British Columbia

As life on Earth is upended, astronomers keep looking up

A glowing nebula. Spectacular galaxies. Two gravitationally-bound systems of stars, dancing together in space. They're all still there, constant, alive, untouchable from Earth and unfazed by its human pandemic.

Online star-hopping expeditions offer some perspective during pandemic

Charles Ennis, 66, pictured at the Sunshine Coast Astronomy Club in Sechelt, B.C., before the pandemic. (Submitted by Charles Ennis)

Charles Ennis has been spending his evenings of late hunched next to his personal computerized telescope in his Sechelt, B.C., backyard. He blocks out everything around him, ignores the phone in his pocket and focuses his mind and gaze on space, greater than the world around him.

As with every spring, it's galaxy season.

"There are tens of thousands of things to see," said Ennis, 66. "If I hold up a grain of sand at arm's length, I'm covering 100,000 galaxies."

Astronomers across B.C. have been holding star-hopping expeditions online since they've been unable to gather together at their regular observatory haunts. Glowing nebulas, spectacular galaxies, gravitationally-bound clusters of stars dancing together in space — they're all still there, untouchable from Earth and unfazed by its human pandemic.

The Sunshine Coast Astronomy Club has been holding star-hopping meetings by Zoom, with themes like "the skies this month" and photography tips for beginners. 

"All you need is binoculars, or even just the naked eye. Go up, look at that sky and go explore. Find the different things that are out there and discover what's going on," said Ennis, who is second vice-president of the club.

He said anyone can go online and find guides, even scavenger hunts, to navigate the sky. (If you find half of the 110 objects on his beginner's list, the club will send you a certificate.)

Ennis, who has been using his personal Celestron NexStar 6SE computerized telescope, recommends starting with the bucket of the Big Dipper, which is "full of galaxies." The bent letter "W" in the middle of the Milky Way will lead you to the constellation Cassiopeia. The Orion nebula is there, too, a nursery packed with newborn stars.

"People will sometimes call us on this line and say, 'What nights of the year can I see things?' And I'm thinking, 'Is it a clear night?' I will run out of nights before I can show you everything," said Ennis, who got his first telescope when he was 10.

M82, or the Cigar galaxy, is located 12 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major. Joanna Woo took this photo from Simon Fraser University's Trottier Observatory on May 8, 2020. (Submitted by Joanna Woo)

Joanna Woo streamed a Starry Nights event live on YouTube from the Trottier Observatory at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., last week. She attached an astronomical imaging camera to the observatory's 700-millimetre CDK700 telescope, guiding hundreds of people through the dazzling night sky.

They saw the M64 "Black Eye" galaxy, named for its reddish-blue blur, and the M82 "Cigar" galaxy, aptly named for its silvery wisps. Woo trained the telescope on a thin, glowing, crescent Venus setting in the west. The M57 Ring Nebula, the glowing remnants of an old star, rose to say hello at the very end of the night.

Usually, with the Starry Nights events held in person, Woo could spend up to an hour on a single object to give everybody in line a turn at the eyepiece. That delay is erased with a live-stream.

Joanna Woo is the director of the Trottier Observatory at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. (Simon Fraser University)

Plus, the images are far more radiant. 

"Human eyes find it really hard to see any colours at all in the dark," she said. "A lot of things look really dim and they look like this tiny, nondescript fuzz in the eyepiece … But with a camera, the colours pop out and you get so much more detail."

Woo and Ennis agree there's a humility to astronomy: it shows your place within something enormous.

"I love thinking about things that are beyond us, that are much bigger than us. It gives you a sense of awe," Woo said.

"Even as professional astronomers ... you can't run an experiment on a galaxy," Woo continued. "We call it observational astronomy because all we can do is observe."

Ennis added, "I can see exactly the scale of things, how small I am — and how important it is to protect this fragile blue marble, here, where we live."


  • An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the CDK700 telescope used at Simon Fraser University had a 70-millimetre aperture. In fact, its aperture is 700 millimetres. The earlier version also stated the M57 Ring Nebula was the remains of a planet. It is, in fact, the remains of a star.
    May 19, 2020 12:56 PM PT


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