At some time, we all look up and wonder about a bright star or marvel at the Milky Way when away from city lights. In that way everyone has a connection with astronomy, the oldest of the sciences.
The spirit of stargazers is as old as the cave drawings of the Moon and stars etched by some primitive human tens of thousands of years ago.
The night sky was mysterious to ancient stargazers, and in a way, it still is today. It takes a moment to realize that that Sun, Moon and stars move in the sky over our head because it is the Earth moving below our feet.
The knowledge of the night is officially celebrated this Saturday on National Astronomy Day, also observed world-wide.
Across the fruited plain of America, museums, science centers and space places will be talking all day about the wonders of the night. Catch the family fun activities at your closest science center.
Maybe you had a parent or friend help you understand the seasons or maybe you got the stargazing bug and learned to trace the dot-to-dot patterns of the constellations. You don’t have to be kid, you can get turned on to the hobby of astronomy at any age.
Unlike painting, quilting, pottery or any other hobby you can think of, in astronomy, nobody owns the original. Everyone has access to the authentic article, whether brightest star Sirius 8.2 light years away or the Andromeda Galaxy 2.2 billion light years distance. You, in a sense, own the Universe!
The reward for every amateur astronomer showing people the sights in a telescope is the “Wow!” factor. That 1st look at Saturn is never forgotten—I’ve been asked many times if there’s a picture taped on a telephone pole that we’re looking at! That look in binoculars at The Pleiades star cluster is like a hundred dazzling diamonds. And the long gaze at the Andromeda Galaxy makes you wonder if anyone is looking back.
Amateur astronomers are a lot like birdwatchers (except there is three or four times more of them). Both hobbies attract Renaissance people—involved in many liberal arts disciplines from music to writing. Basically, good people to hang out with, and usually full of great stories and insight. And they’ll know what that bright star is in the evening twilight these Spring evenings (Venus).
Do you want to escape the doldrums or just clear your head? Pull out the lawn chair, dress appropriately for weather, and just lay outside under the stars. You’ll see satellites, maybe a meteor and lost of stars.
Sit or lay out in the shadows away from neighborhood lights. Allow your eyes a good 15 minutes to adapt to the dark and you’ll see much more. A red light will not ruin that “night vision,” but avoid any white light or you start all over dilating your eyes in the dark.
Starlight is something very special. It acts like a wavelength—that’s where we get the color like when a prism separates those wavelengths into red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. And starlight acts like a particle, entering your eye and bouncing around your retina. A piece of that star has entered your body, and just think about it, we are absorbing starlight just like sunlight.
Stars are also a time machine, as the distances are so incredibly far that even at an amazing 186,000 mile per second, starlight takes dozens, hundreds and even thousands of years to reach our eye. That’s what a telescope is, a time machine, showing us celestial wonders as they once were, not knowing how they have changed.
Amateur astronomy has many different areas that appeal to some but not all. There are those who enjoy watching variable stars change in brightness over days, weeks and months (there are hundreds of these stars). Others hunt for double and multiple star systems (two thirds of all stars we see have a companion).
Many amateur astronomers enjoy the planets and Moon from their light polluted backyards. They aren’t affected by the lack of dark sky. But when away from civilization and those pesky security lights, most amateur astronomers like hunting down the “faint fuzzies,” those galaxies and nebulae that look like a grey dust ball under the bed. It took photography to reveal the true nature of the Great Nebula of Orion being a huge stellar nursery and Andromeda being an island of hundreds of billions of stars like our own Milky Way Galaxy.
A funny thing about being an amateur astronomer…how can you know so much about something and still be an amateur? You don’t see amateur biologists dissecting frogs on the sidewalks. Or amateur chemists making polymers to a park audience. Yet.
Amateur astronomers number about 500,000 in America. The set-up telescopes and binoculars in parking lots, rural meadows and parks, showing off the jewels of the night.
Most everyone has a star story. A lot of us have seen our first meteors on a camping trip with family or scouts. Maybe you remember Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, or that 2003 closest approach of Mars. And how about the 2017 Great American Eclipse when our favorite star hid behind the Moon?
Yeah, admit it, you, too, enjoy astronomy. Your ears perk up hearing news about planets orbiting other stars, and your eyes remember the latest incredible image from the Hubble Space Telescope you’ve seen.
And when there is another “Super Moon,” or that special “Super Blue Blood Moon,” who you gonna call? You’re astronomy friend, that’s who! And they’ll always tell you to keep asking cosmic questions and keep looking up.