It wasn’t that long ago when we didn’t even know what the back side of our own moon looked like. My friend, Dave, used to have a globe of the lunar surface, and half of it was blacked out because we had no idea what was on the dark side of the moon.
And when I was a kid, there wasn’t any evidence that other planets existed beyond Pluto. We could speculate, of course, but there was no definitive proof that our solar system wasn’t unique.
This week comes word from the Kepler mission of the discovery of over 700 new planets! That nearly doubles the number found to date, a dramatic uptick of the count that stood at nine only a couple decades ago. And a number of them are supposedly “Earth-like” in terms of possible habitability.
So, we’ve lost Pluto as a planet (it was nice knowing ya’, kid), but gained 715 more in its place. How long will it be before we’re waxing nostalgic about that quaint time when we thought we were the only planet that supported life?
One of my fondest memories of grade school was our annual trek to the Southern Cayuga Planetarium in New York’s Finger Lakes region. First we’d meet in a classroom to learn some stuff while we anxiously waited to be led into the planetarium. Walking into that round room with its subdued lighting, settling into those comfortable high-backed chairs, and looking up at the dome of stars was magical.
You can have just as much fun in your own backyard with the real night sky, and one of the more exciting things these days are the flyovers by the International Space Station (ISS) that happen fairly regularly. The ISS orbits the earth once every 90 minutes or so up above the Earth’s atmosphere. In the hours just before sunrise and after sunset, while it may be dark in your backyard, at 260 miles up in the sky the space station is high enough to still reflect the sun. Except for the moon, the ISS is the brightest object in the night sky.
Sometimes weeks go by when it’s not visible in your specific area. Other times it may fly by twice during the evening or morning. Some days it’s low on the horizon and only visible for a minute, other times it may fly directly overhead and be visible for up to six minutes. Finding out when you can view the ISS in your town is as easy as checking the web site http://spotthestation.nasa.gov.
Now I just need one of those comfy planetarium chairs for my deck and I’ll be all set.