So last week I traipsed out to the countryside after dark with my telescope to see the rare Venus-Jupiter alignment that may have been the origin of the Star of Bethlehem, and which won't occur again until 2065. Unfortunately I was thwarted by a combination of light pollution and sparse cloud cover low in the sky which meant that seeing just above the horizon was impossible. But as the sky darkened, three very bright objects appeared low in the western sky, and they were so bright that they were clearly visible to the naked eye even through sparse cloud cover, which had cleared by the time I found a spot to set the telescope up in.
The first bright object I set the telescope on was in fact the planet Mars, which is a minimum of 54.6 million kilometers from the Earth, It looked like it was emitting an eerie orange glow, and had grey patches decorating its face. It wasn't the red hue I expected based on what I know of Mars, as it looked a lot like this:
I should have spent longer gazing at Mars but I was excited by the excellent visibility and jumped straight to Saturn, from which there was no going back. The distance to Saturn from the Earth is constantly changing as both planets travel through space, but at their closest points they are approximately 1.2 billion kilometers apart. Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and the second largest planet in the solar system. Galileo Galilei saw Saturn's rings in 1610, but it wasn't until a few decades later that astronomer Christiaan Huygens proposed that Saturn had a thin, flat ring. In fact, Saturn has many rings made of billions of particles of ice and rock, some as small as a grain of sand and others as large as a building. The rings are believed to be debris left over from asteroids, comets, and/or shattered moons.
Even a very blurry view of Saturn is easy to identify because of its trademark rings, but I had to use two special lenses to see them in detail, which was a lot of work because as soon as the lenses were fitted to the telescope the planet had moved out of sight, creating a steady dance between ringed planet and determined astronomer. It was worth it though:
I gazed at Saturn for so long that a farmer turned up with his son to see what I was up to.. Apparently someone had reported strange goings-on near his farm! He was baffled to find that I was looking through what was clearly a large telescope on a tripod, and although I acted fast to show him Saturn it was already out of sight by the time he'd walked over, and it would have taken some time to remove the lenses get it in range of the telescope again. In any case, the farmer was delighted with my excitement about the night sky, and left with a cheerful insistence that I return to this spot again to stargaze as often as I like. Something he said has stayed in my thoughts since then, though - he told me: 'I must admit, I come out here to check the sheep at night sometimes, but I never look up' (gesturing to the sky).
When I get a clear view of the night sky, my neck ends up hurting from craning it up for so long. It's always worth it. In fact, I've often wondered whether part of the reason we went from using four limbs to travel to two might be because we were so intent on looking up. Certainly our ancestors, who lived outdoors and didn't have the present visibility barrier of light pollution, spent much time gazing at, mapping, and pondering the night sky. They knew that some objects were stars and others were not because of the constellations they devised - they could see that the planets has varied paths across the sky. They knew this without aid of telescopes, just through continuous observation with the naked eye.
We may have forgotten this, but it's where our days get their name from:
Sunday is named after the Sun,
Monday is named after the moon,
Tuesday is the god Týr's day (known as Tīw in Old English),
Wednesday is the god Odin's day (known in Old English as Wōden - so, Wōden's day),
Thursday is the god Thor's day,
Friday is the goddess Freyja's day,
and Saturday is the god Saturn's day.
The planets, stars and constellations once played a significant role in our lives. For most of our history we looked up to the stars to gaze at the distant past, and even to try to see the future. I see the telescope I have access to as an immense privilege, and I actually believe that being able to see planets should be a human right. We are part of the cosmos. If we stop looking up, we stop seeing who we are and our small role in this immense universe. We also forget how incredibly fortunate we are to be here; how lucky, how random, how insignificant and special it all is at the same time. As Carl Sagan said, 'we are made of starstuff'.
I believe that everyone should be able to see what I see, and that's mostly why I write these blog posts. The universe is as much as part of who we are as this blue planet is. To view it and ask questions about it is not just for those of us with telescopes: much is visible with ordinary binoculars, if you know where to look. (For tips on how to start, see my short post on stargazing). There is always much to be gained from looking up.
To catch Mars and Saturn right now, follow the basic rules and look for the following rough alignment. It changes shape over time of course, which is why a night sky guide is so useful.
|From Collins 2016 Guide to the Night Sky|
I'm going to head out soon for more Saturn-gazing, and to get a better look at Mars with the lenses, and to take a look at Antares, a supergiant star and the fifteenth brightest star in the sky that is often referred to as 'the heart of the scorpion' because it's found in the constellation Scorpius.
As for how far into the distance I've ever seen, remember when I spotted The Ring Nebula? It's 2,300 light years away. That will never fail to amaze me.
How far into the past have you seen?