Monday, April 20, 2009

What's Up?

There was never much exposure to astronomy in my early life, but I could recognize the Big Dipper. At some point in my adult life, I discovered Cassiopeia and Pleiades. It was my daughter who, in middle school, pointed out the largest, most dramatic constellation in the sky: Orion. How could I have missed it?

Over the years I learned Orion rules the sky in the winter months. Right now the mighty hunter is visible in the western sky after sunset. Soon he will be gone from the night sky altogether and I will gladly hail his arrival in the east with the return of cold weather.

The same phenomena that causes the moon to appear enormous rising above the eastern horizon also influences the apparent size of Orion coming up in the dark skies in early winter. It is breathtaking to witness the silent, steady ascent of Orion's stars on a clear night over an unobstructed horizon.

The names of Orion's stars are wonderful and mysterious: Betelgeuse, Rigel, Saiph and Bellatrix. The three blue beauties that make up Orion's belt: Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka almost sound like Indian words. To be sure, there are many Indian names for Orion, but I do not know any of them.

The Orion nebula is so vast and brightly lit that it can be seen with the naked eye - but not my naked eyes any longer, sadly.

One of the most wonderful gifts I ever received in my entire life was a small telescope with excellent optics. It was a Christmas present from my son's father, the only one I ever received from him. After I the absolute surprise of such a wonderful gift, the skies promptly clouded up for a week.  There was nothing to see as I anxiously awaited clearing weather. Some "star" had been blazing brightly for weeks, visible even in the light pollution of the city, and stubbornly visible from my southern bedroom window in the tiny space between our home and the neighbors. I loved looking at it each night from the warmth of my bed after I turned the lights out. As soon as I could set up the scope beneath a clear sky, I searched for that brilliant jewel.

At first look, I was greatly disappointed with the quality of the telescope. Even in the best of telescopes, stars are merely pinpoints of light, but I did not know that. Standing in the freezing cold, the bright "star" I had watched from my bed was fuzzy and oblong after I finally got it in my sights. I did not want to tell my significant other that he had given me a piece of expensive junk. As I continued to zero in on the star, I accidentally turned the knobs just enough to bring it into perfect focus. I involuntarily gasped - it was Saturn and the rings were clearly visible. It was the first time I had ever seen the rings of Saturn with my own eyes. It was thrilling.

Also in the night sky at that time was Jupiter, and four of its moons were visible as well. I later learned that Galileo made all of his discoveries with a similarly sized telescope. The intense dedication he possessed to verify the knowledge with his diligent observation using the tiny telescope suddenly had a new meaning for me. He had never seen photos of the planets before, no human eyes had ever seen the other planets. To witness the moons of Jupiter must have fired his passion and imagination beyond belief. The rings of Saturn confused him, at least at first. His determined observations proved that we circled the sun. He knew it was true.

With my new telescope, I spent hours observing the moon that winter. As I patiently stood in the frigid weather, clumsily learning to simultaneously turn the knobs of the horizontal and vertical axis in perfect concert to keep the rapidly moving moon in sight, I did not notice the deep cold. As I gained skill in using the telescope, I spent long periods gazing at the stark and beautiful landscape of the moon. At one point, I was so engrossed in my explorations that the bone chilling cold seemed to be an effect of the silent, sere lunarscape. As I suddenly realized how deeply cold I was, an enormous loneliness washed over me, as if I had been standing on the moon, far from home and the warmth of the earth.

Now we take astronomical knowledge for granted. Almost anyone in America can afford a telescope with fine enough optics to see the rings of Saturn, the faintly banded Jupiter and at least four of its moons, as well as the crescent phases of Venus, and the reddish hue of Mars. Galileo spent the last ten years of his life, blind, ill and under house arrest by decree of a papal trial. The truth he found through a telescope so threatened the Church that he was silenced and jailed.

For more truth and beauty, check here every day, the Astronomy Picture of the Day It is a site published by NASA and safe to visit. When you are marveling over the fantastic sights, you might think of Galileo and send him a little "thank you" thought for being such a brave man!


Li'l Ned said...

I loved reading this, and finding another star-lover. I had to give up my fantasies about backyard astronomy when I realized that the only time it was warm enough for me to stay up at night was summertime, when it doesn't get dark until way past my bedtime. Winter stars are the best, of coruse, and come up early, of course, but then it's too damned cold.

Like you, I love the names of stars. So many are Arabic (any with 'al' at the beginning, like Alnitak, Alnilam), named by Arabic astronomers in the Middle Ages (before they were ejected from Spain by 'los reyes catolicos' (the 'sainted' Fred & Isabel). There is a sweet air of mystery about these old names for me.

Jackie said...

Yes, the Arabic astronomers were quite sophisticated and we in the west are not taught much about that. The three star names of Orion's belt almost seem like Indian words to me, though I know they are not. It would be cool to see some stars given American Indian names, wouldn't it?! Various tribes had their own constellations, astonomical knowledge and myths.