Seeing Stars

On a soft, warm Sunday evening, we found ourselves on the outskirts of the Hope Royal Botanical Gardens – or Hope Gardens for short. On a long slope leading down to the shell-like white dome of the bandstand, people were sitting quietly in the dim light on rugs and cloths spread out. Several telescopes of various sizes were set up, with lines of people waiting to peep into them. There were all ages – children, teenagers, senior citizens, students, milling around. It was a relaxing family affair.

My husband, who had been a little skeptical, really enjoyed the couple of hours we spent there. We had been lured by a flyer from the Astronomical Association of Jamaica, inviting us to view the Perseids Meteor Shower over the weekend of August 10 and 11. This annual shower of “shooting stars” is something to do with the Comet Swift-Tuttle – the largest solar system object known to repeatedly pass by the Earth.

An invitation that was hard to resist.

We were told that because of the extremely bright, clear moon (its bleached-white peaks, valleys and summits were terrifying in their clarity through the telescope) the meteor shower would not be visible, this time. The moon flooded the sky with its brilliance, although it was not full. I think it was a waxing gibbous moon (I hope I got that right!) Astronomy has an evocative language of its own.

Meanwhile, we approached the telescopes. Besides our very own moon, there was  also the planet Jupiter and some of its moons. Jupiter boasts four inner
“Galilean moons,” with the beautiful names of Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.  Through the telescope I saw the magnificent planet itself, the largest in the Solar System, and two of its moons. Unfortunately I am not sure which moons. Now, in fact, it has a whole bunch of moons (79 to be precise) after acquiring twelve new ones last July (or whatever that is in “Jupiter time”). Also, a few days earlier astronomers were excited after a large meteor recently crashed into the planet. Someone actually photographed it.

For me, Jupiter, which was burning so brightly in the sky, looked just like pictures I had seen in books as a child, through the telescope. Ribbed with rings of gold and sandy brown and white, it is awe-inspiring. The four inner moons are each so distinctive – volcanic, watery, icy, cratered. Ganymede is the oldest and has its own magnetic field.

Jupiter’s beautiful moons, first observed by Galileo Galilei in 1610.

We also saw Saturn, much further away and rather faint in the sky because of the bright moon. Through the telescope, it looked like a small painting, precise in every detail, tilted right to one side like a spinning top that is about to stop – and surrounded by its beautiful rings. It is the second largest planet after Jupiter, huge and mostly gases. Looking through the telescope, I gasped: Is this real? A few weeks earlier, Earth had moved between Saturn and the Sun.

The planet Saturn and its rings.

Back on Earth, a young stargazer, Jevaughn, told me about black holes (I am at once repelled and drawn to these dark mysteries). Someone had just photographed the largest black hole ever discovered. A student named Dominique went out of her way to point out the constellations, brought rugs and had people lying flat on their backs to look at the stars. With my creaky knees, I was afraid that if I did that, I would never get up. Instead, I got a stiff neck gazing upwards. Meanwhile, we had an informative commentary from a member of the AAJ in the bandstand, where a lot of visuals were projected.

We were also introduced to a wonderful phone app called Star Chart. Wherever you point your phone, it shows you what stars are above you, and lots more besides. It’s apparently used by over 30 million humans worldwide – all staring at the stars. However, there are several good apps that you might like to explore.

By the way, if you would like to learn more, do contact (and perhaps join) the Astronomical Association of Jamaica. Tomorrow (Tuesday, August 27) they will hold their Monthly Meeting at the University of the West Indies Physics Lecture Room D, at 6:00 p.m. You can also sign up here for an email newsletter, to become a member, or to join their WhatsApp group. The Association is on Twitter @AstroJamaica, on Facebook and on Instagram.

Perhaps your interest is piqued! I think mine was…

Astronomical Association of Jamaica.

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