Wednesday, March 26, 2008

First Light

My big, dumb, cheap telescope arrived last week. So last weekend I did a surgical strike, driving into the Big City, and right back out again, through a snow squall no less, to get it.

It was cloudy the next 2 nights. Sigh.

Monday night, after the girls were in bed, Hucky went to the office to tame her monstrous and ever-growing to-do list, and I took the baby monitor and a beer and the telescope into the backyard. Shockingly simple to set up, and to align the viewfinder. Which is, of course, the main advantage of big, dumb and cheap.

The first thing I pointed to was the Pleiades, the seven sisters driven loony by the light of the moon, left to dance high in the sky through eternity. Found it right away. It was a tad disappointing - didn't have a big enough field of view to get the whole structure in the eyepiece. Did see a wisp of nebula around one of the stars, which was kinda cool.

Next up was the Orion Nebula (pictured above), which nearly always takes my breath away, and it was no disappointment (it's in Orion's sword, just below and to the left of the 3-star belt, and big and bright enough to see with binoculars). It's a stellar nursery, a great swath of molecular cloud lit up by the stars being born inside it. The four stars of the Trapezium were clearly visible (the Trapezium - diagrammed below - is four gravitationally bound stars, and their orbits around each other are so complex they have never been successfully modeled). I checked it out with both eyepieces, then the area surrounding it, and am pretty sure I found de Mairan's Nebula (in the lower left of the picture above), which is part of the same molecular cloud, but separated visually by a dark lane of dust (which was as impressive as the nebula itself).

Spent 5 or 10 frustrating minutes trying to get Saturn into view (remember, I'm still pretty new at this), then gave up and went inside to get another beer and check on the girls. And that second beer did the trick. I went back outside and realigned the scope and found Saturn almost immediately. It was the sight of the night. Rings clearly visible, the shadow of the rings visible on the planet itself. Wow. I think I found the moon Titan too, big and bright and hanging off to the left (I don't have enough game to positively identify moons yet). Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis have probably figured out I have a fascination with the moons and rings and other weird crap orbiting Saturn. I spent a half an hour or so looking at it with both eyeieces, playing with focus, trying to discern as much detail as possible.

That was the highlight of the night. Went to the Beehive Cluster, which, like the Pleiades, was too big to see well through the eyepiece, and then to Mars, which was just a feaureless orange ball. But my night had been made. First by the Orion Nebula, then by Saturn.

I get a powerful feeling when I look at the stars that I cannot entirely explain. It's a visceral, almost frightening thrill, like something immensely important is about to be revealed to me. I'm not exaggerating the intensity of the emotion. I think of it as a pre-religious reaction, meaning it's the impetus to religion, the feeling that lures one to belief. Not the belief itself, but the impetus to the belief. That distinction is important to me, though I don't know why exactly. I don't believe in a God that has any day-to-day control over human events. But there is no denying the feeling coursing through my blood, tickling my nerve endings, flooding my brain, lurking in my dreams.


Eric Shonkwiler said...

Tried to leave a comment on your 2001 post, didn't go through. Hopefully this will intercept the lady -- anyone who says "holy cats" is aces with me.

Great description, the impetus of belief. I like that. The simple sublime. I get what I think could be the same sort of feeling, thinking of everything out there. The scale of it.

Victoria Gothic said...

You remind me of the transcendentalists. It’s a comforting thing to know that such thinkers are still around. I may not have agreed with everything they said, but the world does need them, now more than ever to balance all the other stuff permeating society these days. I love the moon, its effects in night. In fact, for the past few days, I’ve been able to see it in the blue sky every morning as I go to school. But I’m not nearly as knowledgeable on the star aspect of it. My father knows all of the number crunching star related phenomenon, and I prefer to leave it that way since I had a hard enough time adding up the sections of my SAT to get my composite score.

Irrelephant said...

Looking up even with the unaided eye I get the chills. There's SO MUCH out there, and here we are, tinkering around with this and that, muddling through it all.

I'm getting geared up to purchase a new, bigger lens for my camera--here's hoping a beer or two will help me use it as well as you seem to have adjusted to The Big Dumb. *lol*

Nancy Dancehall said...

*tapping foot*

You come to town for your big eight-incher, you don't stop by and I'm left holding yer Little Dickel. NOT feeling the love here.

*grumble grumble excellent post grumble grumble I get the same feeling looking through a microscope grumble*

Mona Buonanotte said...

Since I was a kid, I get this mixed emotion when I look up at the stars...I'm so small comparatively...and yet I feel so large in the world. I'm sure that's my ego, and I blame Carl Sagan for some of my misguidedness!

Clowncar said...

Yeah, the scale is what it's all about, Eric. The scale and the closer you look, the weirder it all gets.

Gotta love the transcendentalists, Vicky G. Emerson, Thoureau. Glad to know someone is still reading them. "We will walk on our own feet, we will work with our own hands, we will speak our own minds."

I need more than a couple beers to figure it all out, Irr. All I founf was the big, glitzy stuff. We're all going galaxy hunting this weekend, which is a great deal more difficult.

Sorry, Ms. D'Ancehall. We had a dinner thing that night, so I had no time to linger. Plus, I had to run a quick errand to get a little something special for Rockygrass (hint, hint). So you'll just have to hold my lil Dickel a bit longer.

To me, Mona, it's less about feeling small and more about it all seeming so strange and beautiful and unknowable. I loved Sagan, growing up. As you've probably gathered.