Naked-EyeBy David Ward

The universe has been so full of exciting news lately that I can barely tear myself away from reading it all on my smart phone. As if there were not enough galaxies out there, astronomers have figured out how to see the ones hiding behind our own Milky Way galaxy, adding to an already large number.

So how many galaxies are lurking out there? A lot. Estimates range from 500 billion to a trillion and that is just in the visible universe. If numbers that big make your head spin, try this simple exercise. Get yourself a grain of sand, go outside at night and hold it up at arm’s length to the sky. Anywhere will do. That tiny little piece of sky that your grain of sand is covering holds about 15,000 galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. If that does not make you feel small, you need to talk with your mental health counselor because you obviously have an over-inflated opinion of yourself.

Astronomers think there might be a new planet out there in our own solar system. They have not spotted it yet, but other objects far out beyond Pluto are wobbling in strange ways, suggesting that there is something tugging on them. This new planet is estimated to weigh 10 times as much as Earth and it is way out there, 20 times farther away than Neptune. Astronomers are going to start looking for it with one of the world’s largest telescopes.

Do you think it is difficult to reserve a last-minute flight to Hawaii to get away from the sloppy mess outside your door? Try reserving time on a billion-dollar telescope. You have got to have something really good. Physicists are already trying to figure out if we can use this new planet as a gravitational slingshot to accelerate a space ship to the stars. If we were not wasting so much money on stupid political campaigns, we might actually be able to afford an awesome achievement like that someday. 

Then there is a star designated as KIC 8462852. Located in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan, it is one of thousands being observed by the Kepler space-based telescope in its search for planets circling other stars. This star has something going around it, but it is no ordinary planet. Astronomers are scratching their heads trying to figure out what it might be.

One idea is that it is an artificial mega-structure built by an alien civilization. Do not expect a visit from mega-structure-building aliens anytime soon. That star is a long ways away, about 1,480 light years. How far is that? Look at it this way. The Voyager space probe is the farthest man-made object from Earth. Launched in the 1970s, it passed the orbit of Pluto a few years ago and is headed for the stars. If it were headed in that direction it would take another 28,120,000 years to get to KIC 8462852.

Just the other day somebody discovered gravitational waves, and they even made a recording of them that you can listen to. How cool is that?

These waves were first predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago, but he did not think anyone would be able to detect them. Imagine throwing a pebble in a still pond and watching little waves rippling away. In this case the pebble is two colliding black holes, perhaps the most violent event in the universe, over a billion light years away, and the pond is the fabric of space/time itself. Wondering what the fabric of space/time could possibly be? Do not worry about it too much because nobody else knows what it is either. All we know is that Einstein equations describing how objects move through this mysterious matrix of the universe actually work.

Want to go out and see some of this cool stuff yourself? Sorry, only the big boys with really big toys like billion-dollar telescopes get to have that much fun. You can see Orion, though. He is standing upright and proud in the south just after it gets dark. Look for reddish Betelgeuse, a star that is just about ready to explode, in the upper left-hand corner of the constellation. In the lower right-hand corner you can see blue white Rigel, which shines perhaps 100,000 times brighter than our sun. In between, three stars in a row mark his distinctive belt. Hanging down from the belt at an angle, three dimmer stars make up his sword. It is not much of a sword, really — maybe just a dagger.

If you have good eyes, you might notice that one of those stars is slightly fuzzy. Binoculars will show it plainly. That is the Great Nebula in Orion, a cloud of gas thousands of times bigger than our solar system. It glows because it is being lit up like a giant fluorescent lamp by brand-new stars just being born in that cloud. Our sun and Earth were born in such a place billions of years ago.

The planets Venus, Mars and Saturn are all in the east before sunrise. Jupiter is coming up before it gets too late. If it is bright, yellowish and not twinkling, it is Jupiter.

Enjoy the winter night sky. What we can see of it with our naked eye is beautiful. The mysteries that lie beyond are incredible.