bed? Have you seen for yourself the exact landing site on The Moon where Neil and Buzz walked nearly 44 years ago? Well, if you haven't, I suggest you take a step outside and look up for a while when it's not too cold or cloudy- you might learn a thing or two!
My first Moon shot. Can you see the footprints?

It was just past 10 p.m. as I stood next to the tripod. I had at least four layers of clothes on which were supposed to keep me warm, yet i still stood there half-shaking with the cold, and half-shaking with the excitement of seeing something through my telescope for the very first time. Tonight's target was Jupiter. This brand spanking new 5-inch refractor I bough for my birthday arrived maybe a week beforehand, but the ever-present Irish clouds spreading from the west did me no favours whatsoever, so the telescope stayed inside. I used this time wisely to do my research that might come in handy for whenever that clear night arrived. I joined online forums, groups and all that kind of stuff, trying to see if I could get any advice and tips. What would Jupiter look like through a scope of my size? Would I be able to see it's cloud bands? Could I see the Great Red Spot? I kept asking what the largest planet in our solar system would look like through my telescope. All of the answers I got were helpful and gave me a slight indication into what I might be able to see. But just like asking an astronaut what does Earth look like from space, they always say "You really have to see it for yourself", and how it's "Simply indescribable". To say I was looking forward to this night was an understatement! 

The city around me grew quieter as the night drew on. Luckily there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and Jupiter was rising higher in the east. Conditions were perfect and I had even left my scope out for an hour or so, in order that it would adjust to the sub-zero temperatures outside. Time to go planet hunting! 

After finding Jupiter with my 20mm eyepiece, I took a moment to see if I was able to spot it's four moons; Ganymede, Europa, Io and Callisto. They were all there and looking great! I quickly changed to the 10mm and got a much anticipated zoomed-in view. What a sight! I literally did not know what to do when I saw the two main cloud belts for the first time, so I just stepped back from the eyepiece and looked at Jupiter as it really was, a bright point of light in the sky- over 387 million miles away.

I continued to planet gaze for another hour or so. It's not that I got bored of looking at Jupiter, it's just that I had found other things in the night sky. The Pleiades came into view and I got the chance to really see them for the first time as well. It was now midnight. 

As every astronomer knows, there comes a point during every observing session when you just step away from the telescope for a few minutes and just look at the sky as a whole- just gazing into infinity. If you're lucky you might see a couple of satellites zooming overhead- another great sight to behold. Now though, I'm looking straight at The Orion Nebula(Not bad for the first night on the job right?) When you look at Orion and you see the massive dust and gas enveloping that stellar nursery, you realise that you are witnessing the birth of stars, planets, asteroids- maybe even life itself! Again, more questions arise- I wonder if this is what it was like when our solar system was being created. How many stars will end up forming there? 
Earth seen as a Pale Blue Dot

Soon you really begin to think how small we really are on this planet of ours. You look up and see thousands of stars- many of them hundreds of times larger than our very own Sun. One thing I couldn't help but notice when I was looking at Jupiter- the largest planet in our solar system- was how small it still looked from Earth- even with a telescope. But the one constant thought in my head revolved around this question. Imagine if we were nearly a billion miles away from Earth and we tried looking back. Would we see any shape to our fragile oasis, or would we just appear as a Pale Blue Dot. Would we even matter? Well, of course! We matter to each other.

"It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience".
-- Carl Sagan

What I'm trying to say here is that after I caught that first glimpse of Jupiter through the scope, I've really started thinking about how small we really are on this ball of blue we call home. Astronomy may not be everyone's cup of tea, and most people don't know the first thing about it if you ask me, but it certainly puts things into perspective for you. It puts you in your place. Now I don't want to sound all inspirational here, but just like the great Carl Sagan said, when you realise how small we really are, all of our quarrels and worries seem so unimportant- 

"Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that in glory and triumph they can become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot" 

If that doesn't show you how small we are I don't know what does. You can fit Planet Earth inside the Sun 1 million times over. Yet the sun is still not even a tiny fraction in terms of the overall composition of our galaxy. Yet, the Milky Way is so small on this universal context that it's impossible to get your head around how tiny we all are. But if you want to see for yourself how small we are on this universal scale, just go outside-- and look up!