Skip to main content

Celestia, Campfire and Astronomy

I remember every little detail from that weekend trip. From the very first moment when we stepped into the bus that took us to the mountain base, throughout the rest of the first day when we climbed down into small cave with narrow hallways toward the small chamber at it's end. I vividly remember glorious, endless and hard-to-find second cave we stepped in the very next day, followed by overwhelming feeling and little fear when we passed through cave chambers, cutting the darkness with handy tools and small flashlights.

I will always hate myself, for not having a camera to capture surrounding scenery when we traveled by train later that afternoon, who looked like it came right out of 19th century with wooden benches rolling the railways slower than Usain Bolt. All those rock formations and abandoned train stations were slowly losing their battles with nature and were looking exactly like a background from Sergio Leone's spaghetti western movies.

Night Sky and Perseids by Brad Goldpaint (Goldpaint Photography)*

But, what I will remember the most is the first camping night between the caves. It was an extraordinary experience only camping fire can provide.

It was hot middle of the summer and the forest was mysterious and kind in the same time. I don't remember exact year though, but it surely was during my late teenage years, most likely in July or August of 1987. Along with couple of my peer friends, I was laying down in the middle of a forest clearing on the top of my brand new sleeping bag hypnotically starring toward the nightly sky. I glimpsed the watch and saw that midnight passed just an hour ago. The camp fire was vividly glowing around the small glade surrounded by dark and trees. It was the perfect time and soon it was about to begin. As planned, first one came on schedule leaving a straight line on the sky for a millisecond or two. Shortly after, another one fractured the nightly sky, then another one and another and another...and then it was a shower. The Perseids. The icy fragments entering the Earth atmosphere every summer, body parts of the comet Swift–Tuttle traveling in this neighborhood every 130 years providing lots of meteors for our camping TV. That particular year we planned our adventure by the Moon motion or to be precise we wanted to go on the trip when there was no Moon on the sky most of the night during its crescent phase. Without light pollution from the Earth and the Moon, the sight was amazing - perseids, thousands of stars, nebulas, galaxies and planets, Milky Way in the center of our view, planes, artificial satellites passing by throughout constellations with their leader of the time - Russian space station "Mir" which was probably one of those brightest moving dots we saw that night. If you didn't see such sight you would be surprised how night sky is actually dynamic. If you add to the scene strange sounds coming from the surrounding forest made by sleepless birds and wild animals you get perfect entertainment for the big portion of the night. It was our first camping and the fear from the unknown little spoiled the event but in our defense without any experienced guides or team members I can assure you that every suspicious sound came from the forest sounded like ultimate wild predator hungry for young humans. Anyway, little because of the fear, much because of active heavens we finally fell asleep little before dawn and successfully slept for an hour and a half ready for the next day.

Space station Mir (1986-2001)

That really was one great summer and this trip would stay on top of my adventurous history, from many perspectives. But, it wasn't the one who triggered my interest in science and astronomy. I couldn't say what it was for sure and probably, among many things, at the very beginning, it was one scientific toy my parents bought for me when I was really young. It was one toolkit box** - an optical set of plastic parts and various lenses providing you to build different gadgets such as microscope, binocular, spyglass, kaleidoscope, diapositive magnifier, prism tools etc. It was my favorite toy for many years. Other equally important trigger is my failure to comprehend the word "infinite" and my everlasting desire to understand its meaning. It was bugging my mind ever since I started to look up at night. Even today, after dozen of courses of various mathematics I had to pass during my high school and university education, infinity is staying the biggest unknown, lying right there, far beyond my scope. There were years in my youth when I was convinced that infinity actually doesn't exist at all. I loved the idea that cosmos is curved to the 360° degrees in all directions. I desperately wanted to believe that if you go with your spaceship straight up, eventually you will reach the same spot only from the opposite direction, just like the surface of Earth and its two-dimensional fully closed curve. Of course, today within the mainstream scientific thought there are many evidences that expansion of our universe is real but still it doesn't solve infinity of it. At least in my mind. Even though the probable fact that our universe is just a part of multiverse neighborhood where our cosmos is expanding into something bigger, to me it is only stretching the infinity out, only this time far beyond our borders. Maybe one day we will find the definite answer.

From the other perspective, if we are looking to the 'infinite' trouble only from our rational mind, we have to admit that human race is extremely young, evolutionary speaking. The real handicap is that we are living in a 'finite' world. Everything that surrounds us has its beginning and the end. At least it seams so and even though we today learned great deal about our position within celestial realm, we only scratched the surface of it. We only managed to set a foot or two (or 12 to be exact) on the Moon and we only started to explore our own Solar system. Due to our own limitations in form of our unwillingness and hesitations to deal with unknown and/or our own animosities for each other in form of militant behavior throughout our history, this is still very slow process but inevitably, one day, in not so far future, will come when in lack of enough energy to sustain the humanity as we know it, we all will have to start looking up and not for searching for the divine but for our own pure survival. Then our own evolution will speed up and skip some gears toward answers to many inconceivable questions.

Viktor at Rundetårn observatory, Copenhagen

Anyway, astronomy is one of few scientific playgrounds simply because it contains many unanswered questions, there are plenty of proposed theories that will surely stay in their theoretic phases for many years until we finally get ultimate proof. It is entirely based on studying electromagnetic radiation we are picking up on the surface of Earth and several instruments in orbit. All possible frequencies within electromagnetic radiation are telling us many stories from its origin point and the path it is traveling through. Of course studying full spectrum requires big and even large instruments in both size and money needed for their manufacturing. Especially if they require to be lifted into orbit in order to avoid atmosphere disturbances. Secondly, it is amazing what must be done in order to look one particular spot up in the heavens simply because everything in cosmos is in motion. We need to solve rotation and revolution of the planet and if posted in orbit to compensate extremely fast speed of the space craft carrying the instruments. As the monitoring object is farther away the less amount of radiation is picked up by the sensors so the astronomy is one of those indirect or asynchronous science where we need to collect the data for some time, which could be years and even more period of time, and then for equally considerable time analyze the data, compare the resulting images and conclude science out. For example, take Kepler orbital space laboratory, it orbits the Sun following the Earth in order to get clear view toward the monitoring stars and it is simply continuously taking images of 'nearby' stars (about 145000 stars) and sending the data to the Kepler's team for analyses. Over time, the team and their sophisticated software measure slightly brightness changes during possible orbits of potential planets and only by these small changes in brightness of main star it is possible to roughly determine the size and orbit of the planet causing the dimming of the light from the star. However in order to get all those facts out of the data Kepler must take lots of images and cover planet's fully orbit. That means in order to confirm the planet Kepler must take at least two images separated by time in order to confirm revolution time of the planet. Its a slow process and considering lots, and I mean LOTS, of received data I am sure we will hear about more and more planets find by this technique.

Among all possible wavelengths within full electromagnetic spectrum the coolest one is the one suited between infrared and ultraviolet waves. The greatest visible light. The one we can see. Even though it is just a tiny portion of the full spectrum this is the one we can enjoy with our own eyes. This is the one we see every night we look up toward the amazing heavens. Thanks to relatively cheap optical instruments we are able to enhance the view and zoom it in and see further. Some time after I enjoyed my optical set toy I mentioned earlier I get my own first refracting telescope. It was small without any tripods and fully mobile, but looking the Moon for the first time was something I will always remember. Discovering the fact by my own eyes that Venus, like Moon also having phases and seeing it in its crescent shape was next best thing I experienced with. I still have it and every time I grab this small piece of optics I can't help myself and instantly remember the times when I was fixing it on the ladder positioned on the top of our garage and spending hours looking toward stars.

Transit of Mercury over Sun by Sky-Watcher 150/750

Today I have in my position educational reflecting telescope with respectful mirror size and focal distance mounted on equatorial tripod along with motion tracking system capable of fixing the spot on the sky for hours. Unfortunately, amateur astronomy requires lots of free time which I regretfully don't have enough. In addition to lack of free time, watching the heavens requires unpolluted environment and life in big cities is beneficial for everything but for astronomical observation. Sometimes I feel like that character from the Michael Keaton movie, I don't remember the title now, but in the movie he found a way to clone himself in order to get finished various tasks in his life... Similarly, I would like to have one me for work, one for astronomy and science, one for family and writing... Simply the day is too short and to support the family and life the work is always number one. But it is a good thing to have spare moments and spent it in most enjoyable way. Even today from time to time I point the scope up and peek a little. Sometimes I take photos out, like this one of Mercury transiting the Sun disc.

To conclude with some short 'observation', if you want to do some amateur astronomy you will need star maps. Before they were black and white and printed in a form of atlas books. Today all that changed the speed of internet and graphic tools on average personal computer. They are all online and you can access them with many apps. I recommend 'Celestia' and 'Stellarium'. Even without real telescope they provide endless fun.

Image refs:

Kepler project:

** Toolkit box (~1978):

© 2020 Milan's Public Journal