How many of us, dried out on a beach, have stuck our head out from under the boom tent, to look upwards at the myriad of stars and celestial bodies above our head to marvel at the vastness of the universe around us?
'The Boss' and I have been fortunate enough over the years to have seen some amazing night skies both here in the UK and abroad and we would be hard pressed to choose which location was the most spectacular. How do you compare the deep inky black skies above a small Finnish ski resort, coloured by the faint reds and greens of shimmering northern lights against the extraordinary big sky vistas of the Namib desert where billions of twinkling stars appeared like photons of light escaping through pin prick holes in the smooth black velvet fabric of space?
From looking skywards from the garden of our rainforest lodge in Costa Rica, searching for visible star clusters, glowing nebulae and shooting stars, (accompanied by the nocturnal sound track of frogs and howler monkeys) to looking at Saturn, Jupiter and various nebulae through 10”, 12” and 16” Newtonian Dobsonian Reflector telescopes with local Gran Canaria island astronomers, we have often searched out the beauty that is found within the celestial sphere above us.
For yes, our skies above are a celestial sphere and it can take a little time to get your head around this concept.
Imagine that the interior of a model globe has been painted black. Suspended freely at the centre of the interior is a green tennis ball representing the planet Earth. The black inside surface of the globe around the tennis ball has been divided into random jigsaw shaped pieces – each piece having one of the 88 constellations painted on it. If we were on the tennis ball looking up – we would see a ‘domed’ night sky above us with constellations. This is the celestial sphere!
Surrounding each constellation in our real celestial sphere above us, the other pin pricks of light you see are deep space objects associated with that particular constellation. They are possibly millions of light years beyond the constellation or thousands of light years in front of it, but because, from our visual viewpoint on Earth, they seem to be in its vicinity, they are associated with that particular constellation.
Mind blowing isn’t it - a dome shaped celestial heaven above us - but what stunning beauty it is.
So, why am I sharing this astronomical information with you on a blog purporting to be about dinghy cruising?
As a child I wanted to be a naturalist, an explorer and an astronomer. I ended up being a geography teacher and a traveller but that fascination with the heavens has never left me.
Now with retirement and more leisure time, I am returning to an interest that started long ago, when I did my first solo night under canvas as a 9-year-old in the Llanberis Pass in Snowdonia. I spent most of that night with my head out of the tent, staring up at the skies above. How many stars were out there? How did space form? How far could I go before I reached the edge? What was beyond space? Who out there, was watching me, watching them, watching me? Why did stars shoot across the sky?
Simple curiosity - it has never left me – and I hope it never will.
And so I am wondering, is it possible to safely secure a telescope in your dinghy, so that it remains in a waterproof cocoon until needed? Is it possible to land on a beach and stop a couple of nights to do some deep sky stargazing?
I'm thinking of all those places tucked away up my local rivers where there is minimal light pollution - up at Treluggan on the river Lynher or at Cotehele on the Tamar?
What fantastic opportunities are there for some real stargazing and astronomical curiosity?
I don't know whether its possible or not; whether it is worth risking such delicate equipment; whether it would be better to take astronomical binoculars and tripod rather than a telescope. But I think it is worth considering and investigating further.
I am also thinking about travelling in our new motorhome with a telescope as well. Of course, the perfect combination would be towing Arwen behind the motorhome but that is a step too far for 'SWMBO' at this moment in time 😄
Since I am completely new to this field of science and hobby, I thought it might be useful to start at the very beginning, tracing my journey from researching about and buying a telescope right through to using it for the first time when on tour with Bryony and then possibly in Arwen.
So, over the next few months, a regular series of posts about ‘astronomy whilst on motorhome tour’ (and potentially 'sheltered water dinghy cruising') will appear on this blog and/or my associated motorhoming blog which can be found at https://wherenexthun.blogspot.com where you can enter the word 'astronomy' in the search bar to get all related posts.
So, as a way of introducing astronomy, I reflect on why it might be such a fun thing to do, whether it be from your back garden, local park, a campsite somewhere in the UK or Europe, or from a sheltered tidal inlet up a river system.
Firstly, I want to put the case that astronomy is often about finding and celebrating the stupendous beauty in the celestial skies above our heads.
But, think how much more we would see and appreciate with an amateur telescope? Invisible deep space objects suddenly become visible and whilst an amateur telescope will never give us Hubble style images, our first sighting of the colourful Orion nebula or of Saturn’s rings, on our own telescope, will surely still leave us awe struck.
And who could not be fascinated by the extreme dangers that lurk in our neighbourhood of space? Immense supernova explosions, stars a million times hotter than our own sun, black holes that crush entire areas of the universe. Then there are comets racing across the heavens at hundreds of miles per second and tiny meteorites and rocks impacting our own moon; or what about the intense, inconceivable cold temperatures and vacuum of space, that ISS astronauts encounter on every spacewalk they do? Without our protective magnetic shield, how much of our rich biodiversity would survive the extreme radiation? Yes, space is hostile, extreme and challenging and for some of us that is fascinating in itself. A tremendous demonstration of power surrounding us, that largely goes unnoticed.
From the time humans started to walk on our planet, the heavens above have intrigued us. How much human endeavour and curiosity has been expended over the centuries on trying to better understand the stars?
From thinking the earth was the centre of the universe with all objects revolving around us to now proposing the existence of multi-universes, astronomers have slowly extended our thinking and scientific understanding. We are, as far as we know, one star with one life supporting accompanying planet in just one solar system and one galaxy amongst countless billions of others.
Astronomy has extended our knowledge in physics, maths, philosophy, chemistry, biology. Through astronomy we have realised our place within the universe and learned more about how we came to be and how we are inextricably linked to it; for yes, we are all made of stardust, every atom within our body made from the elements that came from space.
When we look to the stars through our telescopes, we are not looking at that star or galaxy as it is now. We are seeing it as it was hundreds, thousands or even millions of light years ago, when photons of light left it and started travelling in our direction. Thus, the heavens give us a sense of time and insights into our own history.
Our story, our relationship with space – who we are, how we got here, how our planet formed and evolved – has been celebrated down the ages. The myths associated with constellation patterns or how stars guided our first explorations across great oceans and land masses; how they helped denote the start and end of our farming timescales or contributed to our language and culture. Or even more recently, the history of our exploration of space – the race to put a man in space, to orbit our planet, to land and walk on the moon. Here, now, at the start of the 21st century, we have sent probes to neighbouring planets and passing comets, building on those sent out in the 20th century, which have now cleared our very own solar system; still transmitting data from deep space.
On the back of such human endeavours comes the key realisation that the destiny and future of humankind still lies inextricably linked with space. As Elgon Musk and others start to commercialise space travel and exploration, new jobs, new discoveries, new scientific thinking and new branches of engineering evolve to influence every aspect of our daily lives. Our navigation around the planet, the billions of communications we send daily, all dependent upon our understanding of space.
Perhaps, sooner than we might anticipate, many of us will witness people walk on Mars, build a moon base colony and possibly even leave our own solar system on humanity’s very first ‘Star Trek’ into our own galaxy on board large rocket ships.
Now, with all this in mind, who wouldn’t really want to take a telescope with them, to explore the celestial heavens above whilst on their cruises up sheltered riverways?
In my next post on astronomy, I explore what kind of telescopes are available for beginners and what kind of things you might want to consider if you are thinking of taking up amateur astronomy.
You can access this and subsequent posts on astronomy here at https://wherenexthun.blogspot.com/2021/01/buying-your-first-telescope-what-do-you.html
Remember, I am at the very start of my own journey of discovery, so when I write, it is from the perspective of a true beginner with no knowledge of the field. Where I can though, I will pass on useful websites and article references for those who want to delve deeper.
References for images and research: