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Astronomy's New Stars

Thanks to new technology, backyard stargazers have traveled light-years of late to join professionals in mapping the heavens

Stargazing, says Timothy Ferris, an awardwinning writer on astronomical subjects who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, “is at once one of the oldest and most ennobling, and one of the newest and most challenging of human activities.” Ferris, 58, has been training an eye on the night sky since he was a boy in Florida and has written ten books and two PBS television programs on the universe and cosmology. He even produced for NASA a recording that was placed aboard the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, and that would, in essence, speak for Earth and human civilization as Voyager hurtled through the solar system. The recording included 90 minutes of music from around the world, natural sounds of Earth, greetings in scores of languages and more than 100 photographs.

In his latest book, published this month by Simon & Schuster and excerpted here, Ferris reflects on his lifelong passion for amateur astronomy and reports on the worldwide revolution that he says is “sweeping through amateur astronomy, where depths of the cosmos previously accessible only to professionals have been brought within the reach of observers motivated simply by their own curiosity.” Contemplating the heavens has earthly benefits, he adds. As Chinese astronomer Xie Renjiang wrote to Ferris recently, “Astronomy is the most significant [way to] unify us. Although we have different skin colors and live in different countries, we should all be family on this planet. No other cause is so noble in my eyes.”

At sundown, at a star party on the high texas plains near FortDavis, west of the Pecos, the parched landscape was crowded with telescopes. Reared against the darkening skies to the west rose a set of rolling foothills known jocularly as the Texas Alps. To the east of us lay dinosaur country, with its wealth of oil.

The stars came out with imposing clarity—Orion fleeing toward the western horizon, pursued by the dog star, brilliant white Sirius, the square of Corvus the crow to the southeast, the scythe of Leo the lion near the zenith. The planet Jupiter stood almost at the zenith; scores of telescopes were pointed toward it, like heliotropes following the Sun. As the gathering darkness swallowed up the valley, the sight of the observers was replaced by land-bound constellations of ruby LED indicators on the telescopes’ electronics, the play of red flashlights, and voices—groans, labored breathing, muttered curses and sporadic cries of delight when a bright meteor streaked across the sky. Soon it was dark enough to see the zodiacal light—sunlight reflected off interplanetary dust grains ranging out past the asteroid belt—stabbing the western sky like a distant searchlight. When the Milky Way rose over the hills to the east, it was so bright that I at first mistook it for a bank of clouds. Under skies this transparent, the Earth becomes a perch, a platform from which to view the rest of the universe.

I had come here to observe with Barbara Wilson, legendary for her sharp-eyed pursuit of things dark and distant. I found her atop a small ladder, peering through her 20-inch Newtonian—an instrument tweaked and collimated to within an inch of its life, with eyepieces that she scrubs with Q-Tips before each observing session, using a mixture of Ivory soap, isopropyl alcohol and distilled water. On an observing table, Barbara had set up The Hubble Atlas of Galaxies, the Uranometria 2000 star atlas, a night-vision star chart illuminated from behind by a red-bulb light box, a laptop computer pressed into service as yet another star atlas, and a list of things she hoped to see. I’d never heard of most of the items on her list, much less seen them. They included Kowal’s Object (which, Barbara informed me, is a dwarf galaxy in Sagittarius), the galaxy Molonglo-3, the light from which set out when the universe was half its present age, and obscure nebulae with names like Minkowski’s Footprint, Red Rectangle, and Gomez’s Hamburger.

“I’m looking for the jet in M87,” Barbara called down to me from the ladder. M87 is a galaxy located near the center of the Virgo cluster, sixty million light-years from Earth. A white jet protrudes from its nucleus. It is composed of plasma—free atomic nuclei and electrons, the survivors of events sufficiently powerful to have torn atoms apart—spat out at nearly the velocity of light from near the poles of a massive black hole at the center of this giant elliptical galaxy. (Nothing can escape from inside a black hole, but its gravitational field can slingshot matter away at high speeds.) To study the structure of the jet to map dark clouds in M87, professional astronomers use the most powerful instruments available, including the Hubble Space Telescope. I’d never heard of an amateur’s having seen it.

There was a long pause. Then Barbara exclaimed, “It’s there! I mean, it’s so there!” She climbed down the ladder, her smile bobbing in the dark. “I saw it once before, from Columbus,” she said, “but I couldn’t get anybody to confirm it for me—couldn’t find anyone who had the patience that it takes to see this thing. But it’s so obvious once you see it that you just go, ‘Wow!’ Are you ready to try?”

I climbed the ladder, focused the eyepiece, and examined the softly glowing ball of M87, inflated like a blowfish at a magnification of 770x. No jet yet, so I went into standard dim-viewing practice. Relax, as in any sport. Breathe fairly deeply, to make sure the brain gets plenty of oxygen. Keep both eyes open, so as not to strain the muscles in the one you’re using. Cover your left eye with your palm or just blank it out mentally—which is easier to do than it sounds—and concentrate on what you’re seeing through the telescope. Check the chart to determine just where the object is in the field of view, then look a bit away from that point: the eye is more sensitive to dim light just off center than straight ahead. And, as Barbara says, be patient. Once, in India, I peered through a spotting telescope at a patch of deep grass for more than a minute before realizing that I was seeing the enormous orange-and-black head of a sleeping Bengal tiger. Stargazing is like that. You can’t hurry it.

Then, suddenly, there it was—a thin, crooked, bonewhite finger, colder and starker in color than the pewter starlight of the galaxy itself, against which it now stood out. How wonderful to see something so grand, after years of admiring its photographs. I came down the ladder with a big smile of my own. Barbara called a coffee break and her colleagues departed for the ranch house cafeteria, but she remained by the telescope in case anyone else came along who might want to see the jet in M87.

Amateur astronomy had gone through a revolution since I started stargazing in the 1950s. Back then, most amateurs used reedy telescopes like my 2.4-inch refractor. A 12-inch reflector was considered a behemoth, something you told stories about should you be lucky enough to get a look through one. Limited by the light-gathering power of their instruments, amateurs mostly observed bright objects, like the craters of the Moon, the satellites of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, along with a smattering of prominent nebulae and star clusters. If they probed beyond the Milky Way to try their hand at a few nearby galaxies, they saw little more than dim gray smudges.

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