I got a chance to visit the night sky again when I went home to Florida recently. It’s been a long time since I looked up in quiet appreciation. At this time of year the earth looks outward to the edge of the Milky Way and beyond. That means there are very few features to see except stars unless you have a powerful telescope.
In Florida at 23° latitude, the Big Dipper and Orion are visible in the same sky. That does not happen easily in Indiana skies at 40° latitude. There is a feature in Orion that can take your breath away when you understand what you’re seeing. More on that in a minute.
When you look up at the stars, all you see are a bunch of dots. When you look through a telescope at the stars, though, you can see…well, a bunch of dots. Stars are so distant that magnification is almost meaningless; they don’t get bigger. But if you have a large enough lens, you can see more stars and more color. In astronomy, size matters.
If you look through a medium-sized (8” wide) telescope at something besides a star, don’t get your hopes up. It will look nothing like any picture you’ve been privileged to see in the past fifty years. The human eye is not capable of gathering light and building an image the way a camera can. The bright bands and storms of Jupiter are barely-visible pastel features. It seems a little anticlimactic to see the Great Pink Spot. You can see Saturn’s rings occasionally in focus and, on a good night, the shadow they cast on the planet. Mars remains a larger dot (which magnifies only because it is close to our planet). Nebulae are barely-visible clouds of gray vapor.
But you’re looking at the real thing in real time; and when you think about that and your place in the universe, suddenly you get the true picture at just how small and insignificant we are in the scheme of things. This is sobering and exhilarating at the same time. The more I learn about the nature of our universe, the closer I feel to God. He is revealed to me in the complex and intricate interactions of forces and matter that make up what we know about the nature of reality; and we know so little. It is a joy to learn new ways to understand the physical plane because it reveals the spiritual plane as well. Art is a window to the artist’s soul.
I turn my eye to Orion—remember Orion?—and look at the three almost horizontal stars that make the belt. Below the belt are three or more vertical stars that comprise the sword. On a dark winter or spring night where there are few lights, you can make out a greenish-gray cloud around the central stars of the sword. In 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars—aperture is everything!—you can see textured clouds of dust illuminated by the light of newborn stars: a cosmic nursery. 1200 light years away, a star is born.
Have you lost your childlike Wow Factor? Looking at deep space objects through just a pair of regular binoculars should bring it back. Find a basic star map to know where to aim, and look up. Wow.