I will remember 2015 as the year I discovered the universe. Not in any literal sense. I have been stargazing since I was a kid, and have enjoyed reading about astronomy and cosmology throughout adulthood. Last June, though, I bought an entry-level Celestron telescope on the web, and my conception of the infinite shifted for good.
The night after the telescope arrived in a long rectangular box, I assembled the pieces and pointed it at the moon. It took a little work to figure out the focus knob, but when I got a sharp image the craters popped out in a level of three-dimensionality that left me breathless. I was not prepared either for the mountainous profile at the moon’s far edge. It made me want to be there, hiking along the ridge of one of those craters. I recalled the awe I had felt watching Apollo launches in my pajamas during the late 60s with a glass of chocolate milk.
A couple weeks later, when I pointed my scope at the Pleiades constellation — to the naked eye Pleiades looks like a miniature version of the Big Dipper — it was if a black velvet jewel box had hinged open, revealing dozens of brilliant diamonds, some single, some in binary pairs. That same evening I pointed at Albireo, at the beak end of Cygnus the swan. Albireo is a binary made up of one yellow and one blue star shining like hidden Christmas lights.
The more I saw, the more I wanted to learn. Most of the constellations and galaxies have their own Wikipedia page, so it’s possible to geek out in ever-increasing detail, like a rock fan digging into the production notes for every song on every album.
That summer and into the fall I got my first detailed view of Jupiter’s four major moons an hour before dawn; a first high-res view of Andromeda, the nearest large spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way; and the ghostly luminosity of the Orion Nebula, visible at the mid-point of Orion’s sword dangling from his belt.
Reading between telescope sessions deepened my understanding of the universe’s hugeness. The Milky Way galaxy alone contains something like half a billion stars. Nearby Andromeda contains more than a trillion. The Milky Way and Andromeda are part of a Local Group that contains 30 galaxies. It gets bigger from there. Groups are part of clusters and superclusters. Superclusters are contained in “bubbles.”
This all provides some degree of perspective. For example, the length of time it takes light to travel from one edge of the Andromeda Galaxy to the other is 200,000 years, about the duration of human history.
Now, when I walk home on a clear night I look for constellations I have befriended during the last year. Cygnus. Ursa Major. Draco. I point mentally from Cassiopeia to where Andromeda should be, even when it’s shrouded by light pollution. The distance and immensity calms me. Maybe that parking ticket last week wasn’t such a big deal.
by Hubble ESA