BY GREG TOLTZ
“I’ve loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” – Galileo
A clear, moonless night far from city lights sets the stage for an enthralling and humbling experience; stargazing. The sounds of creatures scuttling through the undergrowth and insects chirping remind us that we are not alone. Gazing up and beholding the heavens, in all its glory, is a primaeval pleasure. Our ancestors gazed upon the very same stars, though much of their interpretations have been lost in time.
For tens of thousands of years, the night sky has been studied, mapped, worshipped, used for navigation and served as inspiration and wonder. Modern science makes regular breakthroughs as it seeks to unlock the secrets of the universe. As yet, we cannot reach the far reaches of space, so we may be barely scratching the surface.
This is not a science article, though. This is for anyone who has looked up into the darkness and been taken away from their existence and felt there’s a whole lot more ‘up there’ than there is ‘down here’. When shrouded in darkness looking up to a sky full of stars, it is likely to be the case. Some call the pastime ‘Stargazing’. I suspect, deep down, most of us are stargazers, and it doesn’t take much time to know a bit more.
The Moon, Planets, Stars and…
It is true that on a clear moonless night, far from the city glow, the immensity of the heavens is breathtaking. But urban dwellers can appreciate the night sky too.
The brightest objects cut through city lights and, when magnified, look the same as anywhere. The Moon needs no explanation. Viewed from Earth, it’s the brightest celestial body – so much so that it can be seen during the day. Then Venus, our closest planetary neighbour, is the most luminous ‘star’ in the sky. It has a slightly yellow colour and can be seen at dusk and or dawn.
A curious fact about planets is that they don’t twinkle like stars because they reflect the sun’s light. Of the other planets in our solar system, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are also very easy to spot with the naked eye. You just need to know when and where to look (and remember, they don’t twinkle).
When locating objects outside our solar system, knowing a few constellations helps you point a telescope in a direction that reveals phenomena like star clusters, nebulae and binary stars – one star to the naked eye but, in reality, two.
Making sense of the night sky
You can know nothing about stars and still lose yourself in their vastness. But it’s worthwhile learning the simple mechanics of astronomy. With these fundamentals, we can understand why the stars move during the night and the year.
Just as the sun rises and sets, so do planets and stars. It’s because we sit on a small rock (Earth) that rotates once every 24 hours (and it spins with a slight tilt, which causes seasons).
We can’t see stars during the day because we have the sun in our eyes. When your bit of the earth faces away from the sun, it’s night time for you, and that’s when to look out into the universe and see stars, which emit light, and planets, moons and other objects, which reflect light.
A constellation is a set of stars of varying brightness, which appear to be in a pattern that vaguely resembled something spiritually significant to many Ancient cultures.
For stargazers, constellations are a map of the heavens. Lots of amazing extra celestial bodies can be found in and around them, but they are, in fact, an illusion. Their stars are likely to be unfathomable distances from one another.
As Earth follows its path around the sun, we look out at different parts of the universe. So, as the seasons change, the constellations move on, revealing new ones for us to discover and name. And every year, at the same time, we welcome the same stars and constellations back to where we saw them the year before.
Simple astronomy equipment can make a difference
Stargazer or Amateur Astronomer? They are the same to me, but some would argue it’s about the knowledge and kit. Here are a few bits and pieces to get you going:
1. Star Wheel – This is a map of the constellations. It displays the stars visible at any moment in time. When you line up that date and time of day, the Star Wheel reveals a map of the stars and constellations visible at that moment. Some websites and apps do this too, but a hard copy is convenient when you are out in the elements. You can even make your own.
2. Telescope (or binoculars). I was hooked on stargazing when I pointed a cheap 60mm refractor telescope at a tiny yellow ball with a ring around it. That tiny ball was Saturn. Suddenly, space and the solar system seem so real!
3. Research – Books, websites and podcasts – wherever and however you choose to learn, it’s definitely worthwhile to know a bit more about what’s up there and where to look to see it.
4. Planet and Moon rising and setting times – Querying a search engine will provide this and include your location. Then orientate yourself by using the Star Wheel to align yourself. We can find planets a few degrees above or below an imaginary line in the sky known as the celestial equator. It is usually represented as a dotted line on a star wheel. Imagine all the constellations as a globe; the celestial equator is the line around the middle.
5. A jumper – Lastly, rug up because it can get cold at night.
I have not yet met anyone who doesn’t like stargazing. It’s great to kick back in nature and search for shooting stars and satellites while talking with friends (or yourself) about the mysteries of faraway worlds. It is ‘nerdy’, but so is every science fiction, book, film and TV show with an off-earth setting. And let’s not forget that stargazers’ subjects are real. The mind boggles while staring up at an endless field of stars.
Like Galileo, grow to love the stars. Don’t fear the night. See the ring around Saturn and begin a stargazing journey. We don’t live under a work of art. The universe is real, and we are an infinitely smaller part of it than what we believe. Then, when feelings of insignificance pass, what remains is a greater appreciation of what we have – the people we love, the earth and everything that makes it great. It’s why our preservation effort is so important, because for the foreseeable future, our planet is all we’ve got, and for most of us, stargazing is the closest to the stars we will ever be.
First published in ætla magazine 02 available now from aetla.shop