On any night this month, take a step outside. Get away from as much light as possible. Maybe choose a night when the moon doesn’t seem to fill the sky. Let your eyes become accustomed to the darkness. Forget the trusted binocular, or the telescope. Just look up. Is it even possible to count the stars? Is it possible to gaze at that oddly shaped fuzzy glow stretching across the sky and not wonder how many more stars are located within it, within that single arm of the Milky Way Galaxy?
Then again, why bother? There is nothing in the sky that changes, or can improve upon, what is currently going on right here on Earth. Does Covid, for example, go away if one stares for a while at a distant star?
The simple and honest answer is that stargazing is never about escaping or trying to push something aside. It’s about adding. It is a passion not unlike all the others that give us joy and laughter and leave us amazed. It’s a willful act to try to step a little beyond regular boundaries, even if it’s only for a short while.
So, go outside and look up. Everything you see – except this month’s topic – is in the Milky Way. Our spiral shaped galaxy is home to an estimated 400 billion stars. Our planet orbits just one of those stars.
An immensely strong beam of light propelled from one edge of the Milky Way to the other would take over 150,000 years to complete its journey. And, just as our sun is but one of very many, so is the Milky Way. Incredibly, new research indicates that there may be two trillion galaxies in the universe. I don’t think it is possible to grasp the enormity of it all.
What is within our reach, and within our ability to comprehend, is our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda. On a cosmic scale, it’s not very distant. Holding perhaps one trillion stars, it is even larger than the Milky Way. But, let all the numbers go. This month, there is a good chance to see, with our own eyes, one object in the sky that is not in our galaxy, but is actually another galaxy with its own stars and planets and comets and, perhaps, its own amateur astronomers.
We live in a finite world. We’re reminded of that every day. But space extends well beyond our world. While most of it is dark, light from countless sources makes its way to us. If you are persistent enough to spot Andromeda, you are seeing it as it was 2.5 million years ago. It’s taken that long for its light to reach us. But that’s really not that impressive. Astronomers have seen the light from galaxies billions of light years away. The point? In the vacuum of space, light seems to be able to travel forever. Unimpeded, light is infinite. Yogi Berra once said that a baseball player can’t hit and think at the same time. For me, when I find Andromeda, I can think of nothing else.
Now, how to find it. You could buy a star chart. You can do an online search. You can also download a free app onto your phone and then use it to line up your view. Quite frankly, all will serve you better than any directions I might give here. Without magnification, you’ll need to look for a small hazy spot in the sky that looks distinctly different from the pinpoint light of a star. Throughout January, early in the evening, Andromeda will be nearly overhead and slightly to the west. Your best chance to see it is on a very dark night either early or late in the month, when the moon is in a crescent or new phase.
With the help of a telescope I’ve seen quite a few galaxies, all appearing in my viewfinder as hazy smudges. Those smudges, though, fill me with awe, an acknowledgement that I’ve captured a tiny sliver of what there is beyond my backyard, via a ray of infinite light. And, in that moment and, perhaps for just that moment, everything is very close to perfect. And, very close is more than good enough.