Deneb, Aldebaran, Andromeda* and me

the Milky Way NASA

The Milky Way, photograph by NASA

I’ve always loved outer space – the vast scale of it, the foreignness of it, the discovery of it, the beauty of it. I learned this from my mother who shared her passion for science and nature with me from an early age. We spent many nights together looking at the stars.

Andromeda Galaxy by Ted Van

You can find the Andromeda Galaxy on a dark Autumn night in the constellation Pegasus. In this amazing photograph by Ted Van it appears as a large glowing blob in the right half of the picture. To learn how to find the Andromeda Galaxy without a telescope visit http://earthsky.org/tonight/find-the-andromeda-galaxy-in-autumn.

As a child in Bronxville, NY,  we could find quite a lot to see in the night sky, considering we lived in a suburban neighborhood with big trees and streetlights. With just a pair of binoculars and a star chart and our book The Stars by H A Rey we found planets and moons, constellations, the Milky Way, star clusters and even the Andromeda Galaxy.

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11 moon landing

One of the the most famous images from the Apollo 11 mission – Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon, 1969.

When the Apollo 11 Space Mission set off for the Moon in 1969, my mother and I were rapt.

Apollo 11 Lunar Module NASA model

An illustration of the NASA model of the Lunar Module. Mine looked just like it except mine was a bit messier and things kept falling off that had to be reglued… good thing the original held together.

I joined a NASA space club and received full color posters and information about the mission and our Solar System, as well as a Lunar Module model that my mother and I put together. I loved that model – it was endlessly fussy to put together, but when it was completed it looked just like the real one – it even had foil on it that I remember being very difficult to handle.

The following year when I was 10, I was given a book for Christmas by Patrick Moore called Seeing Stars  – it had beautiful full color photographs of celestial bodies.

When my mother took me on my yearly birthday trip to the Natural History Museum in NYC, we always included a visit to the Hayden Planetarium. I loved watching the sun set on the domed ceiling, and to then see the stars starting to twinkle up above. The best part was the thrill of traveling from Earth to the planets beyond – flying in our comfy seats to worlds far, far, away.

In 1973 when we moved to the remote farmhouse in Eastern Canada (see my previous posts c 1970s), the sky was enormous. We could stand outside our house and turn off the lights and see the most incredible array.

Orion's Belt Nebula http://oneminuteastronomer.com orions belt nebula

A section of the constellation Orion, one of the most easily identified of the Northern Sky constellations. I chose this image because it shows the location of the Great Nebula on Orion’s belt – which can be seen with binoculars on a clear moonless, night. http://oneminuteastronomer.com orions belt nebula

When your eyes adjusted to the darkness the glow of the star light was softly visible. There were vastly more stars in Jolicure than in the suburbs of New York City, and so there were many more star clusters, nebulae and other celestial phenomena to look for. We could even see the Northern Lights on occasion, and meteor showers were like bright points of fire falling from above. In the pristine air, and the open wilderness, the Milky Way cut a broad and glittering path across the sky.

My love for star gazing and for learning about the vast universe continued.

In Greece (in the 1980s) when I worked on the south coast of Crete for two seasons at Kommos Excavations, I remember one August in particular that I and two friends took a blanket and some wine and hiked down to the sand dunes near the coast.

Leonid meteor shower 1913 Erick Arnesen

A depiction of the Leonid Meteor Shower from 1913 – note that its so exciting a phenomena that people are fainting. The way the sky is shown is probably somewhat exaggerated, but that’s how it felt when we were watching the Shower from our sandy spot on the south coast of Crete – the sky alight with fire.

We found a spot away from any lights and lay there in the sand and scratchy brush and watched the most spectacular Perseid meteor shower I’ve ever seen. The shooting stars were thick and long tailed – they glowed bright as they trailed across the black heavens. And there was a multitude. It was truly awesome.

Years later my mother moved to Calgary to live with me and my husband and daughters. In the first few years that we’d moved here, there were no houses or schools, no roads or streetlights, behind us. We had a herd of cattle grazing right up to our backyard, and a big herd of deer too. The land swept from our house across the Bow River all the way to the Rocky Mountains without any development, save for one or two barn lights in the far distance. This meant that star gazing was great back then. My mother, my husband and I would wake our little kids and drag them outside to see things in the night sky.

RichardGottardo Rocky Mountains at night

The Canadian Rocky Mountains at night – a beautiful photograph by Richard Gottardo of Calgary. To see more of Richard’s amazing work visit: http://www.richardgottardo.com/gallery-category/personal/

The Northern Lights were sensational in Calgary 16 years ago. Giant beams of white light – like celestial searchlights, rose up from the horizon to the apex of the dark sky. Waves of brilliant color washed across the stars – green, shades of deep blue, violet – even red, splashed and ebbed and flowed high above us. One night the lights were particularly startling as they took the shape of a giant bird with wings outstretched – I kid you not – it was breathtaking.

Dean Cobin Northern Lights

The Northern Lights taken in the Yukon, Canada, by Dean Cobin. To see more images by Dean Cobin visit http://www.deancobin.com/project/the-northern-lights-yellowknife-canada/#5

Now that our new neighborhood is built up, and the City of Calgary has extended west, there are houses and streets out behind our house down to the river and beyond. There is too much light pollution to see more than the very brightest stars or planets despite the City changing all the streetlamps to low emission bulbs.

The last time that we made a concerted effort to see a Leonid meteor shower (without light pollution to diminish it) was a long time ago. Our girls were only about 4 and 7 years old. We bundled them into our car and drove out to beyond the city limits, to a wide open prairie. We found cars parked all along the back roads that night, full of people out to see the falling stars. The girls were unimpressed, but the rest of us enjoyed the comradery and the vision of fire shooting across the black sky.

The Northern Sky is very different now from when I was a little girl. The stars haven’t changed, but there a is constant, crisscrossing of traffic above our planet, made up of satellites and probably space junk. We used to look for the International Space Station whenever it went over our house;  it was like a bright white planet floating in a graceful arc.

solar system from www.seasky.org

The Solar System, the way I learned it as a kid, included the planet Pluto. Nowadays its only considered a cold and distant lump of rock orbiting on the far edge of our Solar System. (image from http://www.seasky.org)

I admit that watching satellites can be fun too – but it does sadden me that there is so much up stuff there now.

The world and its place in the solar system was much more exciting to me as a child when it was a rare and exciting thing to see a satellite going by and Pluto was still a planet.

 

*Deneb : Deneb is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnas (aka the Swan, the Northern Cross). It is one of the most distant stars that you can see with the naked eye and also one of the most brilliant – it is a super giant star, and it is white hot. To learn more about Deneb and find out how to find it in the Northern Sky visit http://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/deneb-among-the-farthest-stars-to-be-seen

*Aldebaran :  Aldebaran is a huge reddish orange colored star glowing in the eye of the constellation Taurus the bull. It is easily seen in the winter sky. To find it visit http://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/aldebaran-is-taurus-bloodshot-eye

*Andromeda : The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest galaxy to ours. It can be seen in the Northern Hemisphere with the naked eye or with binoculars on a moonless, clear Autumn night. To find out how visit http://earthsky.org/tonight/find-the-andromeda-galaxy-in-autumn

Update December 9th, 2014 – I just saw this beautiful night sky video of Banff and Jasper National Parks by Jack Fusco created for Travel Alberta and had to add a link – please take a minute to view…  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wp4xVLnVIFA

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