Exploring the Heavens at Home
By “Awake!” correspondent in Australia
WITH the advent of television in many parts of the world, the joys of creating, exploring or adventuring have diminished. Entertainment takes up much of the leisure time many have available. However, the thrill of seeking new knowledge and exploring beyond known boundaries is something that has moved men to risk their wealth and even their lives.
Would you like to explore the craters and mountains of the moon or get to know better the planets of our solar system? What about a closer look at the Milky Way galaxy, of which our sun is a part, or the vast galaxy of Andromeda, which is a staggering 1,500,000 light-years away?*
These are just some of the exciting things that have opened up to thousands of individuals and families who have taken the time to explore the heavens with the aid of binoculars or a small telescope. In this way they have been able to view tens of thousands more stars than just the 2,000 or so that one normally sees with the naked eye on a clear night; and in so much more detail! What appears to the unaided eye as a single star becomes two or more. Details of the moon’s craters, Saturn’s rings and multitudinous star clusters become visible.
Obtaining a Telescope
A simple pair of binoculars will reveal much to you, but if you want to explore farther you will need a small telescope. There are two types commonly available from commercial manufacturers: lens-based refractors, two to five inches (5 to 13 centimeters) in diameter, and mirror-based reflectors, four to 12 inches (10 to 30 centimeters) in diameter. For the same diameter, reflectors weigh less, are shorter, easier to carry and store and generally cost less than refractors.
The purpose of a telescope is to gather in as much light as possible as well as to magnify. A two-inch (5-centimeter) unit funnels into the eye about 60 times more light than the eye normally captures. A three-inch (7.6-centimeter) one captures about 140 times more light. A larger telescope gives a brighter picture with more details, but is more expensive. Whether buying one new or secondhand, it is wise to obtain it first on a trial basis, if possible.
On the other hand, you may choose to make your own telescope and its stand right at home. This can be done inexpensively and without spending a great deal of time. One interested in making a telescope must purchase suitable lenses, but can improvise the rest. Telescopes are available also in kit form at quite a saving. A good handbook on amateur astronomy can help you at both constructing and testing a telescope.
Viewing the Sun
Can you explore the sun with a telescope? Yes! BUT BE CAREFUL! Never, under any circumstance, should you look directly at the sun through a telescope or binoculars. You could be permanently blinded! However, it is possible to project the image from the telescope onto a screen and cut down other light falling on it. This permits exploring the sun’s surface. If you do this, before long you will make an interesting discovery. The sun’s surface is not all bright! It also has some dark patches on it.
These are “sunspots.” Some are far bigger than the earth. They are composed of gas that is cooler than the rest of the sun’s surface, even though the sunspots may be 4,000 degrees Celsius (about 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit). They can appear, disappear and change in shape and are always shifting position due to the fact that the sun rotates on its axis once in a little less than a month. Some find it interesting to plot the progress of sunspots.
Every 11 years or so there is a period of maximum activity of sunspots. The next is expected in 1980. Yes, there is much to see and learn about our sun. But remember: BE CAREFUL!
Exploring the Moon
You will find it interesting to take a good look at our nearest neighbor, the moon. A fine occasion for this is during the first quarter and on until the moon is half full. At that time long shadows make its landscape stand out more clearly. A look through the telescope will reveal rugged, towering mountains on the lunar surface. There are also rolling plains (which at one time were thought to be seas), gigantic craters, jagged cliffs and all sorts of other landmarks. But not a drop of water!
Man has also discovered that the moon’s soil contains the same elements as the earth’s, but in different proportions. And contrary to some popular misconceptions, the moon has one of the darkest surfaces of any body in the solar system; it reflects only 7 percent of the light that falls on it. Nevertheless, it is sufficient to provide a soft, pleasant illumination at night for earth’s inhabitants. This highlights its Scripturally stated purpose of being the “lesser luminary for dominating the night.”—Gen. 1:16.
On to the Planets
Although the planets are much farther away, there is still much about them of interest to explore.* Venus, often called the morning or evening “star,” is a good starter. Most of the time one can view it either during late morning or early evening hours. Doing so will reveal that Venus goes through phases just like our moon.
Jupiter is usually the next brightest. It is the largest planet of our solar system, being about 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) in diameter. This planet has 13 known moons, four of which you will be able to locate with a small telescope. However, they may play “hide and seek” by changing positions, or by one or two disappearing for a while as these moons travel in their orbits around Jupiter. You may also see Jupiter’s belts or streaks as well as its mysterious red spot.
Then there is Saturn, a thrilling masterpiece of God’s creation, with its beautiful ring system. This magnificent set of three rings of varying brightness is thought to be composed of millions of tiny particles, each behaving like a satellite of the planet. They are quite a spectacle!
The bright-red planet Mars with its polar ice caps is intriguing too. But with a small telescope one can study it in detail only every two years, when it comes closer to the earth. If you did not see Mars in 1977, it will be necessary to wait until 1979.
Still Much More to See
After exploring our solar system, a person can reach out farther into the depths of space. The stars! How beautiful they are, hanging like shining jewels against the blackness of night! With some you find that what appeared to be just one star is really two or more, close together.
Alpha Crucis, brightest star of the Southern Cross, and Beta Cygni in Cygnus the Swan are examples. The latter consists of a yellow star with a smaller blue one revolving around it. Hazy patches in the sky prove to be large numbers of closely packed stars. And how thrilling to discover the delightful colors of these heavenly bodies, from bright red to gold, green and blue. How true the words of an inspired Bible writer, expressed without the aid of a telescope: “Star differs from star in glory.”—1 Cor. 15:41.
It is fascinating, too, to contemplate that many stars that we see are thousands of light-years away. That means people view them, not as they are now, but as they were when the light left them that long ago. For example, when Chinese astronomers in 1054 C.E. noted an exploding star in the constellation of Taurus (the Bull), they were viewing an event that had occurred about 3500 B.C.E., during Adam’s lifetime. Time and distance strain the limits of comprehension as you explore the universe.
Again, consider the Andromeda galaxy. This is notable as the most distant object that can be seen with the naked eye. It is nearly nine quintillion (9,000,000,000,000,000,000) miles (some 14,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers) away from us. As we look tonight at that faint nebulous glow in Andromeda, the light that enters our eyes is ending a journey that started one and a half million years ago. How far one can see on a clear night! It is an awesome realization, almost as if one were looking into eternity.
The scope for exploring is unlimited. There is always the thrill of seeing a gigantic fireball light up the heavens, or a “shooting star” (meteor) blaze a fiery trail through the darkness. It has been estimated that 90 million meteor trails can be seen during any 24-hour period over all the earth, though many are only momentary. They can be seen more often in the early morning because then the part of the earth where you live is facing forward in its journey around the sun and is meeting the meteors head on. At certain times of the year spectacular meteor showers occur, as the earth plows through a stream of meteors that are themselves revolving around the sun.
Occasionally you may even have the opportunity to view a partial eclipse of the sun or moon, or even the rare occurrence of a total eclipse, as happened in Australia in 1976.* And do not forget the man-made satellites that human technology has succeeded at placing in orbit. In Sydney, Australia, about 12 of these can be seen each week with the naked eye. Binoculars will serve best for a closer examination.
Exploring the heavens at home can be of great enjoyment to young and old. Whether a person does his observing with the unaided eye or explores in greater depth, one cannot help but echo the words recorded at Psalm 8:3, 4: “When I see your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have prepared, what is mortal man that you keep him in mind, and the son of earthling man that you take care of him?”
A “light-year” is the distance that light travels in a year at the speed of some 186,000 miles (more exactly, 299,338 kilometers) a second. A single light-year amounts to nearly six trillion (5,878,000,000,000) miles (9,460,000,000,000 kilometers)!
See Awake! of August 22, 1975, pages 12 to 16, for more details.
See Awake! of May 8, 1977, pages 16-19, for details.