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Marcos Santander | IceCube | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

The skies of Wisconsin

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

“When I heard the learn’d astronomer”, from Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

If you make a living out of looking at data gathered by a huge telescope (I know, a weird telescope, but a telescope in the end) there’s no better way to take a break from that than by… looking at the sky through another telescope.

Some time ago, with the excuse of showing the skies of Wisconsin to my daughter, I bought a small reflecting telescope. This happened after walking back home many nights and seeing this beautiful, crystal clear sky above my head of which I knew nothing about. As it was to be expected, the moment I got the telescope shipped to me, and just to respect a long-standing astronomical tradition, clouds showed up everywhere and the crystal skies were gone.

However, things have been nicer lately, and I’ve had a couple of good, clear nights, so I’ve been able to venture outside to take a first glimpse at the sky, and I wanted to share my 3-am excitement with you.

The sky in October was very helpful in offering me a full suite of celestial objects to look at. I started with the easy part: Jupiter, high in the sky through most of the night, is an absolute marvel. You can see it very well, even with your naked eye, if you go outside after dusk and face southeast; it’s by far the brightest “star” on that part of the sky. Just 2 weeks ago Jupiter reached its closest approach to the Earth for the next 50 years, so if you have never looked at it, now it’s a good time to do it. The view through the telescope (even a small one) will reveal the 4 biggest moons that circle the planet, and also some structure in the clouds (which usually show up as belts of clouds of different color.)

I also looked at some very nice open clusters (groups of sister stars that formed in the same gas cocoon) that were unknown to me. The best one I saw was the Double Cluster, in the constellation Perseus. Even a good pair of binoculars could reveal this one as a patch of light with some of the brighter stars sticking out.

With the obvious, brightest objects in the sky covered, I started to look at dimmer stuff. Now I was venturing in uncharted waters for me, I’d never looked at the northern sky through a telescope, so I was completely lost. I got my laptop running a standard sky map software, and I went outside.

By the way, if you’re looking for this kind of software, the one I like the most is called Stellarium, which is not only nice looking and easy to use, but also free!

I was lucky to find, even in my not-so-dark suburban location, many galaxies that looked pretty nice. Of course, if you look through a modest telescope at one of these galaxies you may feel utterly disappointed, but you have to keep in mind that the fuzzy, colorless patch of light that you’re seeing is after all, a GALAXY! It’s all there, no Hubble between you and that huge, spinning, hungry monster. Not to mention the fact that the light hitting your retina directly has been traveling through intergalactic space for several million years. For me that’s just amazing.


Here's a picture of Jupiter I took a couple of nights ago. The original view through the telescope was much sharper than this, but I got the image using an old digital camera attached directly to the eyepiece. After a tiny amount of post-processing, the Galilean moons can be easily seen, from upper left to lower right: Ganymede, Europa, Jupiter, Io, and Callisto. Probably not the nicest picture of Jupiter you'll find on the web, but anyway...

But why am I telling you all this? Because you may have never looked through a telescope, and I would like to encourage you to do just that. Take your friends, your family, your significant other to one of the many astronomy clubs that exist all over the world and that will be happy to share with you their equipment, and I assure you that it will be a great experience.

I still have to meet the person that will look at the Moon, Saturn, or Jupiter through a telescope for the first time without being moved by the experience. For me, even after taking courses on related subjects, and having looked at the skies for as long as I can remember, I can’t help standing in awe when I look through my telescope, as Whitman said, “in perfect silence at the stars.”