Travel in space: Viewing the galaxy from Israel

An increased amount of meteoroids will create a meteor shower called Leonids, which can be seen clearly from the Negev.

By MIKA SCHICK
October 17, 2010 00:28
The best place to see Leonids is from the wilderne

star observatory 311. (photo credit: Mika Schik)

Boarding an Egged bus in Jerusalem seems to be the most unlikely place to start on a space tour, but we don’t let that stop us. It’s that time of year again, and our planet is about to pass through a theater in space that creates one of the most spectacular shows in the night sky. As we pass through the meteoroid stream of particles left by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, an increased amount of small particles called meteoroids will pass through our atmosphere and create a meteor shower that we call Leonids. Carol and I are here for one of our many desert hikes and on our way to the Negev, where these asteroids can be viewed without all the light pollution of the dense population areas.

“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making plans,” according to John Lennon – and this was a classic case. We were in Jerusalem stocking up for our walk when I got a call from John Dann. He’s the caretaker stargazer for the only star observatory in the Middle East and an old friend.

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He heard we were in town and suggested we pop in to help me scratch my Star Trek itch and that’s how we ended up at the main event of our visit. We moved our walk from the Judean Desert to the Ramon Crater area where the observatory is and headed for our bus.

Mitzpe Ramon is a one cop town on the edge of the largest crater in the Negev. John is driving, and we are leaving the outskirts of the town and entering the desert. Complete darkness outside, only the road disappearing beyond the range of the headlights. Then a gate and beyond, on top of the hill, the distinctive shape of a dome against the starry sky. John parks, kills the headlights and as we step outside and as our eyes adapt to the darkness, I can see why they brought the telescope here, to the middle of nowhere.

So many stars! Hard to describe, but there are so many of them that I feel them rather than see them.

The only thing reminding me of being on terra firma are my physical senses, that little chafe in my shoe, the weight of the keys in my pocket and finally a nudge from John inviting us inside. He disappears to his chores while Carol fetches her sleeping bag and steps outside to look for a place for the night. After a while of wandering alone in the dark corridors, scenes from the first Alien movie come to mind and I go looking for my friend. I find him inside the dome, busy with his instruments and computers.

John invites me over to the telescope to have a look.



There’s a spiraling galaxy in the viewfinder. While I get lost in space, I can hear his voice in the background, something about light years and distances, I’m not listening, I’m lost in space. I get pulled away from the viewfinder, too soon for me. He pushes some buttons, pulls some levers and generally takes pleasure in playing the mad scientist. Servo motors wake into life, gears mesh and the giant telescope starts to follow the dome to a new heading. It stops with a loud clunk of locking into its new position and I’m back at the viewfinder.

Another galaxy and I’m floating in space again. I do not get pulled away this time and take my fill. As I’m finally leaving the telescope, John is giving me the grand tour. While I can’t, for the life of me, remember the names of those galaxies, the rest of what he told me I will never forget. The places we saw were impressive enough, but what really got me were the distances and the time. John says the first galaxy is hundreds of thousands of light years away from the second – and from us.

Well, he gave exact numbers, I can’t remember. He’s a scientist, he calculates. I’m a writer, I feel. Different wiring. And while he’s explaining, I try to put it all into perspective.

One light year equals how far a beam of light travels in a year, when it travels about 300,000 km. in a second?? Aargh, forget it. But the point is that those galaxies are so far apart that by the time the light from one reaches the other, they’re no longer there. When the light that I see from those galaxies was sent, the intended recipients were the forefathers of the dinosaurs. And it took us only 30 seconds to move that telescope; 30 seconds to travel hundreds of thousands of light years. John, have you thought about being a travel agent – and charging by the mile? The cold night air is refreshing, clears the mind a bit. I join Carol below the observatory and spread my sleeping bag next to hers. Were comfortably cocooned inside the bags, with an uninterrupted view of the universe, waiting for the shower.

Lying there in the warmth of my bag, the paradox here makes me chuckle. We consider the day illuminating, the time we can see our world. The night is for retreating to our imaginary worlds inside our heads.

But its the light that illuminates our atmosphere that is hiding what is beyond, and when that light diminishes, it draws the curtain away from the grand picture and the rest of the universe can finally be seen. That’s the paradox. We need to lose some of our ability to see in order to see farther. We really see better at night.

They’re here. The first of the Leonids are blazing across the night sky above us and we’re wide awake. It starts as a drizzle and develops into a shower. The sky is crisscrossed with them. One starts from the horizon and I follow it across the sky to the opposite horizon and by the time I get a word out of my mouth, it’s gone. All I managed was a faint “aaah,” so Carol missed it and I will have to live that down. We lie there entranced by the hundreds of blazing falling stars and the night moves seamlessly from the starry sky to the inner space of our imaginations. Next thing I know the curtain is down again and the sun is creeping over the horizon.

We shuffle into the observatory to wash away the cobwebs and search for a hot cup of coffee. John is busy shutting the station down for the day, closing the dome, aligning the telescope for tomorrow night, filing away the night’s work, the caretaker for the universe.

I’m busy trying to find that dividing line between last night’s events and my dreams and I’m not so sure I have found it to this day.

Never mind, I don’t know if I want to. I’ll leave that to the scientists, I’m content with the quest. We will eventually venture to that undiscovered universe that we glimpsed last night and discover many answers.

While I’m happy with that, I’m at peace, knowing that there are enough questions out there to last humanity for as long as we have the courage to ask them.


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