An acquaintance of mine recently commented that stargazing is “just looking at a bunch of lights in the sky.”
I understand his concerns. The world is plagued with many problems, and we all must do our part in alleviating them. Still, many humans have gained some comfort as they have, with grumbling bellies or even facing the dark abyss of death, looked up with wonder at the starry sky.
In that regard, my friend’s comment brought to mind my first experience of a hidden gem in the constellation Lyra, the Lyre. Lyra is almost straight overhead just after dark these days, so let’s have a look.
Lyra is the lyre of Apollo, who often rode along with Helios, the sun god, as he carried the sun across the sky in a golden chariot. This was hot work, even for a deity, and a seemingly boring preoccupation. However, looking down on the Earth from above provided a considerable quantity of artistic inspiration. Thus, Apollo entertained himself by strumming his lyre, a kind of hand-held harp.
The ancients created the constellations from associations of naked-eye stars grouped in “connect-the-dots” fashion as stick-figure people, animals or, in this case, a musical instrument. Thus, Lyra became the symbolic representation of all those creative people who aspire to writing, intellectual pursuits, the visual arts and music.
These days, we use constellations as a kind of road map whose naked-eye stars are points of reference to find those objects you can’t see without optical aid, a process called star hopping.
So, fellow and sister stargazers, turn off the computer control on your telescope. Let’s hop. We’ll start with the old stick-figure constellation.
Lyra is particularly easy to find because it contains Vega, the brightest star in the summer sky. At a mere 25 light years away, Vega is one of the closer stars to us.
Hanging from Vega is a parallelogram of stars that make up the bulk of the stick-figure part of the constellation. Find the two stars in the parallelogram farthest from Vega, and point a small telescope at medium magnification halfway between them.
You’ll see a tiny smoke ring of light, a cloud of debris from a star that began to die hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The Ring Nebula, as it is called, was once a mighty hydrogen bomb. Deep inside the center of a star, its hydrogen fuel is crushed to form helium. The fusion of hydrogen into helium results in some leftover energy, which bubbles and boils its way through the star’s outer shell of mostly hydrogen and radiates outward into space. We see that energy as the heat and light produced by the star.
A star eventually begins to run out of hydrogen deep in its core, and the internal explosion begins to falter.
A lot of people think that a star explodes when it dies. It’s already exploding, Earthlings. Its explosion keeps it a million miles wide. When it stops exploding, there’s nothing to puff it up, so it collapses.
Thus, a star doesn’t explode when it dies. Its core, where the hydrogen-bomb reaction was taking place, implodes. The result of that rapid contraction is a tiny, densely packed star a few thousand miles wide.
The outer shell of the star, where no explosion was taking place, basically just sits there for a cosmic moment. The shock wave from the core’s collapse then sends energy through the outer shell, pushing the shell outward into space.
When we look at the Ring Nebula, we see the result of a star’s death as an ever-widening cloud of debris, a cosmic smoke ring slowly fading into the inky nothingness of space.
Take heed, my brother and sister humans. You are looking at how your own star, the sun, will die in five or six billion years.
Let’s face it. The powers that lead to the birth and death of stars and planets are beyond our ability to control or even – in the deepest recesses of our hearts – comprehend.
As a species, we have inhabited our planet for but a moment. It is up to us whether we extend the length of our time here. The forces of nature that determine the birth and death of suns do not care either way if we survive as a species. We must, above all things, against our nature and often contrary to our own particular self interests, learn somehow to care about ourselves as a species.
There. That’s the way it was for me. I started out looking for an old harp, and I ended up finding meaning and purpose in life. That’s what stargazing is all about.
Let us work hard to solve the problems of the world, my friends. But let us never forget the wider, universal context in which those problems exist. Somewhere deep within the throes of all our human agonies, both personal and societal, there is room enough for wonder.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.