The nice thing about short days

Is having more time to look at the stars. I know Winter Solstice is bringing us longer days… but it’s still pretty dark around here. Here’s an article from my newspaper column.

I saw no stars on that cloudy night at the Perkins Observatory. Instead of stardust, the astronomers there sprinkled my mind, and the minds of the first- and second-graders there, with wonder.

They reminded me that when we look up, we see the past; the light is already billions of years old. They reminded us that our vast galaxy is just beginning its life. Our 4.5 billion-year-old sun is still less than halfway through its life. The future lying ahead is more prolonged than the past we’ve seen.

These concepts are staggering to comprehend, but the gem here comes from remembering what my seventh-grade history teacher used to repeat: “You can’t understand the future until you understand the past.” Four hundred years ago, Galileo turned his telescope away from the sea and began to look at the heavens, and thus 2009 is our International Year of Astronomy (IYA).

Galileo’s shift of his telescope changed the world not simply because he looked, but because he observed the sky night after night while meticulously filling in the details in his observing log. He saw that the stars do shift positions, and when one star vanished, he discovered not a star, but a moon hiding behind Jupiter.

Because our word shares the same sky, astronomy is a great unifier, and may even hold our potential for world peace. Satellite pictures of our earth show us the geographic boundaries of our continents, while the political boundaries vanish.

This revelation led astronomers in Iran to create StarPeace, a project of IYA to hold joint public star parties near the borderlines of two neighboring countries. On Dec. 4, people from Indonesia and the Philippines came together to make a peace bridge on South China Sea, with teachers and astronomers offering free public viewings of the stars through high-powered telescopes.

The amateur astronomer George Eric Deacon Alcock discovered five comets on his own through meticulous viewings and recordings in his observing log. Backyard astronomers, like you, can use their eyes, telescopes and binoculars to create their own observing logs. Binoculars provide a wider field of view than telescopes.

In the winter, no other constellation is more distinct or bright as Orion, the Mighty Hunter. This month, if the sky is clear — a minor  miracle — look for three bright stars that form Orion’s Belt. One of the brightest stars in the night sky, Rigel, represents Orion’s foot. His two shoulders are made of the stars Bellatrix and Betelgeuse.

Orion will wait for you; he will remain recognizable in the night sky for the next 1 to 2 million years, making it one of the longest observable constellations.

As we stand solidly on earth looking up, we can barely fathom our place in a galaxy that is showing us our billion-year-old past. But imagine, for a moment, looking at earth from space, where there is no solid footing. An astronaut once revealed to me the universal secret astronauts hold: They are homesick. Not for earth, but for space.

He described the familiar heavy pull of gravity as the carrier sped back toward earth, and he instantly felt a longing for the lightness he knew in space. With tears in his eyes, he also added, “The earth looks beautiful from space. The earth glows, and it pulsates with energy.”

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