Double Cluster plus a meteor
A meteor shot through this composition of the Double Cluster (NGC 869 & NGC 884). Both star clusters are about 7,500 light-years from Earth.
Benjamin Law / S&T Online Photo Gallery

You might not think of yourself as a cosmic explorer, but I’ve got news for you.

The other day, I sat reflecting on my life thus far — because I’m middle aged and that’s something I do now. Instead of stewing in regret, I made a point of marveling at the many adventures I’ve had.

Like riding a camel across the sands of Giza to visit the pyramids and stand in front of the Sphinx. Like SCUBA diving and jumping out of an airplane. Like bellydancing on MTV. (This is not two truths and a lie!)

But those exploits are years in the past. I’ve been more limited in the last decade or so — by disability, pain, and the pandemic.

I’ve been lucky in the places I’ve visited, the people I’ve met, and the experiences I’ve had, but it’s been awhile since my last big adventure. It’s easy to get frustrated about being homebound and to start feeling like I never go anywhere or do anything anymore.

But guess what? I’m just getting started.

Sure, standing at the feet of Michelangelo’s David in the Academia Gallery in Florence is breathtaking. But do you know what’s much farther away and even more dazzling? The Double Cluster. And you don’t have to deal with passports or currency exchange to see it.

Even if you get tired of the Double Cluster — but, I mean, how? — there’s a lifetime’s worth of stars, planets, and deep sky objects waiting for you to explore.

The other night, I was outside with the Celestron NexStar 127SLT I’d borrowed from the astronomy club. It was early yet, with Jupiter tangled in the branches of the neighbor’s wild cherry tree and the Moon still below the suburban horizon. The brightest light in the sky was Saturn, an easy and delightful target. The clarity of the planet’s rings gave me a quiet zing — then my jaw dropped when I realized how clearly I was seeing another object nearby.

Titan.

I’d seen this moon before through a smaller scope — but bigger scope, better view. I made M come outside to have a look. He said something like, “Yeah, okay, cool,” while I vibrated with excitement.

“You just saw Saturn and Titan!” I exclaimed. “Do you know how far away that is? Now you’ve been there and back!”

“I’m glad it makes you happy.” M was more amused by me than the view through the telescope. To my mind, he didn’t appreciate that he had, in an instant, taken a journey only a handful of spacecraft have attempted — while never leaving the front porch.

These voyages of awareness have captivated me for years.

At the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake, a “long-out-of-print science fiction writer” named Kilgore Trout asks the narrator to choose two twinkling stars in the night sky, and then glance from one to the other — a distance, Trout says, that takes thousands or millions of years for light to traverse. Trout then speaks of what has just passed between those stars:

Your awareness. . . . That is a new quality in the Universe, which exists only because there are human beings. Physicists must from now on, when pondering the secrets of the Cosmos, factor in not only energy and matter and time, but something very new and beautiful, which is human awareness.

We might not be trussed up in space suits or teleport across the solar system, but we are explorers all the same. When we gaze up at this constellation or that asterism, then turn to a distant nebula or a more distant galaxy, stargazers can claim the same thrill as if we’d trekked to a faraway terrestrial destination. It gives new meaning to “worldliness,” without leaving home.

Maybe that’s a massive rationalization, but this perspective lifts my spirits when I’m feeling physically stuck.

There will be no new discoveries made with my little tabletop Dobsonian or through my binoculars. It’s unlikely a star or comet will be named after me. But I’m taking myself on celestial tours — and traveling millions of light-years in a single evening — all from a patch of grass outside the house.

To borrow again from Vonnegut: If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.


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Comments


Image of Brian-Karas

Brian-Karas

November 4, 2022 at 11:06 pm

I’m a retired NASA physicist, which is part of the reason this article resonated with me. When I was young and wanted to be ab astronomer I had visions of sitting on a mountaintop with my eye glued to the eyepiece of some large telescope. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. I spent most of my career massaging data collected from spacecraft or radio telescopes and used those numbers to do physics. Telescopes are my escape from that. I love looking at some distant object and telling myself that I (at least partially) understand the mechanisms that make it work. That’s the appeal with me. I get to actually see those photons with my own eyes.

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Jen Willis

November 7, 2022 at 4:30 pm

Thanks for sharing the perspective of your experience. Reality often does not match imagination, but can still yield rewards and pleasant surprises. I have a bit of a photon habit myself, and it is a marvelous escape.

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AB

November 5, 2022 at 9:05 pm

Love the idea of taking time to ponder your awareness passing between the stars. Thousands of light years apart, and yet -- suddenly we are connected to them.
Nice article. Hope you get to do some terrestrial travels again too.

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Jen Willis

November 7, 2022 at 4:34 pm

Thanks, AB. For the time being, I'm waiting out the lingering pandemic and a possible (likely) knee replacement surgery for terrestrial travels—and now an awful of rain preventing more celestial adventures. I take solace in knowing that most everything is still there.

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