A tale of two pictures

earthrise
The earth rising over the moon, taken Christmas Eve 1968

Christmas can be a hectic time, office parties, catching up with friends and family, up early for Santa and and days spent visiting and being visited. It can also be a time for reflection.

With that in mind, allow me to present two pictures that give us a unique insight and pause for thought, to contemplate our place in the universe.

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Patterns in the sky

The Pleiadas, M45
The Seven Sisters, a magnificent star cluster and a herald of the fast approaching colder winter nights

Since time immemorial people have looked up at the night sky and tried to make sense of, and understand it. Pinpricks of light twinkling and glittering. Bright stars that seem to form patterns with neighbouring stars. Harvests were made, seeds planted and fields ploughed on the rising and setting of particular patterns. These patterns are what we call constellations. In simpler times, people spent more of their lives outside, were closer to nature, and so it is easy to understand how these stellar patterns held a special significance for cultures all over the world.

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How to spot a galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy. Our galactic neighbour and home to 1000 billion stars. Even though it is 2.5 million light years away, you can see it without binoculars or telescope
The Andromeda Galaxy. Our galactic neighbour and home to 1000 billion stars. Even though it is 2.5 million light years away, you can see it without binoculars or a telescope.

Get out to the country on a clear night and look up and you will be treated to many hundreds and possibly thousands of stars twinkling and shimmering. Our eyes are capable of seeing 6000 stars without optical aid. That’s about 3000 in the northern hemisphere and depending on the amount of light pollution and haze, and the condition of our eyes typically a few hundred to a few thousand stars are visible. Each star is a sun and most have planets around them. Whether they are suitable for life or not is another question.

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Backyard astronomy

The Whirlpool Galaxy. It's spiral structure was discovered by the Earl of Rosse with his backyard telescope in 1845.
The Whirlpool Galaxy. It’s spiral structure was discovered by the Earl of Rosse with his backyard telescope in 1845.

Recent reports in the media about a new radio telescope in the grounds Birr Castle has firmly shone a spotlight on the astronomical heritage of Ireland. From 1845 until 1914 the largest telescope in the world stood in the grounds of Birr Castle. It was the brainchild of the 3rd Earl of Rosse and through it he made many wonderful discoveries, he named the Crab nebula and was the first to document the structure of spiral galaxies, although at the time, they didn’t truly understand their nature.

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SETI@home

Hunt aliens from the comfort of your own home with SETI@home
Hunt aliens from the comfort of your own home with SETI@home

The hunt for other planets in the universe is going full steam ahead with thousands of planets having being found in orbit around distant suns. Telescopes and technology are progressing at a breakneck pace allowing us to probe the light from these distant worlds for traces of gases that might signify life. Probes in our own solar system are busy looking for the signs and signatures of life.  

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