Monday, September 7, 2015

A Few Years Closer to the Stars...

Once upon a time, a ten year old kid from rural Harnett County, NC, USA, Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, took up his dad's challenge to count the stars in the late summer sky. 

Filled with wonder, and inspired by the profound mystery of a universe so vast, populated by iconic characters named by the ancients, he got off to an auspicious start, but...
somewhere in the low two thousands, little Jimmy stopped counting, closed his eyes, and dozed off to the music of a few thousand cicadas.

High overhead, the stars shone on...

When he awoke, the big dipper had cleared the hickory tree and was poised perfectly alongside the big pine tree, as though pausing for a moment from its nightly task of watering the majestic longleaf.

Fast forward thirty-eight years. 

Cousin Danny aims his digital SLR up at that same late summer sky and captures the same few thousand stars in all their digital glory. 

The big pine tree still stands, nearly half a century later, and all the more beautiful for its advancing age, while the ghost of its sister stands sentinel across the way, having succumbed to a lightning strike a couple years back.

And so the stars cycle regularly across our sky, faithfully appearing where the sky guides say, 
season after season and year after year, 
as we earthbound mortals gaze upward and outward from the same old spot, here at the edge of the universe.

Jay is home from UNC for Dad's birthday, 
and he casually offers a glimpse of the pictures he took in his freshman astronomy lab. 
Through the magic of computer software developed by his professor, he dials up an array of telescopes high in the Andes, with a minimum of light pollution and atmospheric haze and inputs the coordinates of a spiral galaxy some 61 million light years from our tiny orb. He confirms that the "object" is currently visible in the South American sky, then requests the first available telescope to render his image. 

A little later, he selects the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, much closer to home at a mere 15 million light-years, and transmits his request to the appropriate telescope.

Et voila!

Finally, he takes aim at his dad's favorite constellation, Orion the Hunter, and request four images in rapid succession, each with a different color filter. He then uses commercial photo editing software to layer the images and produce a single photograph of the Orion nebula, visible to the naked eye as one of the "stars" in Orion's sword, a mere 1,344 light years from earth.

With light traveling roughly 6 trillion miles in a year, the vastness of the universe quickly taxes the limits of human understanding.

Interesting, though, how that same limited understanding has advanced technology so rapidly in the past forty years, that Jay can utilize technology deployed half a world away via the laptop computer in his dorm room on the UNC campus to view and record celestial features more than a thousand trillion miles distant.

Our universe is apparently expanding at an ever-increasing rate, which means that our familiar stars are much farther away now than when the light our eyes and our instruments detect today was first emitted many thousands or millions of years ago;

but, somehow, as I ponder these amazing images of Jay's, the stars feel a good bit closer than they did from little Jimmy's vantage point in that Harnett County back yard all those short, short years ago...

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