April 13, 2024

From Ursa Major to the Orion Nebula, how I learned to love the sky at night

By John Macleod for the Scottish Daily Mail

11:13 pm April 3, 2024, updated 11:16 pm April 3, 2024



After half a decade spent mostly in Edinburgh, it’s a renewed thrill to get out late at night, throw your head back and revel in the cloudless night sky.

The street lights in my village are sensibly turned off at 11pm and, without clouds, the stars and planets, constellations and galaxies shine like infinite diamonds against unfathomable black velvet.

It’s glorious. It’s dizzying. It’s like that scene in Gregory’s Girl where our hero and his girl dance back to back in some Cumbernauld park as night falls, while the Earth races through space at a thousand miles an hour – ‘Don’t stop dancing, or you’ll fall off.’ ..’

It takes me a minute or two to get my bearings. The first thing to look for is the Big Dipper… the Big Dipper, the Plow, the Big Dipper or, as the Swallows and Amazons affectionately call it, the Pan.

Draw a line through the final two stars at the end and this ties you to the North Star – true north, which never moves, and the tip of the umbrella, so to speak, around which the heavens revolve.

The spectacular Northern Lights above the Callanish Stones in Lewis

The second landmark, during winter and spring, is Orion. The line down the Great Hunter’s belt takes you to Sirius, the brightest star of all and the fourth brightest object in the sky after the Sun, the Moon and (at full apogee) the planet Venus.

Draw the line upward in the opposite direction and it will take you to Taurus and the Pleiades. And you’re well prepared to identify everything else, from the glowing Capella to the slightly flattened W that is Cassiopeia.

Until the fall of 1979, I had no such knowledge of the night sky. So I went through a miserable time in my life – domestic uncertainty, severe bullying at school and just being 13. So I got a pair of binoculars as a gift, and that November – getting all the books I could from the library – I taught myself the constellations. and much more.

I learned that the stars shine, but our five planets visible to the naked eye do not. (Jupiter and Mars were particularly splendid in December 1979.) That we only see one side of the Moon. That the Milky Way is the surrounding belt of our own galaxy. These varied blobs elsewhere in the paint are other galaxies together.

That a shooting star is a meteor; on the rare occasion that any remnant actually lands, it is a meteorite. And that a “star” that appears to fall through space is a man-made satellite, perpetually revolving around the Earth.

The oldest is Vanguard 1, which has been in circulation since 1959 and whose launch was a huge relief for Americans, horrified after the Soviet Union sent Sputnik into orbit in 1957.

Even the average American could understand that if the Russians could launch something the size of a trash can into space, they would be more than capable of launching the Big One in Chicago.

And the Yanks endured a humiliating succession of Vanguard failures – rockets exploding on the launch pad, rockets toppling over, while Hank and Elma grumbled about the “Flopnik” – until Vanguard 1 was planted in our skies.

Discomfort with the continued success of the USSR was probably critical in John F. Kennedy winning the presidency in 1960 by a sneeze. Months after taking office in January, in further humiliation, the Soviets put the first man in space.

There is still a Gagarin Way in Lumphinnans, Fife – the street name one might cynically associate with West Fife’s propensity, until very recent years, to elect communist councillors.

On September 12, 1962, Kennedy struck back with a historic speech at Rice University in Texas, committing the United States to putting a man on the Moon before the end of the decade.

‘We chose to go to the Moon… We chose to go to the Moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are difficult.’

Fifty-eight percent of Americans disapproved, according to opinion polls; Kennedy, of course, would not live to see it, and the 1969 Apollo 11 mission – which landed Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin on the Moon in a lander whose hull was thinner than a credit card – came closest of disaster than most. to understand.

When a vital switch failed, Aldrin only drove the two back with a ballpoint pen… while Michael Collins orbited the Moon alone on Apollo 11, without radio contact for half that time and the loneliest man in the world. story ever.

Of course, there are many other wonders in the night sky – and terrors. I still remember the thrill of fear when the abandoned Skylab, NASA’s first space station, was about to fall back to Earth.

Thoughtfully, what survived reentry landed in July 1979 in the Australian desert instead of G13. Esperance County solemnly fined NASA A$400 for littering.

There are the Northern Lights – there was a lovely spectacle, here in Lewis, in the spring of 2015 – and there have been glorious comets, from the totally unexpected Comet Hyakutake in 1996 to the twin-tailed majesty of Comet Hale-Bopp a year. later.

And hopes are high for the creatively named C/2023 A3 (Tsuchinshan-ATLAS), which could, this fall, put on a great show.

All of this may seem somewhat irrelevant and theoretical. But Scotland is at stake, as options for our first “spaceport” are weighed between Shetland and Sutherland.

Sky Television, satnav and many of the wonders of your smartphone – like calling a Kiwi friend on WhatsApp for free – depend on all those moving satellites.

It’s also no exaggeration to say that modern environmentalism was largely born out of William Anders’ famous “Earthrise” photograph, taken by Apollo 8 as it orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968 – the first time we actually saw our blue planet from of space.

And a series of inventions – the scratch-resistant plastic lenses in my glasses, the Corian kitchen countertops, memory foam, cochlear implants – we owe to NASA scientists.

But there is also the spiritual dimension. Look to the stars and you will see eternity… and perspective and wonder and humility.

As, across countless light years, stars shine for us now that actually died millennia ago. Like, perhaps, somewhere, in those distant, fuzzy galaxies and on some other favored planet, there are people like us.

And my late father, an accomplished theologian, was always adamant that Heaven is a physical place, actually out there in the universe, and not a harp-playing dream.

Many Christians believe the portal is Messier 2 – the Orion Nebula, in the Hunter’s sword and the most magnificent thing in space visible to the naked eye. It has been described as a ‘star shrouded in a haze of mist’ and ‘the breath of an angel against an icy sky’.

What is certain, faith aside, is that it is 30 to 40 light years wide – and is giving rise, even now, to a thousand stars.

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