Why Do We Do This?

Some of us come to this hobby from the world of art and photography, and some come to it from the world of science and astronomy. From there, given enough time, the two worlds unavoidably converge with artists learning science and scientists learning artistic techniques. As we get deeper into the hobby, the purpose and result of the two groups start to meld into something fairly similar. Through nights of frustration and bleary-eyed days at work, we often ask ourselves: Why do we do that to ourselves to do this?

After some time shooting the sky, I think most of us find ourselves looking at the sky and wondering: What is our place in the Universe, and how common are we? We realize our scale in a way that most people can’t see, and some use our images as a tool to communicate that message. Some really just take their images as a series of personal goals. There is no wrong to it.

When I’m looking at M42 in Orion I’m reminded of images from Hubble that show us countless numbers of proto-planetary discs. These are entire solar systems in the process of forming. The James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2019, will be able to take a look at solar systems like these, as well as more mature systems and tell us with more accuracy the number of planets circling their host star, if they have an atmosphere, and if so, what that atmosphere is made of. Does it have oxygen, and water? From there we can start to move beyond conjecture in answering the question of just how common are we?

M42 and Orion reside within our Milky Way galaxy. If you move over to the constellation Virgo, you look beyond our home and run into the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies. Imaged with a wide enough field, maybe two degrees, you are hard-pressed to count the number of galaxies visible without losing your place and count. When I’m looking at an image of the area, and trying to count the galaxies, I always remember that I’m looking at tens, if not hundreds of trillions of stars…. trillions…. with a TR. And then I lose count and start again. The Virgo Cluster is about 65,000,000 light-years away. The dinosaurs were staring extinction in the face when the photons collected by my camera left those galaxies. Back in M42, about a thousand light-years away, we’re looking at solar systems forming. As big and bright as the great nebula in Orion might be, in the scale of the Universe its approaching the comparison of a single atom to the entire Earth. The numbers are just so large, that they might as well be infinite.

Further away, and an even narrower field of view, is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image. The image is about 3.4 arcminutes diagonally, residing in the Southern constellation Fornax. Space nerds and astrophotographers understand how small that field of view is immediately. But to put it in a perspective everyone can understand, cut a piece of paper to one millimeter by one millimeter. Now hold that piece of paper at arm’s length. That one millimeter square, viewed at one meter is the space of the sky this image covered, or 1/13,000,000 of the total area of the sky. OK, we have the area down. Now also understand that this was an experiment where Hubble was pointed to an area of the Universe that was believed to be relatively empty. A collaboration of images in visible, UV and IR light totaling about 22 hours of exposures returned an image containing around TEN THOUSAND galaxies.

If you noticed, in the first paragraph of this post I didn’t even mention the question “Are we alone?” The picture of a seemingly empty area of space, going back to a point around 400,000 years after the beginning of the Universe answers that question for me. This image boosted the estimated number of stars in the observable Universe to about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, and there’s even more Universe beyond that that we can’t see. We’re not alone, and I have a feeling we’re fairly common in the Universe. We can still ask “Are we alone?”, but a more realistic relevance in the current state would correlate the “we” to the Universe, or: Are we the only Universe?

Pick an image from your collection, take a look at it and realize the four dimensional space of what you’re looking at. Then realize there are trillions upon trillions of stars beyond what your Earth-based telescope and camera can even record. Admittedly when a lot of us see the images rolling in, or we see that stack of images build itself into a combined image one block at a time in DeepSkyStacker, the first thing we look at is the technical quality of the image. Sometimes it’s not until we’ve done hours of processing that we gather in the reality and vastness and significance of what we’ve captured.

The reason we do this in many cases is very personal, and very different from person to person. For myself, I’ve always looked up at the sky with wonder. As I started to learn more, my interest only grew. Then after I took the first terribly out of focus image of the core of M42, I never looked at the sky the same way. Though the journey into this adventure would be delayed for about a decade, I knew I had to see more. My father always looked up with great wonder. After he passed away I knew it was time to go back. If I didn’t do it now, when would I ever?

It was a realization that might seem simple to a lot of people that clicked in my head and triggered a lifetime of interest. Many brilliant minds skip past this as basic understanding, but I think it’s still lacking in those trying to grasp basic fundamentals. I used to always wonder which way the center of the Universe was. Where do I look back in time? Yes. Are the galaxies in that Hubble deep field image at the center of the Universe? Yes. What triggered was the realization that to look into the center of the Universe, all you had to do is look out at it. We’re so conditioned to relate everything to a spacial distance, but the reality when covering areas so vast is that we’re only measuring light and looking at time, not distance. Any direction you look, you’re looking into the past and into the center of the Universe. I had heard a lot of answers, but none of them actually explained it in a simple way. Astrophysicists aren’t always the best at explaining why you’re always at the center of the Universe, but I finally realized the answer is “Yes”. Are we at the center of the Universe? Yes. From the point I could regurgitate that to look into the center you had to look out, astronomy and the basics of astrophysics were more than just words to me. Neil deGrasse Tyson often repeats one of my favorite quotes: “The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” So when a piece of it does make sense, I consider it a personal victory.

I may not be sitting out there next to my scope all the time. During a Chicago Winter, I’m in the house under a blanket on the heated floor. I’m sure during a Chicago Summer I might be sitting on the deck with a beer monitoring the scope from a secondary PC maybe 15 feet away. Sometimes, I may even be sleeping while my camera is imaging. I understand the connectivity and the purity of being at the scope with nothing more than a mount, scope, camera and remote shutter release – no PC, no autoguiding. If I were retired, my kids moved out and my wife didn’t like me, maybe this would be an option. To keep a connection with the hobby at this point in my life, a 20-30 minute setup and remote monitoring is what I can squeeze in. The wonder and childlike inquisitiveness enters for me when I start processing an image.

I have so much to learn in image processing, but I know enough to see some objects emerge. As I get better at imaging and processing I know my wonder will only grow. A blurry image of a galaxy will turn into defined arms. In one of those arms might be a red spot. That red spot will remind me of M42, it’s core and the solar systems forming with-in. Given the trillions of opportunities throughout the Universe I start to truly realize as my images become clearer, I’m confident we’re about as common as the ants that invade my house every October and March. The statistical anomaly isn’t the existence of other life in the Universe, but rather the absence of technological life.

We haven’t made contact yet, but If we manage to keep from blowing ourselves up and start taking care of our host planet, it’s only a matter of time. We’ve been shooting out radio waves from Earth for only a hundred years or so and only listening to an extremely small portion of space for maybe 40 years. Another civilization could have picked up our signals 50 years ago and started returning signals. We would just now start receiving their return signals, but only if we happened to be looking in that specific area of space. It’s not easy, but it will happen. Selfishly, I want it to happen in my life time, so I can point at that star and imagine what they’re like, what they feel, what they want out of life.

Here is a representation of how far our radio signals have traveled. You’re glancing at the image and thinking that the area in the black box is pretty big, and a pretty good chunk of our Milky Way Galaxy. Look a bit closer in the box on the lower right. See that blue dot? That’s a 200 light-year sphere around earth, and how far our radio waves have traveled.

I want to leave this place better than I came to it for my kids, and their kids. I was born right in the middle of the Cold War, and I don’t want my kids, or anyone to see the world in that way or in a way that those born since 2001 know the world. They don’t know a warless time. I think a sense of commonality in the Universe might go a long way in helping the human civilization stick around for a while. My hope is that a tribal instinct will kick in to protect and preserve out planet, rather than the instinct built from ignorance that localizes our “tribes” and alienates so many.

I’ll never get a picture of a little green man, and my great-great grand kids won’t be making physical contact with an alien society. But I think there’s a chance of (very lengthy) two-way communication with another civilization in the next 100-200 years if they’re close enough. My hope for future generations is that we’ll have enough time for the localized tribal instinct to fade and become more inclusive before we start talking to another planet. The way things are right now, we’re very good at making enemies with anything not quite like ourselves. A little perspective goes a long way.

Clear Skies, Bleary Eyes – KA

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