By Declan Molloy
When we look upward on a starry night we naturally see stars and on occasion we see our moon – but how many of us consider our place in the cosmos whilst in our own backyard (astronomically speaking of course).
It would surprise many to know that each of those pin-points of light we call stars are in fact other suns, like our own sun but mind-bogglingly far away. So far away that the words like miles and kilometres do not help and astronomers instead refer to their relative distances in light years (the distance light will travel in a solar year) or approximately 10 trillion kilometres in a year. There are a few pin-points of light over our heads that are not in fact stars – but planets. They are our neighbours and are visible to the unaided eye on a dark and cloudless night. Two of these in particular always attract my attention, Jupiter king of the solar system and Saturn, sometimes referred to as the jewel of the solar system. Although Mars, Venus and Mercury are also visible, it’s the first two mentioned that steal the show. Of course I only fail to mention Uranus and Neptune because being so far away they are a little more difficult to spot without the aid of a telescope.
As an amateur astronomer living in the midlands and one of the greatest pleasures is sharing this wonder with others. To this end, I and other members of Midlands Astronomy Club organise observing sessions on occasion. We bring our telescopes to villages and schools to share with members of the community the wonder an awe of the cosmos. I am always a little taken back by the response from those who for the first time in their lives put their eye to the telescope and see Saturn for the first time – when they see the rings of Saturn with their subtle shading or the gaps between them or the shadow of the rings cast upon its surface. “Wow” is often a word uttered in a quiet and breathless whisper.....or a profanity brought about by sudden surprise. Well who can blame them? I had the same response the first time I looked through a telescope from my own back garden many years ago, and hey, it’s only a mere billion kilometres away. No matter how many images we see on television or on magazines, nothing compares with that first time you see this marvel for the first time.
With a modest pair of binoculars, (yes that’s right, I said binoculars, that little case hanging under the coats in the hall) anyone can step out into their garden - weather permitting and spot Jupiter. Now, to be honest, it won’t be a great ball of hydrogen gas with cloud banding and a great red spot as seen on Discovery Channel – but you will see a tiny glowing sphere with up to 4 tiny dots strung out in a line, perhaps two on one side and two on the other or even three on one side and one or none on the other. These tiny spots are some of Jupiter’s moons (like a solar system within a solar system) they orbit Jupiter with the same precision that our own moon orbits the earth. Jupiter is of course so massive that it could easily accommodate all the other planets of the solar system put together. Mighty Jupiter can be resolved in greater detail in a modest back garden telescope.
By the way (note to yourself) must buy sky atlas... or download one free from Interweby thingy and wipe dust from binoculars.
Yes, the solar system is truly a wonderful treasure chest, and like the anxious enquiry of lord Carnarvon, when he asked Howard Carter whether he could see anything through the small hole he had made in the wall of Tutankhamen’s tomb .....”Wonderful things” were the only words he could utter. That is what it is sometimes like to peer through the hole in my telescope eyepiece – and metaphorically and astronomically we haven’t even left the garden yet.
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