Saturday, August 8, 2009

Starry Afternoon

What is really going on? U.S. bank failures continue. The unemployment rate unexpectedly dropped for the first time in 15 months. Obama is having a tough time getting his health care reform agenda passed. Sotomayor was sworn in today as our newest Supreme Court justice.

Meanwhile, if you step back from it all and take a wider view, you realize how vast (and generally indifferent) the Now is.

Very hot today. The heat index was about 100 degrees. I bought groceries, then read for a bit after lunch. Despite the sun, I mowed the front half of the yard, pausing to enjoy a Mike's Hard Lemonade and piddle on the computer. In early afternoon, I pulled up Starry Night to check out the US from space.


Starry Night is cool for many reasons but one is certainly that it tracks the orbits of hundreds of satellites in addition to all the many wonders of the visible universe. At night, especially on clear winter nights, I sometimes pull the sky up and advance the time into the near future, maybe an hour or two ahead, to find a satellite that is going to pass within the view of the night sky at my house. Then I go outside at that future time of night to watch the tiny spot of reflected sunlight drift across my field of view against the bespeckled darkness.

Although the sun was out this afternoon I could see in Starry Night that seven satellites were criss-crossing North America as I sat in my study drinking the Mike's. Calipso, Cloudsat, and
Aqua were all passing overhead. Most satellites pass north to south or south to north, generally at slightly different speeds across the sky.

If you step back just a bit further you can see the vast expanse of North America from space. The distance between the tip of Florida to the end of Alaska is among the largest stretches of land on our Earth.

In the distance, Earth's companion Jupiter orbits the Sun while the
Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) drifts relatively close-by, a mere 300-500 light years away. (Notice it slightly above the Earth in the screen shot.) That means we can see the nebula as it was several centuries ago, not as it is today.

Starry Night allows you to zoom into the Helix Nebula and see it as many larger earth-bound telescopes see it. The on-screen indicator is pointed toward a nameless star in the field of view between my vantage point in Starry Night and the nebula. Perhaps surprisingly, space is filled with nameless stars and debris. These are designated "TYC"-something, from their number in the Tycho-2 catalog.

Once again (see my January 25 post), this affords us the opportunity to compare land-based telescopic imagery with the magnificent meeting place of art and science that is the Hubble Telescope's atmosphere-free richness. Stuff like this inspires a sense of wonder in me.

So, nearby this afternoon, new stars are being born. The universe takes no notice of us as we peer out into its darkness and light. "We owe the existence of not only our planet but also ourselves to ancient supernovae, for we too are made of heavy elements. Literally, many stars have died so that we might live." (page 147, Eric Chaisson, Cosmic Dawn, 1981)

We are the residue of long dead stars. This is what is in the Now, as much as any earthly concern. Comparatively, our exertions, while great to us, are muted by the language of the stars.



A closer view from Hubblesite.org. You can almost see the stars coming to life.