Friday, March 03, 2000

Solar Dance 4: Eyes and Images

Image Credit: Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA). For source image and caption:

Nothing has inspired my curiosity and excitement about the sky as much as the recent burst of incredible images from the most advanced telescopes. Sure, it’s neat to look in Orion’s belt with a medium sized telescope and see the Orion nebula; but the pale white splotch in the eyepiece is but a tease compared to vivid Hubble photos of this dynamic, gorgeous cauldron of creation.

Throughout human history, skywatchers have enlivened their cultures’ sense of place by diligent observations of the night sky. Such seemingly complex phenomena as the precession of the equinoxes, 19-year cycles of the moon’s subtly changing orbit, and the travels of all visible planets have been discerned by these ancient naked eye astronomers.

In my experience, the most profound and direct experiences of the night sky come from naked eye viewing. Building a habit of looking up, even for a minute or two, at roughly the same time at night can, over several years, begin to reveal the cycles of the planets, and of the seasonal starscapes. I began watching the sky when Jupiter was in Leo, a few years before the big Comet Shoemaker-Levy breakup and impact sequence hit the gas giant while it was approaching Scorpio. I think Saturn was just leaving Capricorn at that point.

Now, as it rapidly "catches up" with Saturn on the outskirts of Taurus, I have an experiential memory of it travelling more than halfway around its orbit; in just a few years, it will again be in Leo, and my first skywatcher apprenticeship will be complete. (NOTE: this essay was originally written in 2000, just before the Saturn/Jupiter conjunction; in 2004 Jupiter did return to its place in Leo, and my 12-year primary education was complete.)

Similarly, the best way to really feel yourself on a spinning planet in a disc of companions circling the sun, is to stare in open-hearted wonder (and active mental imagination) as Venus, perhaps Mercury or the moon, and one or more of the outer planets appear together in the twilight or pre-dawn sky. (something like this tends to occur once every year or so).

Developing a sense of the three-dimensional landscape of the galaxy is also best done with nothing but your eyes, the sky, and a handful of targets for viewing. This is best done at times when the moon is not too bright in the sky, with some key vistas offered by the summer Milky Way (heart of the galaxy low in the south, Vega high overhead pointing at our direction in a flowing orbit around that center) and the winter sparkle of Orion and Sirius not far from the softer band of the spiral arm that swings around outside and behind us, trailing the sun in its great journey).

Nevertheless, the gifts of naked eye viewing are definitely augmented by occasional use of binoculars or a small telescope. With simple binoculars, such delights as the moons of Jupiter, the stunning splatters of star clusters, and our neighbor galaxy Andromeda come alive in new ways. A 3 to 8 inch telescope brings you all the closer, though at that point, you’ll be looking at objects that are perhaps most exciting in astrophotos.

It seems to be that a combination of ongoing naked-eye viewing (augmented with occasional binocular or small scope glimpses) and familiarity with the best of today’s astrophotography yields the ideal mix for moving into the direct, profound sense of place that I am speaking of in this series. Your eyes will give you the big picture, revealing the patterns of the dance; the photos let you glimpse the beauty of far-off events with stunning directness. Starbirth, stellar nurseries, exploding supernovae, immense vistas into the density of the Milky Way or the vast communities of galaxies beyond our own and back toward the dawn of time--all this in vivid color and ever-increasing clarity. (Explore the links offered to the right to find some of the best of today's deep-space astrophotography) From this foundation, you will be able to move within a few months into a beginning sense of the movement of the planets around the sun, the place of the sun within our corner of the galaxy, and the locations in the sky of active starbirth, young stars, and old, soon-to-nova ancients. At that point, the sky will be alive for you, and you will be alive in the cosmos.


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