Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Texas Flashback The Second

On our first evening at the Canyon of The Eagles, once we were fed and watered, Lanette and I took the short drive out to the hilltop 'Eagle Eye’ Observatory. It was pitch black by now, which was good news for a pair of eager star gazers like ourselves, but this also provided us with the challenge of finding the place as the sternly named Dark Sky Protocol was in place. Having switched the car headlights off, we progressed very slowly along the winding and climbing road, guided only by the parking lights, until we saw the strip of red runway-like lights leading to the purpose built observatory.

As we stepped out of the car, the bulky mass of the Milky Way could be clearly seen with the naked eye, arching across the sky above us. As we stumbled along in the near pitch black, I pondered upon an astronomical observation I had already made earlier that day: in the States, their Milky Ways are what we would consider to be Mars bars. I idly wondered to myself if they have a Milky Way equivalent? Later research reveals they have something similar, but apparently not as nice, in a Three Musketeers bar.

Our guide to the winter night sky is one Michael Brewster, of the Austin Astronomical Society, and he possesses an infectious brand of quietly excited enthusiasm which enriched our evening no end. His willingness to share his knowledge of the vast array of stars above him is striking, so I suppose you might call him a philastropher. He darts between two telescopes, lining each one up to reveal something even more stunning and beautiful than what went before. The 12.5 and 16 inch telescopes in question take some manoeuvring – if 12.5 and 16 inches doesn’t sound like much to you, trust me, these were big, positively cannon-like, things – but he lines them up swiftly in super quick time with a well practised air. All the while he is pointing out what he plans to show us next with his magical laser pen, which shoots a seeminglessly never ending beam of light heavenwards.

Our late arrival means that it isn’t long before our fellow star gazers head off, which is no bad thing due to their rather annoying tendency to try and out-astronomise my mate Michael Brewster with their tiresome anecdotes. I don’t know if I imagined it, but Brewster seemed to become even more enthusiastic when it was just the three of us, ducking from telescope to telescope, with little utterences of "Do you want to see this?", "Gee, I could show you this" and "I haven’t looked at this in a long time". We followed his recommendations with equal enthusiasm.

First up we get to see Saturn, which floats in the air in an almost artificial fashion (clicking on the links will, I hope, provide you with as close an approximation of what we got to see as I could find). Brewster isn’t satisfied though: it’s not yet high enough in the sky and he reckons it’ll look better later on, and so he adeptly spins the telescope elsewhere.

"Now, see that star there, with another an inch or so directly below it?" Brewster instructed, his laser beam flashing across the sky. "Now look six inches to the left of them, and that really faint star is the star I’m going to show you. And that first star?" Brewster continued, as he shunted the telescope into position. "Well, there’s probably a solar system like ours circling it, and in that solar system there’s probably an advanced civilisation, and amongst that advanced civilisation there are probably some learned thinkers, probably wondering what the point of their existence is. What they’ll never know is that their star exists in order to form a neat isosceles triangle to help me find this here star."

And what a star it was. Or, rather, two stars, beaming at us like a pair of car headlights, one red, the other clearly blue. I moved my eye away from the telescope and inspected them again, but with the naked eye all I could make out was one very faint twinkle. Impressive.

We were still mulling this over as Brewster was getting the next treat in store ready for us; what I think was nearest neighbour, the Andromeda galaxy. Whatever it was, through the telescope I could really get a sense of depth to what I was seeing, rather than a mere two dimensional image, and I felt my knees wobble slightly with vertigo as I sensed myself peering at the cusp of something very vast indeed.

Next came a tour of the Superstars: the likes of Betelgeuse, Sirius and Aldebaran, all of which glared impressively through the telescope at us with strikingly varying colours.
"If you replaced our sun with that star," Brewster told us, referring to one which I’ve since forgotten, "the Earth would be comfortably be enveloped."
"Pretty big then," I sagely concluded.

Next, we got to see something really special. Brewster directed our gaze towards Orion’s Belt, and instructed us to use our newly acquired skill of ‘looking without letting our eyes stay still for too long’. Using this trick, we were able to detect a dark patch in the sky, no bigger than a thumb print, and it was this Brewster told us to focus on.
"That patch you can just about detect," he told us, "is an emission nebula which is a giant cloud of gas, and specifically it’s the Orion Nebula, or, as it’s also known, M42. It might not look like much, but that’s a star nursery some 33 light years across, where stars are right this moment being born, perhaps as many as 150, in the earliest stage of producing solar systems." It was then he invited us to take a look. Wow.

We were getting the impression that Brewster would be happy to show us stars all night, so we began to make our excuses. This prompted Brewster to want to quickly show us even more bits and pieces before we left. We took a final look at Saturn (he was right: it did look even better later on) and then made our way back to the car, our walk somewhat easier now our eyes had adjusted. I don’t know if Brewster packed up and left straight after us. I kind of like to think he stayed there for a good few hours longer.


Ivy the Goober said...

That sounds fun. Great pictures! You really paid attention, Huw. I think you could have passed a test had Brewster given one at the end. :)

Tim-tambolini said...

I agree with Ivy, you did pay good attention! Where those pictures really comparable to what you saw? If so, that is very cool. I had a telescope once and could see every nook and cranny on the moon with it. It was so awesome! I love star gaising. Here on the prairies, just outside the city, the sky is often alive with stars and the aurora borialis. Hence the Saskatchewan motto "Land of the Living Skies".

AnonymousCoworker said...

That sounds fantastic. I know I was nearly bowled over when I fist visited the soutwest of the US and could look up and actually SEE the Milky Way. Wonderful.

Rob West said...

Huw, I'm indescribably jealous. I absolutely adore the night sky, and every time I happen to look at it I ache to know more about it. I'd love to have seen the things you saw.

I can help you out, though, with a little bit of know-it-alling. The "forogtten" star you mentioned (the one that could easily envelop earth) was Betelgeuse.

It is a Red Giant. The basic idea is that at a certain point in a star's life cycle, its core cools and becomes less dense, and it's gravity weakens slighty causing its surface to expand.
Betelgeuse is roughly as large as Mars' orbit. Earth's is about 93 million miles in radius, Mars' is about 3 times that, at about 280 million. That puts Betelgeuse at about 560 million miles in diameter. (The same thing will happen to our own sun in several billion years.)

That's all I know about it. I hope you find this lesson more interesting than obnoxious.

Jona said...

I am so jealous! You lucky thing, and can I tag along next time you go to Texas and visit this place?

Dancinfairy said...

Wow, that is so amazing I would love to do that. I hate the fact that I can only see on average 10 stars in the sky on a clear night because there is too much light pollution from the city. When I go back to Cornwall I spend hours just staring at the sky!

OldHorsetailSnake said...

What a swell fellow Brewster is for showing you the sights. And a swell fellow you are for sharing. Thx., Huw.