Sunday, September 4, 2011

Kaput Anyway!

Reading Time ~5 minutes. 
Two galaxies on collision course, as if in a cosmic exclamation point was caught by Chandra X-ray telescope and the image was published by NASA in August.
Galactic Collision: A Cosmic Exclamation Point!
3-5 billion years from now our own Milky Way will merge with our neighboring galaxy, the Andromeda.  Which brings me to my exclamation point.  How will it appear to us, on Earth?  To us, on Earth, a planet hitched to a medium sized star which in turn is earnestly burning away on an arm of the Milky Way?

Will the Andromeda come at us with the spiral face-on or sideways? Wait.  Did you say 3-5 billion years?  Close finish that will be, since the Sun has a remaining life of ~5 billion years.  Oh wait again.  Isn't the Earth supposed to become too hot for life in ~1 billion years?  Darn.  So we will not be around.  On Earth at least.  We may be still around as specimens of a species, if we figured a way  and traveled to other places to live.  Either way, forget about lying in the yard in a reclining chair, sipping Merlot and watching the night sky with a spiral galaxy slowly moving towards you.

I saw the Andromeda galaxy once.  It was a few years ago.  The Foothill College in Los Altos has an observatory. It is open for public viewing on late Friday evenings. I was in a waning phase of an obsession with astronomy, so guess what?  We spent our Friday evenings waiting in a line.
Cold, wintry conditions give the clearest skies for sky watching. The colder the better. However it is not the best time for waiting in line.  A long line too, from the central room of the observatory to the bottom of the winding stairs to the open outside. Filled with huddled frames of people, arms tucked in,  lightly bouncing up and down, heel to toe, toe to heel, trying to keep warm.  Sometimes, actually at rare times, there is no line and we can even make requests of the volunteer in attendance.  If still in a good mood at that hour, he may just oblige and turn the telescope around to focus on our object of desire.  He then punches the name on a keyboard, the computer program looks up the co-ordinates and bingo! the telescope moves, weee weee weee, along with the sliding roof, giving just the right level of opening.  
All I had to do was to look through the eye piece when my turn came. There it was, the Andromeda, slightly to the side, a small, neat spiral, just like our home galaxy.  Very nice, seeing the heavens.  But the magnificence of the epiphany was so effortless, it was difficult to hold on to. 

Not too long before then, the husbn bought me a telescope.  We were then in Chicago and the night sky of the city only allowed for moon viewing. After settling down in a new job and California, one day, I thought the skies were clear enough to try some viewing.  I opened the box and set the telescope up in one corner of the balcony.  A brownish-orange object in the sky seemed a perfect target.  It was in a portion of the sky which was clear of the surrounding pine tree branches. After sending some good vibes in that direction, I trained the telescope with eyepiece1 on it.  I was quickly able to put the object within range but it was a blur.  Next level eyepiece.  Blur again.  It didn't matter how I messed around with the focus.  Whaa.  Will I ever see anything?
Then came the last eyepiece, of highest magnification.  I lost the object.  Could not locate it.  The range was very sensitive.  Back to eyepiece2.  Okay, move the co-ordinates so the blurred object is at the center.  Change to eyepiece3 veeery gently.  Don't bump into tripod.  Easy, slow.  Gone again.  More iterations.
I wasn't giving up.   I kept searching, slower than a snail.  Bam.  Something at the edge.   A blurry, faint light.  I brought it to the center and focused.  Back and forth until I hit the right focus.  I could not believe my eyes.  A planet with all the tell-tale markings, and four moons.   Jupiter!
I walked away and came back.  It was Jupiter alright, exactly like in the images.  Except that only four of the moons were visible with the telescope I had.  I kept looking at it every now and then.  I was home alone.  The moment was mine.

With a little practice, finding and focusing became easy.  Next day I saw Jupiter again.  One moon was missing.  Ayyo!  Only three were visible.  Oh okay, it went behind.  I was in awe.  Saturn with its rings was easy too and just as beautiful.

Working even to the extent I did to find the object, the surprise element and the beauty of a different world made the experience  somewhat similar to what some others may have and call as a religious experience.  Reading a good poem, unique art, unusual scenery, unexpected grace of a person or a musical piece can evoke too, if they come at the right time and mood.  The consciousness perhaps shifts imperceptibly after the sensation hits different areas of our mind.  From where, the world and our view of it can seem slightly peaceable than before.  How much of this stays with us is subjective to our general inclinations and the nature of the impression.
For me, even now, seeing Jupiter in the sky brings up a smile. We have a shared secret, you see.

Sometimes some visiting children have asked for a viewing if they spot my telescope all set-up (it is back in the box now).  I usually ask what they want to see, set everything up and all a child had to do is look through the eyepiece.  Because of my own viewing at Foothill, I do not expect an aha moment.  But I never fail to see some bewilderment on what do with this very accessible yet extraordinary vision.

Note 1. The NASA's picture of the Cosmic Exclamation Point is the face of the new Facebook page of this blog! A galactic collision is inconsistent and incomplete, isn't it?

Note 2.  Silent movie time: A simulation of the Milky way and Andromeda Collision by the University of Toronto: