Earlier this week, I attended the Star Party with Professor Filippenko, hosted by the Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholars Association’s Faculty Committee. In a span of one and a half hours, we got to gaze at stars, planets, and nebula, and talk about fascinating stuff! A large, high-power telescope was focused on the Orion Nebula, and we could see four bright dots in a diamond shape clustered in the center of the bluish cloud of gas and dust, adjacent to Orion’s belt. Professor Filippenko mentioned that it takes a million years for the stars to form out of the particles in the nebula, and each of the bright dots we saw formed at different points in time.
Through the eight-inch telescope, Jupiter and three of its sixty-seven moons were visible straight above us in the early night sky. They appeared in a neat, orderly line, first one moon, then Jupiter, then two more moons, from left to right. I could even see the reddish striations of the planet!
We also saw Sirius in our line of sight right by the Campanile, and the Big Dipper hugging the lower middle of the sky towards the north. As the night continued, low hanging clouds started to roll across the sky from north to south. They were reddish colored, because of the low-pressure sodium lights from the city reflecting onto the clouds.
In between stargazing, we had lovely conversations about early understandings of theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, and their applications to devices used to explore space. For example, theory of relativity has been useful for GPS satellites, which operate on a slightly different time frame than that of NASA headquarters. We had lots of questions for Professor Filippenko, and we learned so much listening to him share about the constellations, their formations, and fun facts.
One question I had in particular was about stars in the northern versus southern hemisphere. One of my favorite memories when I was in Madagascar last summer was gazing up at the beautiful night sky. The density and brilliance of stars was so breathtaking, and unlike anything I’d seen before. I was curious if there was a greater clustering of stars in the southern hemisphere, or if more stars were visible because of less light pollution. It was probably a combination of both! There are constellations visible in the southern hemisphere that are not visible here, and there are constellations visible here that are not visible in the southern hemisphere. Some constellations, like Orion, are visible from both the northern and southern hemispheres. One neat difference though, is that in California, we see Orion as standing upright, whereas in Madagascar, he was upside down on his head. Another difference between the northern and southern hemispheres is that the direction of stars rising in the east and setting in the west translates to counterclockwise motion in the northern hemisphere and clockwise motion in the southern hemisphere.
If you enjoy conversations about stars, Professor Filippenko is giving a talk at Cal Day this Saturday, April 18, 3-4:30pm in 155 Dwinelle Hall, on “Exploding Stars and New Planets: Frontier Research at Lick Observatory.” His talk is free and open to the public, as are all events at Cal Day! Check out the full list of Cal Day events here: http://calday.berkeley.edu/find.php.