The Joys of Stargazing

Star Gazing

It was almost 4 AM on a chilly December night (or morning) in Delhi a few years back and I stood on the open terrace of my house gazing up at the night sky with my telescope. The sky was clear at last, there was no moon and so it was a good time to look for those otherwise hard-to-spot stars and star-clusters. To read the sky map, I had a torch double wrapped with red cellophane paper so as to prevent it from ruining my eyes’ acclimatization to the darkness.

Astronomy, or rather Amateur Astronomy, was a new hobby of mine, only a few months old. I had recently been reading as much as I could on the subject, joined the local Astronomy club, met and spoke to other passionate enthusiasts and even bought myself a 5-inch Newtonian reflector scope, which has become one of my most prized possessions. Reading on the subject and then spending time contemplating that knowledge gave me a new perspective.

Tonight, as I was gazing at the stars and contemplating the vastness of the universe beyond those skies, I started to get goosebumps. There are about a hundred billion stars in each of the hundred billion galaxies in our universe and I guess almost all of the stars will have their own solar systems – some big, some small. So that makes the number of planets in the universe so large that it is beyond comprehension of ordinary human brains. And yet, despite this vast number, we know of not a single other planet, except our own, to bear life.

“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

Of course, being the only known (to us) life bearing planet, makes our place quite special in the universe. And what makes us even more special is the fact that we are able to contemplate our existence and ask questions about our own origins and the origins of the universe and then seek answers to them using our own intelligence. We were formed out of the same starstuff that makes the rest of the Cosmos – the planets, stars, comets, asteroids as well as the galaxies billions of light years away from our own – and we have evolved to think and ask questions about ourselves.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Yet, on the other hand we also know that the reason why we haven’t been able to find life elsewhere in the universe is not because it does not exist, but because we are not intelligent enough and capable enough of finding out. The vastness of the universe trumps our little brains. The gigantic interstellar distances dwarf by trillions and trillions of times any distances we have seen on our earth or even in our solar system. The cosmic clock runs on a scale that trumps the longest lifetimes of humans and make us insignificant. And so, as the contemplation went on and on in my head, I lost myself into an even longer train of thoughts and it was as if I was slowly being removed from the earth. And finally, I truly realized that my relation to the universe was far greater than I had ever imagined before. I had become one with the Cosmos, not in the usual religious way, but in a much deeper and meaningful way. Because as Carl Sagan said it so beautifully:

“The Cosmos is also within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”

It is a unique perspective because it also makes me realize how precious our planet really is. We have our friends, family, idols and enemies all here on this planet. It is our home. Everybody we have ever known lives or lived here. Outside of it, there is just loneliness in the vast universe. That also makes everybody I know here that much more special. The apparent insignificance of my own existence is in itself the reason why I should continue to live because this is the only life I have and will ever have. And I am lucky to be here today. When I learn something about the universe, it is basically the universe learning about itself. When I look out at the Cosmos, the Cosmos looks back into me.

My thoughts are interrupted by a sudden strong cold breeze and I realize that I am now shivering. I hear a truck pass by somewhere in the distance but otherwise the night is very quiet. It is almost morning and the darkness is fading away. A bit like the darkness of my ignorance is fading away because of the knowledge of my own real self?

I am quite tired now so I gather my stuff and head back inside for bed, leaving my telescope behind as it continued to gaze endlessly at the cosmos beyond.

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The Voyagers

The Voyager Spacecraft

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot – Photographed by Voyager

In 1977, NASA launched the twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts whose primary mission was the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn. After making a string of discoveries there — such as active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and intricacies of Saturn’s rings — the mission was extended. Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune, and is still the only spacecraft to have visited those outer planets.

Saturn rings with “spoke” features in B-ring. Aug. 22, 1981. 2.5 million miles.

Their extended mission is now called the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM). As of this mission, the Voyager spacecrafts, which have drifted to the edge of the Solar system beyond Pluto, will continue to explore the outermost edge of the Sun’s domain. And beyond.

The Voyagers are currently in the Heliosheath, – the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas. It is basically the zone beyond which, the Sun’s influence ends and we reach the interstellar space. And they are still sending scientific information about their surroundings back to Earth.

The Golden Record

But that is not all that is wonderful about these crafts. NASA has also placed a very ambitious message aboard the Voyagers 1 and 2. Each craft contains a 12-inch gold-plated copper disc, called a phonograph. This disc contains sounds and images that are selected to portray the diversity of life on Earth. The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by the great astronomer and astronomy populariser, late Dr. Carl Sagan of Cornell University. They have included a variety of natural sounds like wind, thunder, birds, etc. along with musical selections from different cultures and eras and spoken greetings from Earth-people in 55 languages. And a lot more.

The extremely ambitious hope is that sometime in the future, some extraterrestrial beings might discover the Voyager and will look at it and discover the Golden Record. They might not understand the strange sounds that the record will make. We don’t know if those beings will even have the same sense of sounds as we do or will their “ears” be differently capable? Will they have vision like us or will that also be like something we cannot even imagine? We don’t know. And they will never be able to figure out where this came from, which edge of our galaxy, which direction, which planetary system around which of the billions of stars inhabiting the milkyway. None of this will ever be known to them. And we don’t even know if there ever will be a “them” to discover our message.

At the time of writing this blog, I checked NASA’s website (http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/where/index.html) and found that the Voyager 1 is currently 18.169 billion kms away from the Sun. When you think about it, the vastness of this distance trumps our brains. Can we imagine a distance of 18+ billion kms? It is unlike anything we have ever measured on earth of course. Yet, in the context of the size of the Milky Way itself, this distance is nothing but a fraction of a fraction of a small dot.

The Voyager spacecrafts are both beyond Pluto and they find themselves in empty space now. There is nothing there to see, except darkness. There is no upcoming planet, no moon and no source of light as well. The Voyagers will continue their slow and patient journey for the next thousands of years or maybe much more.

Eventually, the Voyagers will pass other stars. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis. In some 296,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass 4.3 light years (25 trillion miles) from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The Voyagers are destined—perhaps eternally—to wander the Milky Way.

Will we ever hear from the voyagers when they reach there? That’s not possible. Will humanity even exist after such a long time? Extremely improbable. But whether humans exist or not, and whether some other extraterrestrials even find and read our message or not, we have already communicated to the cosmos announcing that we existed and dared to look up at the sky. We looked at the distant stars and contemplated the vastness of the universe. We understood and are still trying to understand what we see when we look up at the night sky.

Thousands of years into the future, we may not exist but this message will exist and probably through this, we will continue to live in a poetic sense. I am sure that the majority of people on our planet don’t even know about the voyagers and what I have described above. Most of those who do might never understand the depth of this endeavour. But it is important that we do know and that is why I am even writing this.

Does this adventure of the voyagers make any difference to someone when they are going about their lives trying to make a living, maintaining relationships, planning for their future, worrying about daily stuff, etc.? Maybe not. But then, neither does any form of poetry. Still most people are greatly moved by poetry and this lonely and courageous journey of the voyagers is nothing less than poetic. We may not be able to travel such interstellar distances ourselves because we are humans and need food to survive and we do not even live for so long. But we have made something that will carry out this journey on our behalf.

Knowing that the universe is largely a lonely place with nothing for trillions of miles and no one to contact is a saddening thought. Knowing that our efforts, however grand we might think them to be, are really never going to be good enough when you contemplate the vastness of the universe is a very humbling thought. Yet, we should take great pride in the fact that we know our limitations very well but we do not fear failure.

As Carl Sagan has noted, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

We may not have all the answers to all the mysteries of the universe but we do represent a thirst for knowledge that defines being human. And this thirst for knowledge, adventure, courage, hope and ambition for unravelling the mysteries of the universe will always be the symbol of being human. And having a common understanding of the grandness of the cosmos will only bring us all together. We will learn to care about the planet and our species because for over trillions and trillions of miles, we will not find another like us.

P.S: I am not a scientist or a science writer by any stretch of imagination, but what I do represent is my own thought and  understanding of the world. There certainly are better knowing people than me and I do not claim to be an authority on this subject and most of the factual data in my blog is sourced from NASA’s website: voyager.jpl.nasa.gov. What I have added are my personal feelings about this.

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