Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Wonder of Stargazing

Jupiter shone like the full moon and four of its satellites - Lo, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto - hung beneath it like pearls on a pendant.

I was viewing the celestial wonders through a 7” refractor telescope at the Montgomery Hill Observatory of Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, California.

Once every month, the astronomy department organizes a “star party” for interested viewers when conditions are suitable.

On this warm October night, the sky was clear and moonless and about 20 families from around the area had gathered for a glimpse of the universe. Parents were having difficulty keeping up with excited, voluble children discovering the treasures beckoning from above.

A 5-meter dome building houses the 7” telescope. Next to it is a 16' x 16' roll-off roof building that houses a 14” reflector telescope. Its targets tonight were the Andromeda Galaxy to the north and the Ring Nebula to the west.

Once we had our fill of telescopic viewings, the real fun began. We scanned the sky with unaided eyes. Dr. Celso Batalha, astronomy professor at the college and the main organizer of the event, was ready with his laser pointer. One by one he traced the Aries constellation, the Pleiades star cluster ("we also call them Seven Sisters") visible just above the hills, the W-shaped Cassiopeia constellation to its left and the Pole Star that could be located by drawing a line from one of its stars, and the Pegasus constellation overhead.

There was hushed awe as the voyage progressed through the stars blazing in the darkness, along and beyond the arc of the Zodiac.

What’s most impressive about the monthly star parties at Evergreen is the sense of wonder they evoke among visitors, particularly among the young. This is how scientists, and poets, are born.

The thought must strike us who flock to the observatory that we can roam the universe on any dark, clear night of the year. All we need to do is step out of the house and gaze upwards. The stars will do the rest.

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