The sky over Pearl City looking to the southwest
from the downloadable app Cartes du Ciel
Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey
I have taken to spending the post-sunset hours in the backyard with my feet up in a zero gravity chair looking up at the sky. By that time of the evening, the air has cooled somewhat, and at times there is a pleasant breeze making things very comfortable after the heat of the day. There is a lot of light pollution here, but there are still a few stars visible, and of course the brighter planets.
Now, in the process of preparing to relocate, we rid ourselves of a lot of stuff, but somehow upon arrival discovered we had inadvertently included a pair of 10x50 Bushnell binoculars. I'm not at all sure how we acquired them, or why we still have them. But they have come in handy from time to time. Tonight, remembering them hanging on a hook in our room, I took them outside with me.
I set up my chair in a spot where I had a pretty good slice of the sky visible towards the west and southwest, free of the two large trees in the backyard and the neighbor's roof. I hadn't consulted a star chart before doing this -- not wanting to work too hard at this -- so I wasn't sure exactly what I'd be looking at. But the first object I turned the glasses towards was a bright point of light fairly low in the southwest. As soon as the object came in view, I knew exactly what it was: Jupiter.
When I was in the Navy, one of the things I enjoyed doing after late watches was to go up on the signal bridge. Up there was a very powerful set of binoculars mounted in a steel frame. The purpose of them was to spot and identify ships on the horizon. But when you turned them in the vertical direction (and as long as the ship was in calm seas) you could see some pretty remarkable things. Jupiter was always fun because if you looked carefully, you could see several of its moons. If you knew where to look and it was the right time of year, you could see Saturn, although the rings could not be resolved. Mars was a visible red disk, and there were other things you could see as well. At the right latitude, you could catch stunning views of the stellar nursery of the Orion Nebula.
Now the glasses I was holding tonight weren't nearly as powerful. But in looking at Jupiter, I could clearly see two of the moons. I scanned other places and discovered something interesting. Looking up with my aging eyes, I could see maybe one or two stars. With the binoculars, I was able to see many more. Many people have gone to the mountains and looked up at a sky full of stars on a clear winter night. This was close to what I was seeing. There were many that became clear immediately, and a host of others forming a kind of hazy glowing background. I was out there for a good two hours just looking up, kinda wishing for a telescope.
One of my first reliable memories was sitting on the floor at my mother's feet listening to Alan Shepard's suborbital flight on the radio -- yes, on the radio. I was hooked at that point, and that frenetic, sometimes tragic, era we remember as "The Space Race" occupied my every waking moment. Still does, as I bemoan the fact that humans haven't left earth orbit in nearly half a century. As a corollary to that, I developed a serious interest in science fiction, especially the works of Arthur C. Clarke. I was drawn to stories about journeys to other planets using believable technology. It was perhaps inevitable that I would eventually be drawn into the universes of Star Trek and Star Wars, but the drama of the narrative took second place to the demonstration of the technologies. Age and a clearer understanding of challenges of physics lying between humanity and interstellar journeys has led me to the kind of wistful realization that while exploration of our solar system lies within our grasp, the stars will remain forever untouchable.
The universe is unimaginably vast. The area of the known universe calculates out to around 28 digits of cubic light years. We know that there are thousands of planets outside our solar system, a few with orbits around stable stars which might harbor life. But the prison of distance and capability means that if there is another intelligent technological species out there, then we must remain strangers.
Not that its such a bad thing. Until we stop wanting to beat each other's brains out, we have no business exporting our internecine violence to other solar systems.
But, as I've said before, that doesn't stop me from looking up at the night sky at the distant stars and wondering if maybe, just maybe, someone out there is looking back at me, asking the same unanswerable question.
It is the perfect muse with which to gaze speculatively upwards.