If you read my post about Comet Panstarrs this February, you know that as a kid, I spent a lot of summers at Space Camp. In a dark auditorium at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, I learned to map star clusters, look through a telescope, and appreciate our wide and wonderful universe. My parents didn’t even make me go—I just loved it. And ever since I passed the age limit and didn’t have the math prerequisites to take astronomy in school, I’ve been trying to get back into Space Camp.
Now at Cambridge, with a wealth of astronomy titles, experts, and resources at my fingertips, I realize there must be others like me—fascinated by the stars, anxious to learn more, to look up at the sky and understand what’s there. If you’re one of them, Cambridge is taking you back to camp this summer.
Every week this summer, we’ll talk to amateur astronomy experts about how to get started observing the night sky. In a series of Q&As with Cambridge astronomy experts, we’ll learn how to read a star chart, pick out a telescope, photograph the sky, identify planets, and more!
You remember the basics: we are all on a planet in a solar system that rotates around the closest star—our sun. Our solar system is one of many in the Milky Way galaxy, an enormous spiral of stars, dust, gas, and dark matter, like the galaxy pictured on the left. The Milky Way is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies littering the observable universe—and that’s only the portion astronomers know about.
When we step outside to stargaze, the stars we see are pockets of plasma burning lightyears (it’s a measure of distance, not time, and it’s very, very far—about 5,878,499,810,000 miles) from Earth. We observe their stellar life cycles as new stars are born from hot, concentrated nebulae like the one to the right and old stars die, sometimes with an invisible whimper, sometimes with a bang we call a supernova and can see in our own skies, often hundreds of years after it’s actually happened (that’s how long it takes the light from distant stars to reach our solar system). As we gaze into the night sky, we’re often gazing into our Universe’s past.
Watching the stars is a pastime perhaps as old as man and civilization itself—we owe many of our constellations to ancient astronomers like Ptolemy (2nd century, AD) and a fundamental understanding of lunar eclipses to the Babylonians. Renaissance scholars like Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo shaped our knowledge of the solar system, and astrophysicists of the 20th and 21st centuries have built telescopes and launched crafts that are giving us an unprecedented look at other moons and planets, neighboring galaxies, and deep space mysteries like comets, asteroids, and meteors.
If I were the intro to a planetarium show (like the one narrated by Whoopi Goldberg at New York’s American Museum of Natural History right now), this would be the part where I would marvel at the wonders of our universe—how space, that final frontier, contains so much to be explored. If you’re hooked (or mildly interested—I realize I’m no Whoopi), keep exploring with us this summer as Cambridge’s expert guides get our tour of the stars off the ground.
Throughout the summer, don’t forget to use our discount on recommended titles for the new astronomer, submit to our photo contest (details coming soon!), and tell us why you love astronomy with the Twitter hashtag #WhyIStargaze.