Stargazing (like parapenting) has been one of those things I’ve been putting off for later in life, when I can’t do other things. I figure when I can’t get out and run and hike as well as I once did, gazing at the night sky and devoting time to learning the stars would be a good pastime. Even though I am supposedly not actively pursuing celestial knowledge, I love learning about the stars and their mysterious and classical names. I try to pay attention to space weather and set my alarm for the middle of the night when a strong aurora or meteor shower is forecast. I watch the moon habitually.
So when I heard the buzz about the line up of the planets taking place right now in the morning sky, I knew I had to check it out. You can see the planets at various places in the night sky, they are the stars that move, counfounding early sky watchers. The stars are fixed in their spots in the sky, and rotate around Polaris (the current north star) in their positions as a whole. The planets don’t do this, and come and go from the sky as they move along their own orbits around the sun. When we do see them, they travel along the plane of the ecliptic, the flat plane on which all of the planets orbit the sun. What the plane of the ecliptic looks like in the sky is a broad arc from south east to south west (its also where you will more or less find the constellations of the zodiac). Right now there are 5 planets visible along this arc in the hour or two before dawn, from east to west: Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter. Seeing them all laid out like that across the sky really helps you visualize the ecliptic and figure out where you should be looking if you are looking for planets (they won’t be found anywhere else in the sky).
My local library has a lendable telescope, many local libraries in Maine now have them thanks to a Cornerstones of Science grant. I’ve been looking at it since they got it, and with all these planets in the sky, I finally had a good and time sensitive reason to check it out. After a test drive early evening moon viewing, I set up the telescope in the only spot at my house with a view of the southern part of the sky, and set my alarm for 5 am. The sky was dark and clear when I ventured out the next morning and fixed the scope on the brightest thing in the sky. A round white disc came into view, with three bright dots next to it and I realized I was looking not only at Jupiter but three of its moons. I located Saturn and finessed the focus knob to the outer reaches of its capabilities, wondering why Saturn wasn’t round like Jupiter. As I feathered the focus I realized that the oval smudge I was seeing was Saturn with its rings. The gap between the rings and the planet came in and out of focus, and I stopped breathing for a moment in astonishment. I was standing in my driveway, looking at my own little patch of sky seeing something at best 746 million miles away with my own two eyes. I gave Venus and Mars a shot, but nothing compared to seeing Saturn, and I spent the rest of the morning darkness alternating between Saturn’s rings and enjoying my new found understanding, gleaned from comparing planets in the telescope, that Jupiter is REALLY BIG.
Last semester in the Earth history unit of my ocean science class, I taught my students about the age of the solar system (about 4.6 billion years old) and the age of the universe (about 14 billion years old). It is an impossible amount of time to reckon with, but I made the point that we were all there at the beginning (or an instant after it). In a material sense, all of us, every bit of you and everyone you love was formed from matter that exploded into being in the big bang. All of the heavy elements our bodies are made of were synthesized in fusion reactions inside the star that came before our current Sun. That star exploded and scattered those elements across the area of the Milky Way galaxy that eventually became our solar system. I am made of the same stuff as Saturn’s rings. And Jupiter’s moons. I am an animated bundle of star dust, and the atomic particles that make up that star dust have been here since the beginning. I am old. We all are.
You’ve probably seen the meme that circulates from time to time, scrawled on bathroom walls and scraps of paper, about the ghost, the meat skeleton and the stardust. It rang in my head as I watched the sun come up that morning, washing away the planets. It feels even more true now than it did when I first saw it, admonishing us to fear nothing. Once you’ve looked across the solar system and found something beautiful there, is there really anything left to fear?
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