Last night I put my Kindle aside for just long enough to take my dog for a walk. Outside in the post-thunderstorm, South Florida, early evening air, I did something that I have not done in a long time – I looked up at the night sky. At one time, I had an interest in astronomy, and had even purchased a cheap telescope from Home Shopping Network (now that’s commitment). It was an inexpensive instrument, however, and it soon proved to be too poorly constructed to provide a stable viewing platform. Once you finally located an object, viewing it was difficult as the object would shake and flutter and dart from view. No matter how tightly I twisted the mounting screws, or how well I secured the tripod, viewing any celestial body beyond the moon was nearly impossible.
Equipment frustrations aside, I still persisted in my new hobby, subscribing to Astronomy magazine for the monthly star charts, and tightening and tweaking my telescope. In time, other pursuits, plus the fact I was living in a location with a very high level of ambient light, caused my interest in astronomy to wane. But still there were flickers of interest. While visiting Colorado last year, I looked up into the night sky over Central City and remarked to my wife that that was how the heavens were supposed to look. For a short while, I toyed with bring my old telescope down from the attic, or more likely, purchasing a better model. It never happened.
My home in South Florida is directly in the heart of the West Palm Beach / Miami metro-plex. There is so much light in the night sky that on many nights I could read a book in my front yard. These are not conditions for viewing the Horsehead Nebula, or any other celestial body for that matter.
Last night, however, I happened to look west, out over the Everglades. A break in the late evening thunderheads revealed a beautiful picture postcard quality, quarter moon, hanging at about 30 degrees above the horizon. To the left and right above the moon were two brightly shining heavenly objects. Below and to the right was a third object, easily distinguishable, but not quite as brightly shining as the other two.
After completing my dog walk, I did a quick internet search. It took only seconds to find that the bright object, above and to the right of the quarter moon was Saturn, and the object above and to the left was the planet Mars. The body to the right and below the moon, shining with much less intensity than Saturn and Mars, but still easily discernable, was the star Spica, the brightest star in the Constellation Virgo and the fifteenth brightest star that you can view from earth. Located 260 light years from earth, the light that reached my retinas started its journey from Spica in 1752. How do you like that? With a bit more research, I discovered that the last planetary occultation (the last time a planet in our solar system passed directly in front of Spica and obscured the star (occults) it from view, was when the planet Venus passed in front of Spica. That was on November 10, 1783. Not to worry, another planetary occultation is coming up – on September 2, 2197.
Feeling small and insignificant in an unimaginably large universe, I went away from my stellar research with a mental note to look for a new telescope.