Monday, 19 November 2012

Heavens Above...

Watching the moon slowly crawl across the disk of the sun through some eclipse glasses was a moment of duality - two competing senses, one of excitement at seeing so wonderful a spectacle, and one of stillness, a quiet sense of marvel at the machinery of the cosmos.  It inspired me to again lug my telescope outside, something I had neglected doing for most of the past winter.

The eclipse...

Winter is gone, and though the evenings are comparatively cool, they can hardly be used as an excuse.  I have four favourite things to look at in the night sky, probably because they are easy for an amateurs amateur such as myself to find.  The first is the moon; most obvious.  Next are the two largest planets in our solar system, Saturn with its rings is great to view, even with my telescope and surrounding street-light induced light pollution it appears an orange-y/yellow-y marble with the the rings clearly visible, and the most prominent moons as stars in a neat line around the planet.  Jupiter, which is visible now quite clearly is also nice.  And lastly my one-of-four favourite things is the nebula in Orion, M42, a dusty cloud in space punctuated by bright new stars.

Saturn isn’t visible during any of the hours I like to keep (it’s rising around 5.00am at the moment), but Jupiter certainly is.

Jupiter - a shot of this planet with no added equipment (just from my phone).

Viewing anything in the night sky from the backyard is always an exercise in mild frustration, the incoming flood of light from nearby street-lights can be annoying to say the least, and can also serve to wash out some of the colour from the things you’re viewing.  Nonetheless, Jupiter appears as a large bright white marble, and sometimes, on a dark night, creamy rather than white.  Several dark brown bands are also clearly visible as lines across its surface, on a dark night some of the detail of these bands can be seen, the turbulent edges, the spots.  The largest of Jupiter’s moons are also clearly visible - though these appear as stars in a rough line, changing position night to night.

Jupiter - the poor camera loses all sense of the colour and bands, but three moons are visible.

Tonight I also took some time to view the moon, since it is a crescent phase at the moment it makes for excellent viewing, the angle of the sunlight on it’s surface means the craters and mountains stand with long shadows, making the three dimensionality of the surface really stand out.

A phone's view of the moon...

I tried to take some photos using my iPhone through the eye-piece of my scope, but the results are (obviously) far poorer than what one sees with ones own eyes.

The brightness of the moon is overwhelming for the phone camera.  Nearly all the detail: lost.

It’s a cathartic experience, gazing heavenward; a good time to pause and contemplate life, the universe and everything.  The implacable march of the celestial machinery that drives the cosmos invites us to experience a sense of smallness in comparison.  A window into the fleeting nature of time and yawning enormity that surrounds us.  Far from being a depressing thing, it is humbling, a chance to to ponder the things that we as individuals invest importance in.  A vast yardstick against which my own troubles seem trifling and trivial things.  What do I think about?  The universe of course, and existence - how can one not.  But also my family: my larger family often, my friends occasionally, but most certainly my wife and my kids.

The solar system I can come at, the solar system I can wrap my mind around, but gazing into deeper space, into the turbulence of new star formation, of the death of stars, of galaxies, gazing into time itself... that I can only wonder at.  Trying to establish a mental foothold on the concept of something so... immense.  Rather than finding a foothold I end up feeling adrift, it is simply too large to fit within the confines of my small primate mind.  Adrift and in wonder.  Quietly marvelling.  

Through a smaller eyepiece...

Even through the smaller eye-piece most of the detail is lost...




  1. You are making me wistful. I used to be an amateur astronomer, but with Daylight Savings Time, a job, and urban skies I gave it up. Truly, part of the wonder is the sense of perspective you get while looking at the heavens. I sometimes wonder if the general public, reading about exoplanets, thinks in of these things as more of a Star Trek episode and less as a marvel of nature. While I love ST, its not the same as looking at a real photo of the sunset on Mars.

  2. Very true! The skies here are relatively dark, though I still have a neighbour who is over fond of large halogen lights filling his (and partially my) backyard with light till late - but despite that viewing is still pretty good.

    It's a cathartic thing, to gaze at the stars, I don't do it nearly as often as I'd like, and I don't have a good excuse!