Close Encounters with Science: Picks
Racing Point of Light by Rob Colter
As night overtakes the bay, we grow quiet. The scent of the cooling forest wafts across the water. Small animals rustle at water’s edge. Overhead, the stars spread their surreal light, wrapping us in their mystery. Out of the west a bright star climbs, arcing rapidly across the sky, much faster than an airplane. “Satellite!” I whisper, and excitedly we track it to the horizon’s edge. “Another one!” This one is flying higher, seemingly smaller, but just as fast. Is it reflecting less sunlight? We follow its headlong path until its brilliance fades to nothing. Over the next 15 minutes we spot three more. As they swing around the earth at improbable speed, there is no better demonstration of the spherical shape of our planet, and of our engineering abilities. Grandparents, we sit in awe, impatient to spot the next one looping into view. Beside us, our teenage grandson has begun to fidget. “Why such a big deal about satellites?” he asks.
When I was 12 my father and I stood on our back lawn, beneath the stars, hoping to see a shiny metallic basketball that was forecast to appear overhead at exactly 9:33. We were told to listen for a beeping tone on the small transistor radio that my father held in his hand. For me it was unimaginable that something so small could be visible so high, flying so fast that it could cross the sky in less than two minutes. How did it stay up? How could it go so fast without an engine or fuel? What did the earth look like from up there?
The year was 1957 and the silver ball was called Sputnik. For the first time earthlings had placed an artificial satellite in orbit around earth.
The transistor radio suddenly crackled and a faint beep-beep came through the static. It was calling us! We looked up in the direction we had been told. It was a clear night, but a half moon was rising and the stars were faint. We craned our necks. And then we saw it, a pinprick of light traversing the stars, slowly at first, and then amazingly fast as it sped overhead, chirping its wondrous scientific achievement and forever altering our perspective of planet earth.
That experience turned me into a life-long space fan. I never missed a Gemini or Apollo launch, and I feasted on the footage from the moon landings and planetary probes to Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Naturally, my grandson takes such technology for granted. He feels no compulsion to search the night sky for the source of his perfect cell phone reception and the live Olympic Games he loves to watch. Yet, far from city lights, when I look skyward and spot that racing point of light, I still feel the awe.
Rob Colter is from Toronto, ON