By Dustin Jayroe | Photos by Tony Milligan
“Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
— Carl Sagan
When I first heard the words, “We’re made of star-stuff,” from the legendary mind of Carl Sagan, saying it shook me to my core would be an understatement. It rattled me much deeper than that, to my very existence. What does that even mean, to be “made of star-stuff?”
Simply put, we can take it quite literally. The elements that make up our bodies, such as nitrogen, carbon and oxygen, were all created by stars. Without getting too technical, all organic matter was created over a span of billions of years through the lives and deaths (explosions) of stars. When stars explode, they expel debris out into space viciously, and a new cycle begins. Our bodies are made up of elements that our celestial ancestors created.
This realization was monumental for me and the countless others who have been moved by the late-Sagan’s wisdom. It’s part of what led me to purchase my first telescope. My early-20s broke self had to split the purchase out into three monthly installments, but when it arrived, I felt like the richest man in town. From those first moments to today, it serves as a connection to myself and the history that led to my existence. It’s my portal through time, allowing me to peer back at the history of the Universe as we know it — a place as large as it is breathtaking.
When we look up at night, a sea of darkness speckled by pinpricks of light sits before us; some that blaze brightly in their brilliance, others that appear as little more than a faint smudge, like the ink was running dry. This dazzling canvas is made up primarily of stars like ours, the Sun, that we and our neighbors of this solar system revolve around. Included also in our night sky are our fellow planetary dwellers of this system, most noticeable are always Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn which are usually some of the brightest in the array. And oftentimes, the faint, gray smudges are either nebulae — star-forming clouds of dust — or an entirely different galaxy, an eternity away from us in the Milky Way.
Simply looking up at nightfall, be it an inadvertence while taking the dog for a walk or a purposefully planned night of stargazing, is in a sense observing nature’s genealogy kit; one that doesn’t require mailed in swabs of saliva and weeks-long waits for results. It’s a family tree made of constellations, all right there above us every night. And no matter your galactic interest level or selenological understanding, there’s something up there for everyone.
“It makes good sense to revere the sun and the stars — because we are their children.”
— Carl Sagan
Voyaging Through Time
As far as we know, the time travel of science-fiction lore does not yet exist. Keys to a history-hopping DeLorean are not lying on someone’s countertop, nor is there a golden chain looped through a circular pendant hanging from an era skipper’s neck. However, we are able to travel back in time daily, when dusk sets in.
For as immediate as the mottle of stars in our sky appear to us when we gaze upon them, we are actually observing them as they were, not as they are. And just as a train or an automobile must travel to reach its destination, so too does light. Even though light rays zoom around at about 180,000 miles per second, giving us no visible perception of these movements, they still do have to journey from where the object is to where we are. And outer space is an astronomically large place.
Take the Moon, for instance, which orbits about 250,000 miles from the Earth. This means we always see the Moon as it was 1.3 seconds ago, since that’s how long it takes the light reflected off it to reach our eyes. The closest star to our Sun, Alpha Centauri, is 4 light-years away. So observing it from our vantage point, through a telescope or otherwise, is a peer back four years in the past. Polaris, or the North Star as it is commonly referred, is 323 light-years away from earth. Looking at it is us traveling back, for a few brief moments, to a time before the United States was a country.
For those keeping count at home, a light-year is a unit of measurement most commonly used to gauge distance when comparing celestial objects, mainly because it makes the math easier. The fastest traveling object (that we know of) is a light ray. And because of the sheer scale of the cosmos, the simplest way to measure from A to B is the amount of time it takes light to travel in a year — a light-year. If we break it down to our rudimentary, in comparison, scale, then we would say that 1 light-year equals about 6 trillion miles.
“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
― Arthur C. Clarke
The utter behemothic size of the Universe is borderline incomprehensible. It’s an unfathomable peppering of statistics based upon length and scope that we simply cannot readily understand. When we read that 1 light year is 6 trillion miles and the closest star to ours is four of those away, we might as well just say 27 gazillion miles and call it a day. 500 miles is a long way for me; 6 trillion is fairy dust.
But that’s not even the half of it. Thus far, we have discussed only objects that are within our relative neighborhood in our own galaxy, the Milky Way — a galaxy that sprawls between 150,000 and 200,000 light-years across. Just down the universal street and to the right sits the Andromeda Galaxy (which you can see from earth, by the way) which is 2.5 million light-years from us, and around 200,000 light-years in diameter.
But, we can try to understand it. We don’t have to comprehend the scope, but we can wrap our heads around what makes it all up.
The Earth is a planet within a solar system, or simply planets and other matter that orbit a star. Our Sun is among between 200-400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy, most of them (probably) with planets and solar systems of their own. Also within galaxies are nebula, or star-forming clouds of gas and dust that are formed from dead stars post-explosion (nova or supernova, depending on the size). At the center of our galaxy sits a supermassive black hole which all of the objects within (including us) orbit around, in a similar way to how we orbit around the Sun.
Outside the Milky Way, the observable Universe contains an estimated 100-200 billion galaxies; each made up of stars, systems, planets and other celestial objects of their own. And that’s just what we know of. If history is any indicator, there is always more to learn when it comes to space.
Stargazing in Arkansas
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
― Rachel Carson
As long-winded as that may seem, we find ourselves back to the here and the now; although, it is certainly hard to not feel just a little smaller than we did a few moments ago.
Every night, each of us has the opportunity to look to the heavens in awe of its majesty — of its history, that includes us. No matter what equipment we have or do not, there’s no harm in gazing with a newfound, better understanding.
Luckily for us, the state of Arkansas has a Sagan-ite to help direct us through it all. Darrell Heath works in the Biology department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. But ever since around 2005, he has been obsessed with astronomy. While his childhood of being a “science geek” led to his collegiate studies and eventual career in biology, Heath has also always been a lover of science-fiction.
“Somewhere along the line that became more of an interest, also, in the real science behind the science-fiction,” he says. “ I can recall being a kid and growing up in southwest Little Rock where light pollution was still not too much of an issue, and we could lay out on the lawn and … we could see the Milky Way. Ever since then I’ve just been kind of slowly building up interest in astronomy. In 2005 I bought a telescope. And then once I got that, I just became hooked.”
Hooked might, in this case, be an understatement. Since then, Heath has gone on to helm the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society (CAAS) as president and now serves as the organization’s outreach coordinator. Among other community events, CAAS hosts monthly, public star parties at Pinnacle Mountain and Woolly Hollow State Parks. It was within this group that Heath was able to further hone in on this newfound passion.
“Right after I got the telescope and I was still learning, just a complete novice, it really became quickly apparent that I needed to be around people who knew what they were doing,” Heath recalls. “And so I went to one of the club meetings and they were just a great group of people, very generous with their knowledge and assistance. So I became a member.”
Since then, Heath has catapulted to stardom both here in Arkansas and beyond. He is the host of the UALRTV series, “The Night Sky,” where he breaks down various elements of our sky full of stars in informative yet easy to digest episodes. Not only do the episodes air on the university’s television channel, but they are also uploaded to YouTube where the entire world is watching.
“I just got an email … from someone in Tanzania who had seen the episode on Orion, as a matter of fact, and she said it inspired her,” Heath says. “She’s now going to get out and admire the night sky.”
It is more than fitting that Heath received this particular email so timely relative to our conversation because we had just realized that the constellation of Orion is both of our favorites. One might also call it fate that this particular video, covering a subject so close to his heart, is one of his most-watched, garnering almost 150,000 views to date. Orion is a great place for beginners to start.
“It’s bright. It’s conspicuous. It looks like what it’s supposed to,” Heath says of Orion. “It’s very eye-catching, especially during the wintertime … It just really stands out as a giant striding across the sky and it’s got so many cool things to see within it with just the naked eye, with binoculars and even small backyard telescopes. So it’s got it all.
“Once you realize you’ve discovered this constellation on your own, you recognize it, you can name those stars, it becomes a launching point to other stars and other constellations. You’ve got Taurus right next door, you’ve got Canis Major and Canis Minor right next to it, Gemini above it, Lepus below. And from there you just start branching out and learning the sky and the other constellations and stars just by identifying that one constellation.”
For beginners looking to get into stargazing as a hobby, Heath recommends starting with binoculars, to just get the feet a little wet, and better understand how the sky works, so to speak.
“Learn how it changes from minute to minute, from night to night, and over the course of a year how the night sky changes from one season to the next,” Heath advises. “Start learning those brightest stars in the night sky and using them as your stepping stones to finding the constellations. Learn simple star patterns, simple constellations like Orion and asterisms like the Big Dipper. Then just use them as your launching point to find further things in the sky.”
From there, if you are still interested and would like to purchase a telescope, you can watch his episode on YouTube, “Telescopes: A Buyer’s Guide.”
As for his favorite spots to gaze at the heavens in the Natural State, Mount Magazine, Rich Mountain and Queen Wilhelmina State Park are among them. As is the belle of the ball these days: Buffalo River National Park, which just officially became an International Dark Sky Park, one of only a few dozen in the United States.
Visit www.darkskyarkansas.com for a map of some of the best public places to view the stars.
Heath always ends his episodes of “The Night Sky” with a similar tagline, a simple send-off message. One, in particular, closes with an encouraging call-to-action:
“Take just a little bit of time to step outside and look up in both awe and wonder.”
Tony Milligan’s Photography Equipment
A DSLR or mirrorless camera with a fast wide-angle lens is best, though it can be done with some point and shoot cameras.
• Personal preference is anywhere between 14-24 mm lens.
• Any lens capable of F1.8 – F4.0 will work the best.
• Kit lenses will work and can produce nice photos but won’t be as sharp as a dedicated prime lens such as the Rokinon 12mm F2.0 or Rokinon 14mm F2.8.
• A good steady tripod is a must as you will have to be shooting long exposures.
• A remote timer or using the cameras built-in timer to avoid any camera shake/movement.
• A flashlight — one that has a red light option is best to help keep your eyes adjusted to the dark while setting up your gear. It can also be used to light your foreground subject.
• Finally, a good dark sky area away from the city lights.
Darrell Heath’s Favorites
Saturn to observe.
Moon: Earth’s moon.
Nebula: Trifid Nebula.
Galaxy: M81 and M82.