Star Power

Andromeda Galaxy

There are few things that are as beautiful or thought provoking as a clear, dark night sky. From our nearest celestial neighbor, the moon, to the quasar 3C-273 at a distance of 2.4 billion light years, there is much to behold!

I’ve had a great interest in space things for as long as I can remember. Only recently have I become serious about finding objects in the night sky. Viewing images from the Hubble Space Telescope, or reading about the astronomers of antiquity determining the sun is at the center of our solar system and not Earth is pretty interesting. But, if you want to experience these things firsthand, skywatching is the way to go, if even just using your naked eyes. When you see how neither Mecury or Venus gets very far away from the sun, you can begin to tell that they are closer to the sun than Earth. Likewise, when you see Jupiter’s retrograde motion relative to background stars, you can tell that Jupiter is farther out than we are. It’s always fun to experience these concepts in actual practice! On a clear, moonless night (with little light pollution, meaning away from the cities), you can see the Milky Way span across the sky, and even the Andromeda galaxy (as a smudge) if you know where to look.

What really kicked my interest into overdrive was a pair of binoculars. For the casual viewer not searching for any one particular object, there is no better way to go. There are galaxies and star clusters visible with binoculars, and they’re an amazing sight, even with the reduced magification as compared to a telescope. I was viewing Jupiter with binoculars this past winter, and nearby was the Beehive star cluster (also known as Messier object 44). It was the first time I saw a star cluster with my own eyes, and it was amazing. I stood there staring at it for close to an hour in the cold. It was then when I decided to take it to the next level.

M44 star cluster

When binoculars are no longer enough to satiate your stargazing appetite, its time for a telescope. I went with a relatively large telescope because I’m very familiar with the night sky, and I live far enough away from the city to where I get reasonably dark skies. Being familiar with the constellations is critical for using a telescope to find celestial objects. Using the telescope provides a deeper enjoyment, as the celestial objects can be viewed much larger, and you can see objects much farther away. Its amazing when you spot a galaxy 30 million light years away (1 light year is approximately 5.8 trillion miles) because the light from that galaxy travelled for 30 million years to hit your retina. The quasar 3C-273 is visible with a telescope, and its located 2.4 billion light years away. The light from that quasar has been travelling for half the age of our planet! And, though it’s dim in a telescope, it is so bright that the quasar would be as bright as our sun if the quasar was at a distance of 33 light years.

With so much to see, observe, and learn, watching the stars is a hobby for all levels and interests, whether it’s looking at a full moon and being able to point out the Sea of Tranquility, or viewing nebulae and galaxies in a telescope, or even being able to spot the constellation of your zodiac sign, you need never be bored on a dark clear night again!

M13 star cluster

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