Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The wonders of space

I've always been interested in space. The sheer unimaginable scale of space. The possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Spaceships. Men on the moon. Many an hour I've spent watching the stars, with little comprehension beyond the known solar system. I could name a few of the more obvious constellations, find the North star, and have been able to point out Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Venus and even Mercury on one occasion. I'm particularly fond of the International  Space Station. I watch it fly across our skies regularly at 17,500 mph some 250 miles above earth, and follow several astronauts on Twitter both whilst they're up there tweeting from the ISS and afterwards once they're back on terra firma.

And so it was with some delight and significant surprise that for my birthday this year, my good lady bought me a telescope. Not any old scope mind you, but a Skywatcher 200 Dobsonian. That's it there in the photo!
It's almost as big as it looks! It's got an 8" mirror in the bottom and is a wonderful bit of kit. Easy enough to set up and pretty much point and look in use. I've been somewhat hindered by cloudy skies since I've had it. However, I've seen the moon where the detail is awesome, and a few stars (which just look like slight bigger versions of the ones I can see with my eyes!). I've even managed to find the Andromeda galaxy, although even with this beast it's little more than a slightly brighter blotch in the sky. Apparently it is visible with the naked eye in some darker skies, although with my eyes there's no chance. There's an interesting article about the Andromeda galaxy, and how big, relatively, it actually is here.

Last night was probably the clearest the sky has been since I had the scope and I spent some time trawling the skies. I found the Orion nebula (another milky blotch, although a distinct blotch! The other things about looking through a scope is being blown away by the sheer number of stars up there - you can point it at what appears to be a black and empt patch of sky, but when looking through the eyepiece all you can see is countless stars. It really is amazing.

My most wondrous moment however was finally seeing the massive planet of Jupiter and all four of it's moons. I've seen Jupiter before - it's easily visible as a huge bright planet with the naked eye, and I've also seen some of it's moons through binoculars, as tiny pinpricks of light. Through the scope though not only could I see all four moons aligned in a straight line, but Jupiter itself as a distinct and clearly visible planet, with the stripes from it's cloud formations very visible. It was a real "wow" moment for me - forget the picture you see - when you see it like that with your own eyes it's a tremendous feeling.

I even managed to take a photo. It's a crap photo, as it was taken handheld with an iPhone 6 held about 1cm away from the scope's eyepiece, and so full of movement which blurs the picture. It was taken with my widest angle eyepiece on the 'scope which can't make out the detail I described above (I used a greater magnification eyepiece to get that detail) but you can tell it's there, and you can clearly see the four moons. It's a ropey picture, but it's mine, my first ever picture of Jupiter, and I love it!

If you're even remotely interested in what's up in the heavens, I'd recommend an app such as Sky Guide (this is the iTunes link) which is brilliant and helps you start to understand what's where and find all sorts of stuff. It's £1.49 but frankly that's less than the price of half a pint of beer (and no, I have no link to the app of the developer).

If you're a Twitter user, following astronauts is easy. Currently NASA astronaut Terry Virts (@AstroTerry) is aboard and tweeting from the International Space Station (ISS).

A prolific tweeter of all things space and astronomy, including the times of ISS passes is @VirtualAstro

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