Measuring the Night Sky: Galilean Moons Vs. The Super Moon

By Jove, I think I got it!

Galileans by Jove      ©Justin Starr

On the night of Saturday, January 10th, 2015, I decided to go downstairs in front of my apartment building to observe and photograph Jupiter and the Galilean Moons. I had not been doing a lot of visual observing as of late, nor have I been taking many pictures through my telescope. My astrophotography habit has been very focused on widefield and landscape astrophotography for basically the last 6 months; I’ve mainly been using my 14mm/2.8 or 50mm/1.8 lenses.

As I processed my images, I grew curious: how much space did Jupiter and the Galileans occupy in the night sky? We often hear that, were it not so faint, we would see the Andromeda galaxy as about 6 times wider than the full Moon. I wanted to continue in the tradition of using Earth’s natural satellite as a standard of measure. How would the angular distance of Jupiter and the orbits of its 4 largest moons compare to the angular diameter of our nearest celestial neighbor?

It's a bird, it's a plane it's...

Super Moon – 34.1 arcminutes of angular awesome!

In order to determine the answer (or an approximation, at least), I could not use any old picture of the Moon. No, it needed to be a portrait of the lovely Selene that I had taken. That way, I would know without a doubt that the Moon and Jupiter were captured through the same telescope (Orion ST80) and with the same size imaging sensor (22.2 mm x 14.8 mm). As luck would have it, I had a photo of the Super Moon from August 10, 2014. This was useful because a little research determined that the angular diameter of the Super Moon is 34.1′ (arcminutes). I could now get a good approximation of the angular distance from the Jovian moon at one extreme (Ganymede) to the moon farthest away (Callisto).

I imported both images, uncropped, into Adobe Photoshop CC. I then aligned the layers so that Jupiter was on top of the Moon and reduced the opacity of the Moon. Jupiter’s orientation was rotated so that the orbits would be parallel to the horizontal axis. I added brackets showing the 34.1 arcminutes of Luna’s angular diameter. Next, I made a box that extended from Calisto to Ganymede and bisected it. Laying the box and subsequent copies along the previously-labeled angular diameter, I found that  in the current orientation of the gas giant’s satellites, it fit almost exactly 2.5 times! That meant that the angular distance from Ganymede to Callisto was roughly 13.64′ (34.1’/2.5).

How about that...

The angular distance of Ganymede to Callisto compared to the angular diameter of the Super Moon.


Posted in Astrophotography, Observation Log, Photoshop Fun | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To See the Unseeable Sight, To Hear the Unhearable Sound

“To dream… the impossible dream…
To fight… the unbeatable foe…
To bear… with unbearable sorrow…
To run… where the brave dare not go…”
– The Impossible Dream (The Quest) from Man of La Mancha; Lyrics by Joe Darion

My friend from high school and optical engineer at NASA JPL, Holly Bender, recently shared a post from I Fucking Love Science on the Facebook that began with a simple question: Is your red the same as my red? After a few introductory words by Elise Andrew, we were treated to the following wonderful video from Michael Stevens of Vsauce. Take a few moments to watch it if you can spare a few minutes:

If you chose to not watch the video, here’s a brief description of the first half: Michael discusses how we independently experience vision and touch and other phenomena but we can never know if someone else experiences the same exact sight or sensation. He says philosophers call these indescribable feelings as qualia, and calls the inability to express qualia to others (say, describing color to a person who has been blind their entire life) as the explanatory gap.

The video got me thinking and asking questions. I have found virtually no answers to any of these questions yet, but I will pose them to you and hopefully you will have as much fun (or brain-hurting) thinking about them as I had too. And if you have any insights to anything I say, please share in the comments!

1) As the caption to the IFSL link said, “It’s a question that everyone has pondered at one time or another: does everyone view colors the same way?” Why is it the question is so often applied to color? Why don’t more people ask about, say, sound? Does my perception of 440Hz sound like your perception of 440Hz? What is it about color that makes it a more “intuitive” question to ask and not about other features of our daily existences like sound?

2) Our eyes are attuned to a narrow band of wavelengths that we appropriately call the Visual Spectrum. We construct sensors that allow us to detect wavelengths outside of what we can see, and then create visual representations within our visual spectrum.

Left: Thermal Imaging / Right: Visible Light

JPL’s Art Hammon, seen in infrared and visible light. On the left, he holds a cup of hot coffee, on the right is a glass of ice water. Image credit: NASA/JPL

If you look at the picture to the left, the thermal image is not actually infrared light. Rather, it is a false color image in which lighter colors are hotter (shorter wavelength infrared) and darker colors are colder. Hence the hot coffee cup is bright white and the ice cold water is virtually black. But what would it be like to actually SEE infrared – to see with your own eyes footprints on the floor of where a person just stepped? What would it be like to see microwaves – to look up at the night sky and see the cosmic microwave background radiation, or to actually perceive the signal your cell phone emits?

The cilia deep within our ears give us the ability to hear from approximately 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (with sensitivity to certain frequencies varying in different parts of the range). Elephants use infrasound in some of their communications – Asian elephants from 14-24Hz and Africans 15-35. (I once saw a 60 Minutes program where the people could not perceive the elephant calls but they were recorded and transposed up into human hearing range).

Asian Elephants

“Two-Elephants” by Mohan Raj – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What would it be like to hear that low, or as high as a dog (60kHz), a cat (75kHz), or a bat (some up to 200kHz!). How do these other animals perceive sound in their minds? Is it transposed down? Is it just unfathomable to our limited minds (and visual/auditory receptors) as it is outside of our human experience? As I listen to pitches get higher and higher in frequency, they eventually just fade away as they go above and beyond the threshold of what will cause my insufficient cilia to vibrate.

3) It is interesting that we can simulate an experience of a removed sense but not an enhanced one. You can put special headphones on that will eliminate virtually all sound. You can be put into a pitch black room or where some type of eye covering to inhibit sight. A trichromat can look at picture with a certain color configuration and see what someone considered color-blind might see. But the senses are not able to be built upon. I will never understand the in-between colors that a tetrachromat can percieve (yes, they exist!).

I wish there was some way to experience these things, something that could be plugged into my brain that I could see these wavelengths in my mind’s eye or heard in my mind’s ear. After all, it is my brain that is taking the input from my sensory receptors and converting it into my personal experience. So what if the ears were bypassed and I could just “hear it in my brain? I want to know. I want to experience it. I know it is a fool’s errand, but as Don Quixote sings in”The Impossible Dream” Man of La Mancha:

“This is my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far.”

Posted in Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching Astronomy? Yes, Please!

A very cool opportunity has come my way, largely thanks to being in the right place at the right time. I am going to be teaching astronomy/astrophotography seminars and workshops for the digital photography and video store, Berger Brothers! They have 3 locations on Long Island – Amityville, Huntington, and Syosset.  I am very excited to be working with the fine folks at Berger Brothers because they really seem to have a keen interest in not only selling/renting gear, but also in making sure their customers get the most out of their equipment. They do this by offering a variety of classes and workshops related to photo techniques, photo/video hardware, processing software, and more.

I went to their establishment in Syosset (which is where I grew up and where my parents still live) to look for a few items before my wife and I took our cross country road trip this summer. I needed a rear lens cap for my Canon 18-55mm lens, and was also interested in finding a red flashlight and maybe even a laser pointer for when we were in the dark skies of Death Valley, CA or Sedona, AZ. I began chatting up one of the guys who works in the store about my interest in astronomy and astrophotography. He informed me about an event they had coming up called “Shoot the Moon,” where attendees could bring their DSLR and mate it to a telescope to take pictures of our closest celestial neighbor. (I could not attend as it took place while I was on my trip). He also told me that the man who was in charge of their astro program was moving and they were in search of someone to take over. Like I said: right place, right time.

I conferred with the head of their education programs, and we are trying to come up with a variety of classes, seminars, and workshops out in the field to spread the love and know-how of taking pictures of our night sky and all the wonderful objects that reside within it. So keep an eye out; we may be heading out east to Montauk, vineyards, or to the beaches of the South Shore. We’ll go over processing software like Registax, Deep Sky Stacker, StarTrails and StarTrax. Their are so many ideas and even more ways to implement them! Can you tell I’m excited?!?!

Our first class is scheduled for Tuesday, November 18th at 6:30pm in the Syosset store. It will be an introduction to astrophotography – what is it, what can you shoot, what do you need, etc – and a primer on finding the right telescope for your visual/photographic needs. Maybe I’ll see you there! ;-)

Posted in Public Outreach, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Tour of the Night Sky at the 8th Grade Formal, Year 2


Getting aligned to Saturn. 6/20/14

On Friday, June 20, 2014, my middle school held its annual 8th grade formal, the last school dance of the year before graduation. As some readers may recall, an impromptu star party occurred on the front lawn at the conclusion of last year’s event. I made the decision soon after that night that at the next formal I would bring my telescope.

In some ways, I may have been priming my students for this night over the course of the entire year. I mean, I talk about astronomy a pretty good deal to my kids… and I’m a music teacher. I’ve shown them my astrophotos, I randomly dropped facts or explained concepts. I helped when they had astronomy questions from their Earth Science class. And all the while, I was excited. I was passionate. There was no hint of self-consciousness. There were no worries of it being nerdy, uncool, whatever. There was only unbridled enthusiasm. I know it’s awesome… and I think that feeling becomes a little contagious.

Kids, especially at the middle school/high school age, can be very self-conscious. They want to feel the acceptance of their peers, they don’t want to feel like outcasts. They’re trying to figure out who they are and that fits into the scheme of things. So with fields of science such as astronomy, one might meet a little resistance, some walls that need to be chipped away at over time. One of the most important lessons I try to teach to my students is: Be who you are. Own it. Is there something about yourself your self-conscious about? Turn it around, make that self-perceived “weakness” a strength. (I have one specific story about that I’ll attach at the end of this post). I sometimes joke to my kids: I’m a grown, married man; I have no one to impress anymore! I’m free to be me. Of course, as adults we still long for acceptance – from family, from our coworkers, etc; it’s part of being a social animal. But at school, I aim to lead by example. I try to be the best me for the students. Are my ears a little pointy? I own it. I’m part elf/vampire/whatever. Can I be a little effeminate at times? Gurl, I own it [Insert self-deprecating joke about being a male chorus teacher here].

Related, another important lesson I try to impart by example is: don’t pigeon-hole yourself. Don not believe you aren’t allowed to like one thing because you also like something else. I get asked by students all the time, “How do you know this stuff? You’re a music teacher!” or “Why don’t you teach science?” (I think this may come from the compartmentalized fashion in which education occurs; you have your English class for English, Social Studies class for history and civics, etc). Yep, I love music and am lucky I get to teach music.


Some of my students made a little adjustment to the posters for the dance… XD

I also love science, particularly astronomy. And I play hockey. And I have a dog. And I eat Oreos. I’m what is called a person, a person with a variety of interests. And I want these future adults to be people too, not just walking singular interests by which they are defined.

I swear, there is a point to these last three seemingly-overly-tangential paragraphs. Part of this meandering stems from not being a writer, and part is it just being the end of the school year, at time in which I get very reflective. In the end, however, to paraphrase Eric Cartman: It’s my blog, I do what I want. As I was saying, I had primed them over the entire year to astronomy being awesome. Then recently, I lit the match: I told them I was bringing my telescope to the dance and that we would see Saturn. They were very excited. All we needed now was for the weather to cooperate.

The big day came but my ScopeNights app told me the conditions for that night would poor! The whole day I kept glancing out windows seeing what the situation was. It was a bright sunny day, but the cloud was just strewn with cirrus and altostratus clouds, particularly along the ecliptic of all possible places! My heart was beginning to feel heavy, but there was still time for conditions to clear up.

At around 7:10, I was able to momentarily forget about the sky as the kids started to arrive. They all looked amazing. The handsome young men were much more dressed up than last year with ties, a plethora of vests, a few tuxes, and hats were big this year for some reason. The beautiful young ladies wore a variety of sparkly dresses and gowns, hair all done, mani/pedis, fancy shoes that looked impossible to dance in (and ultimately were – lots of bare feet on the floor!). I was getting a little verklempt seeing these kids who I’ve watched grow for 3 years all gussied up, looking like the young adults they are becoming. Man, if I get this misty with my students, what kind of sopping mess of a parent will I be with my own children?!

Similar to last year, I boogied on the floor nearly the whole night and most likely worked off all the food I ate that week. Periodically, though, I would step outside just to see what there was to see. Although there were some clouds and haze, I clearly saw Mars, Spica, and Saturn all lined up. “This is going to happen,” I thought excitedly. The dance drew to a close with the lights turning on and one last song being played (“Let It Go” from Frozen). When the song concluded, the students made their way to the door to meet their waiting parents, and I went to the closet where I stashed my equipment. I quickly put everything together and brought it outside on to the lawn.

I was aware that it was late (the dance ended at 10pm) and parents wanted to leave. I quickly got Saturn “centered” in my 9mm EP, but then out of haste and worry that adults were eager to leave, I immediately threw in the 3x Barlow – a dramatic increase in zoom. I lost sight of the ringed planet and could not find it. Eventually I decided to cut my losses and (regrettably, for me at least) show them this wonder of the Solar System through the 9mm. I was sad, and also a little worried – would they be unimpressed or disappointed at this tiny gem in the eyepiece? I have a short-tube wide-field refractor; it’s really not very powerful. With the optical tube having only 400mm of focal length, the 9mm EP gives only 44.4x magnification, whereas throwing in the Barlow would have increased it to 133.3x – it is a very significant difference! But, looking at the positive, you could still clearly see space between the ring system and the globe. It was not just a little sphere with “ears” as Galileo saw in 1610. And the kids? They were ecstatic. Oos and Ahs and Wows and Holys.


I don’t think she understands how this works?

Their parents, and even school administrators, looked too. Another teacher and I pointed out other objects in the night sky: That red one over there, that’s Mars. The bright star right next to it, Spica. Straight up overhead, insanely bright Arcturus. You can find it by using the handle of the Big Dipper as a guide, or “following the arc to Arcturus.” Kids recited that the angle of Polaris is equal to your latitude, which they had learned in Earth Science class. One young lady excitedly told me that she started watching Cosmos with her father and they have watched 3 episodes so far. She was excited to continue. (This point touched my heart because it was something that she looked forward to as a thing she shared with her father… oh boy, when I have kids, let me tell you…) Shortly after, the group went their separate ways. I was about to pack up when I heard a voice say (somewhat mockingly, I might add), “What’s he looking at, space?” I looked to find a group of students waiting for rides home on the steps of the school who were trying to play it cool and disinterested. I called out, “Yeah, I’m looking at Saturn. Want a look?” The motley crew came running over and vied for who was first, who was next. A few shook my hand after they had their turn and disappeared into the night.

At first I thought I finally got to let them into my world. It was more than just talk and photos. It was real, seeing this lonely little planet suspended in the the inky black of space. But I actually let them into their world. I opened up a window for them to see more of the universe that they inhabit. I made it a little bit more accessible. The sky belongs to all of us if you want it. You just have to look.



Further Reading on the matter of Owning It:

A few of my students are in a tight-knit group of friends, and one of them is not a student of mine as she takes band instead of chorus (Boo! Hiss!). She would often come by room with my students and I would always encourage her to sing. And she always refused, claiming she was not a singer, couldn’t sing, didn’t like her voice, etc. There was no doubt, given her instrumental skills, that she was a great musician but she was adamant about not singing. This young lady did not like her voice and had zero confidence in it. Because it was low. It was deep. Girl could hit a D-flat below middle-C. That’s some serious contra-contralto notes right there! I always told her, “You know who else has a deep voice? Christina Perri. She often sings E-flats below middle-C”. She recently told me that she used to sing in chorus in elementary school but stopped because the teacher gave her a hard time for not being able to sing higher notes. I told her, “OK, you’ve got a deep voice. You’ve got to OWN it. Check this out.” I went to iPod which is perpetually plugged into the stereo in my classroom and turned on Nina Simone singing Feelin’ GoodThe young lady asked me, “Is this a guy?” I said no, it’s a lady named Nina Simone. She’s got a seriously deep voice and it’s awesomeShe seemed impress. Maybe in high school she’ll give that singin’ thing a try again…

Posted in Observation Log, Public Outreach, Teaching, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Empty Hallways: On the Cosmos Episode “Lost Worlds of Planet Earth” and the Unnamed Corridor of Extinction

The following is not the post I originally set out to write. Due to a variety of factors (that many people often bundle together and call “life”), my ability to watch the 9th episode of Cosmos, “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth,” was delayed. When I finally got to view it, I was both puzzled and disturbed at the way the empty, nameless corridor in the Halls of Extinction was described. It is referred to in the 5th and 6th segments of the show in the following manner:

Painting by Roelant Savery, 1620

“Really, Neil? Can’t think of at least ONE species that will be memorialized?” – Murray F. Dodobird

“[5th Segment] There is a corridor in the Halls of Extinction that is, right now, empty and unmarked. The autobiography of the Earth is still being written. There’s a chance that the end of our story lies in there… [6th Segment] This new corridor has no name above the entrance to designate its epoch. And we don’t yet know which failed species will be memorialized within its walls. What happens here, in countless ways both large and small, is being written by us right now.”

What troubled me about this is the epoch does have a name. We are currently in the geological epoch known as the Holocene, the warm interglacial geological time period that Dr. Tyson refers to in the 5th segment of the episode, although not by name:

“About 10,000 years ago, the manic swings of the climate and sea levels came to a stop. A new and gentler climate age began. It’s the one we live in now.”

And thus I said to myself, “I’m going to write about this issue because it is both perplexing in its omission but also a very interesting topic on its own.” Also, “RAWR! FEELINGS!” But then, while doing my research for this topic, I immediately came across a post at where someone had already said pretty much everything I wanted to say (because, as we know: ½Δtsnoozing = losing2). Becky Ferreira wrote:

Even Cosmos, which has valiantly exposed other unsettling truths, wouldn’t touch the word “Anthropocene” with a ten-foot pole. That’s a shame, because the new era is here, whether we like it or not. Cosmos missed an opportunity not only to make this point, but to suggest that the human-sculpted planet doesn’t necessarily have to be a cesspit of extinction, disaster, and suffering.

So this is where I’ll throw my hat in the ring; instead of criticizing the show for what I deemed an odd exclusion, I will try to defend the choice by illuminating a problem of taxonomy. You see, the eagle-eyed reader may have noticed that that I previously mentioned we are living in the Holocene epoch. BUT, Ferreira chided Dr. Tyson for not saying Anthropocene. What gives?

There is not a consensus as to whether we are still in the Holocene epoch, a time characterized by the growth and spread of humanity, or if it has given way to a new period shaped by humanity’s impact on the global environment known as the Anthropocene. An article in the triannually-published journal The Anthrpocene Review titled “The technofossil record of humans” states that humans are leaving behind many artifacts of our existence, big and small, that will leave behind a “fossil” record similar to that of, say, the dinosaurs. However, whereas the dinosaurs left behind bones, we will leave things behind in the strata that we built or manufactured – airports, hard drives, plastic-wrap, etc. If you were hoping for a quick resolution to this issue, you will unfortunately be dissapointed: the International Commission on Stratigraphy, or ICS (which I didn’t even know was a thing until I started researching this), apparently has the official word on naming epochs and won’t be discussing it until their next meeting in 2016. (For a very interesting discussion on this and other matters concerning the Anthropocene epoch, read Bruno Martini’s interview with Dr. David Grinspoon on

But this is about more than just the naming of periods of time on geological scales. This is about a corridor in the Hallways of Extinction, a memorial to those organisms lost in the 5 known mass extinction events plus a placeholder for the yet-unnamed sixth. In order to name an extinction event, you have to know in which epoch the mass extinction is taking place, such as the Late Devonian extinction event), or at the boundaries of which epochs, like the the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. Regarding our quandary of the current epoch, if you were to do a Google search for “Anthropocene Extinction” and “Holocene Extinction,” you would find articles that use both titles further illustrating the lack of consensus. What biologists do seem to agree on, however, is that the the current extinction rates are extremely high. Mass extinctions are defined by a 75% or more loss of species in a short geological period and we appear to be living within one such event.

Dr. Tyson has spoken about the negative impact humans are capable of having on the world – heck, episode 7 (“The Clean Room”) was centered around our polluting of the environment (and thus ourselves) with lead-laden gasoline. And, as Ms. Ferreira pointed out and is worth repeating, Cosmos has “has valiantly exposed other unsettling truths.” Therefore, I would like to believe that the exclusion of a heading for the unnamed hallway was due to an issue of taxonomy. Had Dr. Tyson referred to the corridor as the “Holocene Extinction,” the show could quickly becomes outdated if the ICS were to rule that we are in fact in the Anthropocene epoch, or vice versa.

The scientific consensus is that there is significant decline of species diversity that is indicative of a possible sixth mass extinction. The scientific consensus is that through a variety of factors (climate change, habitat destruction, etc) we are the drivers of that loss of biodiversity. What the jury is still out on, though, is what we call it. And of those 3 items, the last should really be the least of our worries. It is the geological and biological equivalent of the “Is Pluto a planet?” argument. Regardless of what word we ascribe to the object or the phenomenon, it’s still there. It’s still happening. And we still have to deal with it.

No taxonomy without represontonomy!

By Justin Starr @UrbanAstroNYC

Posted in Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catching Up: A Year In Astrophotos

I can’t believe I have neglected this blog for nearly a year. I’ve regrettably treated like my old membership to the Equinox Gym: paying for it, but not using it. Shameful, really. Much has happened over the course of these last 11 months that I would love to share, but for now, in the interest of not making this post a novel, I will just share with you astrophotos from the past year. Around last April, I finally bought a computerized mount that would allow me to take long exposure astrophotos – the Celestron CG-5. Then in June I obtained a DSLR camera – thanks Mom and Dad for the birthday gift! – that actually had the capability to take said-long exposures (as opposed to my iPhone).

Since then, I have managed to capture, in varying degrees of quality, 8 Messier Objects (Only 102 more to go!). Earlier captures had certain quality limitations, whether they were due to my lack of experience and the learning curve involved or technical limitations such as the severe light pollution that was increasingly managed with the acquisition of an LP filter. I will post the images in the order of capture, as opposed to their catalog number.

M63: Sunflower Galaxy (July 16, 2013)
13-07-06 M63

M51: Whirlpool Galaxy (July 17, 2013)
13-07-17 M51 (Whirlpool Galaxy)

M101: Pinwheel Galaxy (July 30, 2013)
M101 progress

M103: Open Cluster (July 30, 2013)
13-07-30 Messier 103

M81 and M82: Bode’s Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy (August 4, 2013, first use of LP filter)
13-08-04 Bode's (M81) and Cigar (M82)

M31: Andromeda Galaxy (November 30, 2013)
13-11-30 Andromeda Galaxy

M42: The Great Orion Nebula (February 18, 2014)
14-02-18: M42 - The Great Orion Nebula

I also managed to capture Supernova 2014J within M82 on January 30, 2014:
Supernova 2014J M82

And in this image we have star trails over New York City. The blue tint comes from the LP filter. I did not bother to attempt to process it out because I thought it gave the picture a very cool and surreal feeling.
Star Trails over New York City

I hope you enjoyed these pictures. It never ceases to amaze me that even within the confines of Manhattan and the apparent ceiling that all of the light puts between the city’s residents and the sky, it is still possible to capture and share these astronomical wonders.

Posted in Astrophotography, Observation Log | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Unexpected Tour of the Night Sky at the 8th Grade Formal

On the night of Friday, June 14th, the middle school where I work was hosting the annual 8th grade formal. I originally did not intend on going. During my previous two years here, I had never attended this event. However, on the day of the dance many of the students asked if I was going to be attending and I started feeling a nagging at my heart. You see, I teach 6th and 8th grade chorus, and also have some interactions with 7th graders beyond saying hello in the hallway – if they are involved in the musical theater productions, for example, in which I teach the music. This graduating 8th grade class was my first 6th grade class. We started in this building at the same time and have been traveling in tandem for three years, but now they are moving on and I remain… Ok, I need to stop myself; this is not really what this particular blog post is about – the reflections of my first three years and this class will come in another post. I must save the sentimentalities for a later time. Rather, I merely wanted to inform you, the reader, of my dilemma in whether to attend or not, particularly when I already had other plans for that night.

Well, I went. And I had a blast. My students were quite excited that I showed up. The fellas were mostly wearing shirts and ties, although some wore vests and even a few suits. The young ladies were decked out in prom-like attire, many with their hair done, fancy shoes, sparkling dresses, etc. Another teacher and I had a dance-off, which the kids found quite amusing. (In case you were wondering, I won with an execution of “The worm.” The kids came up after and said, “Mr. Starr, I didn’t know you could dance like that?!” My body didn’t know either, and my thighs in particular claimed otherwise while doing the Russian Cossack dance. Yeah, I’m out of shape… moving on!)

All too soon, 10 pm arrived and the event drew to a close. Students started pouring out of the gymnasium. A few of my students remained with one of their mothers. It was a gorgeous night: the Moon was a glorious waxing crescent, Saturn was high and mighty, many stars were visible even as we were bathed in the lights of the school. While I talk quite a bit about astronomy in the classroom, rarely do I ever actually have an opportunity to put it in the context of an actual nigh sky. Chances like these are few and far between, so I grabbed it by the horns.

I walked up to B, G, A, and A’s mother (I will not use their actual names) and said, “Hey guys, can I nerd out with you for a minute?” “Sure!” was their response. I told them to look at the Moon. I said, “Notice how you can actually see the dark side of the Moon?” They looked for a moment and when their eyes adjusted accordingly they agreed that, whoah, they could totally see it. I went on to explain Earthshine, how it works, and such.

Afterwards, we looked around for a moment in silence taking it all in. B said, “Is that Polaris? The North Star?” pointing at a star in the Northern skies. I said “Let’s find out.” I showed her the Big Dipper, which stood quite prominently on the tip of its bowl rim. I told her to draw a line from the 2 stars forming the right side of the bowl (I did not use the names Merak and Dubhe) and they would lead to Polaris. The math teacher with whom I had previously had a dance-off (he got served), Mr. M, used to want to be an astronomer and is still a wealth of knowledge. He walked over to our collective and seeing us star-gazing asked me, “Are you following the arc to Arcturus?” We laughed knowingly; the kids looked quizzical. Returning to the Big Dipper, I led them to the handle and told them how the middle star of the handle was actually 2 stars, Mizar and Alcor – well, not actually 2 stars as there are binary systems and such that make the total 6, but that wasn’t what was important at the moment. What I wanted to impart upon them was that there are indeed two stars that are visible to some people, and how ancient armies and cultures used the ability to resolve the two stars as a test of excellent vision. A thought that was a really clever idea on their part.

Next on the sky-tour was Saturn. They stared for a few moments in silence, seemingly awed. I like to imagine that they were trying to picture the rings in their minds’ eyes, maybe even dreaming that if they squinted hard enough they’d just eek out a hint of the disc.

Suddenly, something caught my eye. It was moving pretty quickly against the background of the unchanging stars. Was it…? I hurriedly pulled out my iPhone, opened up the Star Walk app, did a search, and found it to be so. No. Friggin’. Way. On this night of all possible nights, when I just happened to be outside with a handful of students giving a brief tour of the night sky for an extremely narrow window of time, the International Space Station was passing over head. I excitedly called their attention to it. The two assistant principals saw us staring up and our palpable exhilaration and asked at what were we looking. When I told them, they were first shocked that it could be seen, which was followed by a chorus of, “I see it! There it is! Where, I don’t see it?! Oh I found it!” Someone else came over and asked what we were looking at. “People in space,” I said, without turning to see who asked. I then suggested, “Let’s wave to the men and women in the ISS, in space.” And we did. As if the pleasure of sharing my passion for the universe with my students within the actual context of the night sky wasn’t enough, the thrilling surprise of the ISS passing overhead certainly made the evening that much more special.

I went to the 8th grade formal with the purpose of celebrating the bittersweetness of my students moving up and on to the next stage of their lives, another milestone in a list of many this year – their last performance in the middle school play, their last chorus concert as middle schoolers, their last day of classes in these hallowed halls, etc. What I got instead was the opportunity to bask in the wonder of the universe with these students, even if for but a few moments.

What a gift for these students at the culmination of their middle school careers, standing on the doorstep of their uncharted futures, to be reminded of the audacity of the human imagination, and the eternal endeavor of exploration.


A motley crew of star-gazers.

Posted in Public Outreach, Teaching, Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment