Friday, January 9, 2009

Look up. Look waaaaaay up.

Why not do something different to celebrate 2009, the International Year of Astronomy?

First, stop at your favourite book store and pick up the latest version of any astronomy magazine that has a current star chart in it (most of them do, but Sky News is a great Canadian magazine with an excellent beginner’s star chart). Then on one of these crisp, clear nights, when the moon isn’t too bright and there are no clouds in the sky, bundle up, grab your chart and a pair of binoculars and get yourself out from under the glare of city lights. Find an open field or a frozen lake (perfect!) and look skyward for a view as spectacular as anything you’ll ever see earth-side.

Follow the Milky Way as it spans the sky from, more or less, west to east depending on the time of night, and marvel at the fact that you are looking at several hundred billion “nearby” stars, all part of our “home” galaxy and all spinning through the cosmos at speeds estimated to be in the range of 600,000 miles per hour.

Of course no glimpse of the night sky is complete without picking out the North Star (Polaris), and the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), and even the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor). But then look for some of the other less well known constellations such as Casseopeia (looks like a “W”, almost overhead at this time of year), Orion and his famous belt (low in the south-east sky), or Cygnus (the Swan, which includes the Northern Cross, in the north-west sky).

Once you have those and a few others picked out, go a little deeper and see if you can find the Andromeda Galaxy. Sometimes visible with the naked eye, but stunning even with a small pair of binoculars, 2.5 million light years away and containing a trillion stars (or thereabouts), Andromeda is our sister galaxy and one of my very favourite sights. You’ll find it about 45 degrees above the south-west horizon, just below Cassiopeia and just off to the side of the Milky Way. It won’t ever be thus – the Milky Way and Andromeda are on a collision course with a closing speed estimated at a million miles per hour. But don’t panic, the collision is still about 7 billion years away.

Then you can head back to Orion’s Belt. It’s dangling sword hides another spectacular sight visible with good binoculars or a small scope – the Orion Nebula. One of the brightest nebulae in the night sky, and one of the most commonly photographed deep-sky items, it won’t look much like the colour-enhanced, high-resolution photographs seen here. Instead it will be a smoky blur, but still spectacular for all of that.

It may be damned cold out there on a good viewing night, but believe me, dress warmly and the view will make it all worthwhile.

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