People have been looking up at the wonder of the night sky probably since there have been people. Regardless of your religious proclivities or culture, you cannot help but be amazed by what you see. It boggles the mind to think about all that is going on out there. Stars are being born and dying, galaxies are being formed, meteors, comets, and other heavenly bodies are moving around at speeds we find hard to comprehend.
After many trials in my life, I remember a time right before I married my current husband back in 1993. My children, my fiancè (now husband) and I lay on blankets on the ground in Michigan and watched a meteor shower. We lived in a very remote area; perfect for watching this awesome event. No nearby city lights and no pollution.
Another one of the most memorable times in my life was when we were visited by Hale-Bopp in the spring of1997. Several nights in a row at about 9:50 PM, this beautiful bright comet could be found high in the western night sky. I was always fascinated by the introduction to the TV show, Star Trek,: Deep Space 9. I even admired the sound effects! Comets are like old-souls in the universe and deserve our respect. Maybe that comment deserves some clarification.
Have you ever thought, “If I can see all of these amazing events with the naked eye, imagine what’s taking place that I can’t see?” I’ve always wanted to visit an observatory. I have been to planetariums with my children, but I’m in awe of the huge powerful telescopes that will show me collisions within the rings of Saturn. I guess I’ll have to put that on my bucket list! Okay, back to comets deserving our respect.
I find amateur astronomy fun and educational pretty much no matter what the topic, however, comets are one of my favorites. The word comet actually comes form the Latin, stella cometa, meaning “hairy comet” referring to its “tail.” A common comet reference I hear is that they are “dirty snowballs.” Where do they come from? A hypothesized spherical cloud of comets called the Oort Cloud that’s about 1 light year (or 5,865,696,000,000 miles) away from our Sun. These objects in the Oort Cloud are largely composed of ices (probably from water, methane, and ammonia.) The theory is this cloud formed closer to our Sun but was scattered far out into space when the giant planets in our solar system evolved eons ago. The Oort Cloud is loosely tied to our solar system but can be affected by the gravitational pull of the Milky Way Galaxy and passing stars. These forces occasionally dislodge comets from within the Oort Cloud and send them towards the interior of our solar system (where we get to see them with the naked eye sometimes).
Looking at the gorgeous photo of Hale-Bopp, it’s hard to believe that comets spend most of their existence as dark balls of gases, ice, rocks, and dust. They are left over from the formation of stars and planets. Comets more closely resemble a ball of material similar to oil or coal. So, they are typically pitch black in color! When a comet closely approaches our Sun (like Hale-Bopp in the above photo), we then get the pleasure of seeing their magnificent ion tails unfurled as the ice melts and becomes gaseous. The closer it gets to the Sun, the faster it travels and the longer and more brilliant its tail. Did you know that most comets have highly elliptical orbits and only come close to our Sun for only a few months; they spend hundreds or thousands of years in the deep solar system. Anything that ancient to me deserves respect. Not to mention, Earth may be in their path some day so we have to keep an eye on them!
A really cool free online tool is Google Sky. Have you tried it yet? All the images are real and it doesn’t matter what the weather outside is like. If you have a computer and Internet connection, you can explore the known universe (and beyond) for free. If you have an Android phone, you can get the free app, Google Sky Map. Just point it at the sky and, voila! It will show you what is in that part of the night sky! You don’t have to spend a lot of money to be a stargazer in 2011. Another one of my favorite tools for beginners to learn their way around the night sky, is Stargazing for Beginners. This is a clear guide on how to use simple binoculars as your stargazing tool. I had questions when I first started stargazing with my binoculars and learned a ton! I thought larger-aperture binoculars would be better because they let in more light (may not be true) and are image-stabilized binoculars, are they really worth the bucks for stargazing? You have to educate yourself on what you really need to increase your stargazing pleasure.
Amateur astronomy has something for everyone. Planets (do you remember how in 2006 they ruled Pluto is no longer a planet?), galaxies, stars, meteors, meteoroids (now you have to look up the difference to seem smart to your kids), and getting to know all the constellations. I will admit, my eyes are not good at spotting all but the easy ones! It’s fun to sit outside on a clear night with your family, away from city lights, ringing phones, televisions, and computer games… and just talk, explore, and get close as a family. If you share the wonders of the universe, our environment, and all the beauty our world has to offer, generations to come will learn to respect her, too.
This is an extra special treat for those that want to explore the topic of astronomy and stargazing seriously. It’s beautiful, captivating, and educational. Enjoy.
To your prosperity and online success,