The past few years have been hectic to say the least. There has been no relent in the barrage of stories on a weak economy, global unrest, destabilizing environments, and gross political incompetence at a time we desperately need action. So I tried a radical new course of action recently and was completely satisfied with the results. I turned off the television after watching the Grammys, and instead of watching the 11 o’clock news I went outside. Doing that in Florida is a gamble with hungry mosquitoes. Thanks to a recent high pressure system from the north gripping the nation, there were cool skies and a light breeze to contend with. I turned off the lights outside, and looked up at the stars with a sense of wonder I first felt as a child. If there was anything America could use right now, its a dose of childhood wonder. Just like a trip to the moon energized a nation and spurred innovation, we are on the brink of a new journey.
To the dismay of many NASA fans, the thirty-year shuttle program was recently canceled by Obama in an effort to reduce the budget. Much less publicized was the ‘why’ of his actions. The goal is to graduate the industry of space travel from publicly funded and operated missions to private sector venture-capitalism. That’s right. The plan to colonize space is to let our defense-budget fattened aeronautics companies build rockets and let us “swing amongst the stars” to borrow a phrase from Frank Sinatra. Couple that with a recent study published last month in Nature finding on average 1.6 planets per sun-like star just in the Milky Way, approximately 160 billion planets total. Even though there are 200 billion galaxies in the universe, traveling the distance between two galaxies is a feat that seems impossible by today’s standards. The first steps are easily attainable by today’s technology. Newt Gingrich isn’t that crazy when he says America could have a lunar colony in the near future. In fact, using the Moon as a launch point makes a lot of sense from a physics standpoint, and depending on the abundance of Helium-3 (a fuel source) may be economically preferable, too.
But until the day American assembly lines come back to life pumping out Ray Bradbury’s rockets, we can all look up into the night sky and smile at the possibilities. Which of those glowing balls of light just like ours has it’s own ball of dirt and oxygen like ours? What would we call the first one? It gets me every time. In pursuit of this potential hobby, I have come across two useful items that would benefit the beginner astronomer.
The first is a useful tool that has been used for hundreds of years and is credited with the founding of modern science; the telescope! It’s been just over four hundred years since Galileo used his telescope to observe the four moons of Jupiter, and our precision at crafting lenses has appreciated much since then. Why not see the moons of Jupiter for yourself? Or the rings of Saturn? And any of the myriad stars and nebulae filling our night sky? As advertised on Telescopes.com, the AstroMaster 114 EQ Reflector telescope is advertised to do all of the above with no batteries needed for high quality, analog fun with the family. The entire setup weighs seventeen pounds and comes with a two year warranty. The best part is that it’s currently on sale for 60% off, making it only $150. A scientific instrument for a bargain, that is what I look for when it comes to consumer technology.
The second useful thing I recommend is the free software ‘Stellarium’. The project is provided through the GNU general public license the same way Linux is provided free and available online, and has been actively improved since 2001. It is also compatible with Windows and Mac’s OS X for more mainstream users. The program offers a very clean, versatile, and intuitive display of the night sky for any location on Earth or the universe; imagine the view seated on the back of Haley’s Comet! Extra star catalogs can be accessed to view over 210 million known stars to day, and hopefully in the future will include the hundreds and thousands of planets we come across. Even if you sadly never look through a telescope for the rest of your life, I would recommend Stellarium to everyone for a chance at seeing the night sky as it looked before we erected all of these light poles.
So whenever life gets you down Mrs. Brown, just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving at 900 miles per hour. Monthy Python had it right, too. Don’t let the dull roar of life on Earth bog you down. Take a break, go out on your back porch tonight while the season is right, turn the lights off and admire the night sky. After all, it’s one of those little things in life that are still free.