Which way does your window look? North, South, East or West? Whatever the way there’s something in the sky to marvel at and perhaps now is the opportunity you needed to find out more about the wonders of your universe. So what are you waiting for?
We live in unprecedented times, we’re often told, but the Sun, Moon and stars are still there, never-changing, ever-changing, as they perform their daily dance across our sky.
Perhaps you have some binoculars sitting in a cupboard, rarely used – or even a telescope, given to you as a gift that you never got round to using? Or if all you have are your eyes then look out – and up – and breathe!
It’s quieter outside now – eerily so at times – and peering into the vastness of space and time takes on a whole new feeling, a whole new meaning. The beauty and serenity of the night sky puts everything into perspective. Time? Yes! Your eyes are a time machine. As you look at a star you’re seeing it as it was hundreds or even thousands of years ago, when those photons started out on their travels, ending their journey at the back of your little eye.
The Sun may give us light and warmth but it’s also a dangerous place. So never look at it – with anything – even your eyes, unless you really know what you’re doing and have the right protective equipment. But the Moon – now that’s a different matter altogether. It’s in our skies for a fair bit of every month, and often during the daytime too. A treasure-trove of seas, craters, mountains, valleys, shadows and light. Even with the naked eye you can make out the maria – the dark patches that are seas of ancient volcanic lava flows – and large impact craters with rays of ejected material, thousands of miles long, spewing out across the scarred Lunar landscape. Your binoculars will show you even more, but through a telescope it’s a dazzling sight, once seen never forgotten. One to be shared with others – though perhaps not just yet…
At night, we may suffer badly from light pollution, where buildings, monuments and bridges, car parks, driveways and shopping centres are carelessly and wastefully floodlit. But you can still make out many of the constellations from our city centres. And surely you must have noticed the beautiful, bright evening star Venus, high in the West after sunset, dazzling and outshone only by the Sun and Moon.
Use a planetarium app on your phone to learn what it is you’re seeing. Many of them you can hold up to the sky as a star map and see just what you’re actually pointing at. Learn the constellations, make friends with them and know their stories: Orion the Hunter with his dogs, Cassiopeia the vain Queen of Greek mythology, Perseus the hero, rescuing the beautiful Andromeda from the sea monster. Enjoy finding out the names of the brighter stars: Rigel, Betelgeuese, Algol the Demon star, Antares the rival of Mars, Aldebaran eye of the bull and follower of the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters – also visible without aid. Maybe you just enjoy the star-lore or perhaps you want to know more: how far, how hot, how large, chemical composition, evolutionary stage. The information is easy to find.
One of our members, Alan Pickup has been writing about the night sky for many decades. His articles are published every month in the Scotsman and on our website. He’ll tell you where the planets are, what constellations are rising in the sky as it gets dark and any special events that are happening – maybe a new comet, meteor shower, eclipse or conjunction, where distancing has a different meaning.
We have a great opportunity to learn more about our place in the Universe and put our current troubles into a cosmic perspective. There’s no doubt things are difficult, tragic for many, uncomfortable for others, life-saving, life-changing even, but maybe we can look up sometimes instead of always down, while we have the chance. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Article and images by Mark Phillips