About Twelve at Night....Star Parties to Loosen-up the Mind
At this virtual star party, we don't have the luxury of doing this. But thanks to great images and maps produced by NASA and National Geographic, we can catch a glimpse of the Universe billions of times greater than we ever could by standing on the ground, even under the darkest skies and with the best instruments. So don your space suit... light your candle...fine-tune your dial...and turn-on your favorite music to cruise by...because we are blasting-off in 5...4...3...2...1...
February 8, 2009
Ahhhhhh...the feeling of weightlessness ... especially of the mind...it's a beautiful thing really..just like this universe of ours...so much beauty to see...the wonder of what's out there...alien worlds and islands of stars, great glowing gas clouds...and, in all probability, strange creatures beyond...the stuff of our wildest imaginations...
CThus the journey begins...
This first image we see is perhaps the most commonly known group of stars in the northern hemisphere... though only 5 of the 7 stars in the grouping are shown here.
Do you know what constellation this is?
If you said it's the Big Dipper, you can pat yourself on the back for getting the name of star grouping correct. However, if you think you're super smart for knowing that, you give yourself a slap on the you-know-what, because the Big Dipper is not a constellation. Yes that was a trick question. The Big Dipper is merely a grouping of stars within the constellation Ursa Major...the Big Bear.
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Now, in that first image I'm sure you noticed the square in the upper left part of the photo. When we look through that small window with the Hubble Space Telescope...the result is seen in the image above. Note how many bright lights there are that you couldn't see in the window before. Perhaps there's a hundred or so. Now we're going to look even deeper... into the stair-step shaped window (lower-right center) in the second image. And, where I've outlined in green, this is what we see...
This poster hangs in a small bathroom of mine, so it was a challenge to capture the whole picture. But my challenge was nothing compared to the many years of science that went into getting this image. This is the sort of stuff that puts Galileo-types in Nirvana! Note how each image we've seen so far is only a tiny portion of the previous one, and with each magnification just how many more objects are seen.
Each dot of light seen in the last image is not a star but a galaxy. Note how many there are! Yet this is just the tiniest little sliver of the total area of the sky. It was only about 90 years ago, that we realized there was another galaxy---the Andromeda Galaxy---besides our own Milky Way. Now, with telescopes in space, we see that our Universe is composed of billions of galaxies...and each galaxy contains billions of stars! My oh my, what a difference a single lifetime makes. Given that we are accumulating knowledge ever faster than before (exponentially they say), imagine the image we'll have of our universe in another 50 years!
The above map shows a bit more graphically our place in the universe. This image too represents merely a small sliver of the known Universe. Aside from size perspective, this map illustrates that galaxies tend to group together in clusters...and these clusters in turn group into superclusters. Drawn by the force of gravity, we live in a Universe that's rather clumpy. How it got this way is still a mystery and point of contention among cosmologists.
Filled with at least a billion stars, our Milky Way Galaxy looks something very much like this rendition on the left. Even at the speed of light, it would take you 100,000 years to travel its diameter...and yet on the map above it is only a tiny dot in the greater backdrop. Our closest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy is over 2 million light years away.
Zooming-in on a small area of this whirling disk of stars, we see the region where our own Solar System sits. Traveling at the speed of light, it would still take you 10,000 years to traverse this small area. Thank goodness for warp drive!
Zooming in much further still, we come to our Solar System. Small as it is in the bigger universal picture, this is still a huge region for us. Filled with the 8 major planets, at least a couple hundred moons and dwarf planets, and millions of smaller objects...asteroids, comets...the distant Kuiper Belt and much more...our Solar System is a universe in itself to explore.
Then of course...there's this living spaceship...our beautiful crystal ball home...
The telescope and map...our first vehicle to outer space and the chart to guide us...
Travelers, pioneers and adventurers...Welcome to the "Star Party"...the night time sister course to A Billion Years in A Day. More than anything, this course is a lesson in perspective...an effort, as the title says, to "loosen-up the mind" and broaden its notions of time, space, life and everything else. The "twelve" in the title does not just refer to the approximate time when such parties are thrown, but also to the currently agreed upon age of the universe in billions of years. Which is to say, if you add "a billion years in a day" to "twelve (billion) at night", you get all total 13 billion years...which is close enough to our best estimates of our Universes' age.
Another goal of this course is to recapture and reinstill the magic that the night sky gives us...the magic of wonder and mystery...of inspiration and guidance which only the blackest star-filled sky can give. We've lost that in our city-light illuminated skies. It's a sad tragedy really, but fortunately something we can reverse without going night blind in the process.
Ok gets get this party going!
Of course the best way to see and learn about the night sky is to actually get under one...ideally, under a very dark one in a vast desert or grassland...for it's there that the night really comes to life...where the Milky Way spills its cloudy stream from horizon to horizon...where you see things you've never seen before, yet they're always over head...shimmering points of colored light and fuzzy nebula, clusters of stars shining together as sisters and occasional but spectacular fiery streaks of dusk and rock as they plummet and burn through the Earth's atmosphere. Add a pair of binoculars or simple telescope to all this and your universe to grows 10 to 100 fold.