As a source of inspiration and wonder, and as a means to put things in perspective and connect with something larger than ourselves, there is nothing on earth that can beat the night sky. As mentioned in last week's Nature Nerd Wednesday post, the night sky is certainly at the top of my own list of the most beautiful natural sights (not) on earth.
Here is a stunning image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope:
|Hubble Ultra Deep Field: NASA|
What should really knock your socks off about this photograph is the miniscule area of night sky that it represents. According to the description on the Hubble website, the area of the night sky in this photo is equivalent to the amount of sky you would see if you stood on earth and peered up at the heavens through a drinking straw. When you consider how many drinking straw-sized copies of the photo above it would take to completely cover the night sky outside your window, the implications are astounding. There are numbers of galaxies beyond imagination out there, hidden in plain view by the immense distance of outer space. Our own Milky Way galaxy is similar to the spiral galaxy in the lower left corner of the photo, and our sun an invisible pinprick of a star hidden among its hazy outer fringes. And our earth an even smaller speck yet. Talk about perspective.
When we look up at the night sky, we see countless stars. Without images such as the one above, we would never be able to conceive that the seemingly empty spaces between the stars are actually filled with innumerable far-distant galaxies that are invisible to the naked eye. It draws us to the realization that our universe is so much more expansive than we ever thought - or that we ever will be able to comprehend. (Is your brain hurting yet? Because mine usually does when I start thinking about these things!)
Although the awe-inspiring scene above won't be visible to earth-bound backyard stargazers (since I'm afraid most of us are lacking the required super-powerful telescope capable of capturing infrared light...) the night sky still holds plenty of interest. With an inexpensive telescope or pair of binoculars, anyone can enjoy a night of star-, planet-, or moon-gazing. On a clear night, just make some hot chocolate, grab a blanket, douse the outdoor lights on your house and head outside to admire the magnificence of the unfathomable universe wheeling overhead. It will be time well spent.
To find out what planets or other astronomical items of interest are visible in the sky tonight and where to look for them, check out EarthSky, or for more detailed options look at Tonight's Sky.