What Do You See?

Sunset off of Santorini. Copyright 2010, Carolyn Collins Petersen

Sunset off of Santorini. Copyright 2010, Carolyn Collins Petersen

For some years I’ve been privileged to be a guest speaker on various cruise ships a few times a year (sponsored onboard as a Smithsonian Speaker), sharing knowledge about astronomy and space science. The trips have been nearly all over the world (although there are still places I haven’t been). They’ve given us a chance to take a peek at some lovely skies and learn together about the universe. It’s a dream job and I enjoy doing it when my sponsors invite me aboard.

One of the most amazing things to me (among many) about doing that job is getting to meet people from nearly all walks of life onboard. And, it’s equally amazing to find out what an interest most people have in “what’s up in the sky”. The world’s space programs have kindled an interest in outer space in many people, and some of my most memorable conversations have been with passengers and crew who have read about a mission or a discovery and want to know more.

I remember once we took a crew member from Bali out to the upper deck who wanted to know the names of some of the southern hemisphere constellations. He had never had the chance to find out what all those different star patterns were. So, we stood out there for quite a while, showing him the Southern Cross, Carina, and then surprising him with a look at one of the Magellanic Clouds, explaining that it was another galaxy. His fascination was palpable, and during the rest of that trip, he brought other crew members to me to ask their questions about the sky.

On that same voyage, a few nights later, we were having a star party on the top deck (open to all), and I got into a fascinating conversation about ancient astronomy with a rabbi from Jerusalem. We were joined by one of the officers, a young woman from Holland, who told us that her father had been an amateur astronomer for many years, and that he taught her about stargazing and navigation before she went to sea.

One day on a ship in the Mediterranean, I was giving a talk about exploring the Moon and Mars, and I had a guy ask me how to calculate an orbit around the Moon. I began to explain from first principles how you do the calculations, and he waved his hand again and said, “What about mascons?” I looked at him in amazement, and he finally stood up and told us that he used to work on the Apollo missions. One of his jobs was to calculate orbits for the mission and that mascons were a big part of the calculation. Turns out he was on a cruise reunion of others who worked on the same missions.

I’ve since had many experiences like that, showing me that there is an abiding interest in the sky that all of us share. In essence, we share the sky, and the sky (and its exploration) is and always be part of our history.

A lot of people, when they find out that we do star parties at sea assume that the skies must always be stunning, out away from the cities and towns. It’s true that the skies are stunning, but we don’t always get to see them. Weather plays a big role, and many a night we’ve planned a star party only to find out that it’s raining, or too windy to go out. Sometimes the weather is fine, but the humidity or “surface clutter” futzes up our viewing. If we happen to be cruising along at a good clip, the ship itself throws mist into the air, and that affects our seeing, too. On some nights, only the brightest stars and planets shine through.

Another factor is safety. All passenger ships have lighted railings so that passengers may find their way safely around the decks at night. Some ships have very bright strings of lights up top, and a few have giant movie screens that you can see for miles. The result is less-than-desirable conditions for stargazing. On some ships, I can ask for lights out, and, subject to the captain’s judgment, we can get permission for a dark area on the top deck for perhaps an hour. But, safety concerns rule everything we do, and sometimes we just make do with the conditions we have. One one cruise I was actually a full crew member (required by the country we were heading to—I could be a passenger or I could be crew, so they made me crew) and I had a short course in Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and those safety reasons were drilled into us in the class. So, I understand when the captain does not give permission for lights out, and we do the best we can.

That being said, there is NOTHING like a dark sky at night at sea when you can experience it. To paraphrase Roy Batty in Blade Runner, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”  such as the Magellanic Clouds nearly overhead (which, for northern hemisphere dwellers is a distinct treat), star clusters in the southern Milky Way, the faint glow of the aurora australis off the coast of South America, the Pleiades rising in the early morning one late autumn night in the Mediterranean, and many other cool cosmic delights.

When you’re out at sea watching the stars, you’re taking part in an activity that goes back to the earliest humans who explored the planet. Somewhere in our distant past, we learned to use the sky as a wayfaring guide, a navigational map. We figured out the season from watching the sky, and from that knowledge, we learned to live and thrive. There is much truth to what Carl Sagan said: that we are the descendants of astronomers. You don’t need to go to sea to get that feeling—stargazing for a long period from any dark sky site will give it to you, too. But, I never felt it more keenly than when I was onboard a ship in the Mediterranean, off the coasts of Israel and Egypt, looking at the same stars the earliest people who lived in those areas saw,  who used their observations of the sky to formulate many of the precepts that underlie what we know about the stars, planets, and galaxies today.

So, what do you see when you stargaze from a ship? Stars, of course. But also, the things that taught our ancestors how to travel and explore. They and the stars gave us a mighty legacy.  I’m glad we still explore today.



Lost and Found

The Beagle 2 Lander as seen by MRO’s HiRISE camera. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/University of Leicester

Amazing news today from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE team: they found the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2 lander (built by a team headed by the late Colin Pillinger) and it seems to be intact on the surface of Mars. This is great news for ESA and the British lander team, especially in light of the abuse heaped on Dr. Pillinger when the Beagle 2 landed on Christmas day 2003 and then went silent. It looks as if the lander made it to the surface safely, but may not have opened all its petals. Nor did the rover send any radio signals.

What might have caused the lander to settle down as it did, without ever contacting Earth? No one has a good answer yet. You can learn more about how Beagle 2 was found in the video below.

What’s Up in January

As most of you know, I’ve also got a little astronomy video I’ve been doing for a few years through Astrocast.TV. It’s called Our Night Sky and the producers wanted me to share a short look at what’s up each month.  It’s a favorite in the classroom and several museums and an observatory that I know of having it as part of an exhibit. This month, of course, we have a great comet, some planets, and deep-sky objects, and I touch on all of them in the January episode. If you’re wondering what’s up out there, check this out. It’s only about five minutes and gives you a quick overview of this month’s sky delights.

Learning Astronomy

Speaking of learning and doing astronomy, many of us in the astronomy community teach the subject in one way or another. I’ve done it in the classroom, under the dome, through my fulldome and flatscreen documentaries, and my books (such as my Astronomy 101) and articles in all types of publications online here and here and in print. It’s such a fascinating topic and fun to share with others. But, I’m not the only one.

Take Phil Plait, for example. He’s one of my friends and astro-writing colleagues, and he’s the original Bad Astronomer (you can read him on Slate). Well, Phil has a new Youtube feature out called “Crash Course Astronomy”. You can check it out below. Word is, there’ll be many episodes!