On a moonless night in the middle of April I pointed my telescope to a spot not far from the Big Dipper. The 22mm lens gave me a magnification 60 times that of my eyes, more than enough to give me a pretty decent view of the Whirlpool Galaxy. If you Google it, you’ll see much more than I did, thanks to the advantages of astrophotography. And yet, catching it “live” felt special. In the same field of view I could see the small galaxy – NGC 5195 – alongside it, that seems to be pulling at one of the Whirlpool’s arms. At that moment, the light, the haziness that made me blurt out something like “man, that’s beautiful” had been on the move for over 30 million years.
I wish I could tell myself, I wish I could write some sort of note to myself, that would adequately express the awe I feel every time I try to comprehend such a distance and the power of light to travel that distance. I wish I could find the words to define just what I’m really feeling when I say I’m in awe. And, if I could do those things, I wish I could then use all of it to understand where I fit into it. I just haven’t figured how to do that. So, until then, I’ll have to settle for that fleeting second or two when nothing else in the world matters.
The Whirlpool is most easily found by turning 90 degrees away from Alkaid, the last star of the Dipper’s handle. Somewhat strangely, it’s actually considered part of the constellation Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs.
Like so many well-known galaxies, it was first described as a nebula when it was initially observed by Charles Messier in 1773. Even the best telescopes back then was not able to pull out any of its form. By the mid-19th century, though, the Whirlpool’s two distinct arms were seen swirling out from its hub. Modern day instruments give us much more information.
At the heart of the Whirlpool is an active black hole. While it pulls in everything, including stars, that come too close, it also emits tremendous amounts of energy caused by that very activity. So, though nothing can escape a black hole’s gravity, the frenetic process, the inexorable collapse of matter into the vortex produces some of the brightest light in the universe.
Today’s astronomers have also discovered that the Whirlpool is a star factory. Dust and hydrogen all along its arms are coalescing into new stars. It is like so much of the universe in which the ebb and flow of life and death is unmistakable, routine and necessary.
The day I turned my brief attention to this galaxy was just another regular day. Early on it was windy, but mild, and then the wind gave way to a calming night with enough of a chill to remind one that summer was still far off.
When darkness finally fully arrived, Venus was as bright as I’d ever remembered it, outshining the luminous and nearby Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull. Leo the Lion strode across the sky, giving way to a seemingly bare region of space, though it is anything but. I slowly spun the telescope aimlessly through that area and found a few smudges, light from the billions of stars within the numerous galaxies that pop up between Denebola, Leo’s Tail, and Coma Berenices, the Queen’s Hair.
The magnificent Beehive open cluster of some 1,000 stars, smack in the middle of the constellation Cancer, left me wondering why anyone would bother to look at anything else. Its stars shone so brilliantly that I gave up trying to fine tune the focus. Everything sparkled.
And then, I headed to the Whirlpool. By then, the sorrow of another day of gun violence and war and horrifying climate news had drifted away. I stared into the lens and realized there was an answer, after all, to all of the ugliness and the distrust. Keep it simple and binary. Choose beauty.