Column: Looking up and letting the universe unfold

Great Outdoors by James Murray

For years now I have made a point, at least once a month, of dropping by the library to check out the latest edition of several astronomy magazines.

This is especially true during the winter months. My preference is one called SkyNews simply because it is a Canadian publication. It provides monthly calendars and star charts, a wealth of sky watching tips, amazing pictures and up-to-date information on new products and discoveries. It is also a way to keep up on things in the astronomy world without actually having to go outside and stand around in the cold weather.

So much about astronomy depends on the weather.

Reading magazine articles is a good way to learn about astronomy without having to spend much money. It doesn’t matter how old or outdated they are, you can still learn a lot, even if all you do is leaf through some of the articles or simply look at the pictures. You will be surprised at how many facts and tidbits of information you pick up.

The library also has a variety of books on the subject that are geared toward the beginner. You can also surf the internet for information about astronomy, as well as be able to look at some pretty amazing photographic images.

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It won’t take you long to figure out that you don’t need an expensive telescope to begin learning about the night sky. All you need is a little understanding and a clear night.

You can see and learn a great deal with the naked eye. By observing the night sky with only your eyes, you can really get a feeling of how the ancient astronomers would have studied the wonders of our universe. I know it may sound sort of strange for a person my age, but sometimes on a summer’s evening I just like to lay down on the grass and look up at the sky. The night sky takes on a whole other dimension from this position. It sort of gives you a feeling of being all alone, drifting across a vast universe filled with planets and stars.

Start by locating the North Star and then begin to follow your ‘map of the sky’ across the night sky. (Make sure you have the correct star chart to coincide with the date and your general location.) If you can, try to get your hands on a pair of binoculars. You can see a lot through simple binoculars.

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With a half decent pair of binoculars you will be able to view thousands of stars and constellations, as well as some of the more easily visible planets such as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. You might even catch a glimpse of a meteor or shooting stars. And, of course, there is always our own moon.

There are some pretty simple star charts that you can download on your computer that will help you to figure out, on any given night, which stars up there make up Andromeda or Canis Major, or any other of the 88 known constellations.

Once you look through a telescope, however, everything changes – a whole new world literally opens up, right there in front of your eyes. About 30 years ago I purchased a used eight-inch reflector telescope. Even though it was old technology, over the years I have seen a lot of things through its eyepiece. I have upgraded several times since that original purchase.

Nowadays they have computerized tracking/guiding systems for telescopes where you just focus in on a recognizable star and a built-in computer data base takes over. It will find, focus in and follow (track) just about anything out there. There are also a number of good, relatively inexpensive telescopes that will bring the craters of the moon into sharp focus, as well as let you view everything from planets to nebulae. The question is how much you want to spend. If you are contemplating purchasing a telescope, remember that astronomy magazines have all sorts of articles and product reviews that can help you figure out what kind of telescope and related gear might be best suited to your interests and needs.

This much I can tell you for certain, as the universe unfolds, astronomers are discovering answers to questions that most of us cannot even imagine.

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