How does an alien go about casting a horoscope?
On a typical day this would be a trivial task for the experienced astrologer. She would ask the client for their place and date of hatching, feed the answer into her Crystal Procrastination Unit and interpret the resulting star-chart using her exceptionally well-honed sense of intuition, guided by the recorded wisdom of the sages and the ages. A Quorzok that emerged from the hatching pool while the pale light of the Stalker glitters behind the head of the Great Ruminant is surely destined to become a famous bantha-hunter – although perhaps metaphorically, especially if they happen to work in administration.
But today our astrologer has a problem. Perhaps, she reflects, if she had the foresight to consult her own horoscope this morning she would have been forewarned. For some decades ago now the Quorzoks discovered the secret of interstellar flight; the expectant client now before her hatched – not under star and sighing wind – but under blinking lights and whirring of fan blades. He is the first Quorzok to be birthed in the depths of space, far from their home world, or indeed any other. She scribbles a few words to hide her surprise.
Returning to her CPU, she enters the co-ordinates of his hatching and is dismayed. From that distant vantage many of the familiar constellations are unrecognisable. Even the mighty Great Ruminant slouches unsteadily, unwell or intoxicated. Worse still, all the home planets descend as one through the Ruminant’s bowels, indistinguishable from each other in their orbits around a dim, unremarkable star.
Troubled and adrift, the astrologer considers the problem anxiously. She turns to a familiar guide and comfort - an anthology titled The Wisdom of the Seven and a Half Sages - yet the words seem strangely empty. Perhaps, she muses, the client experienced a spiritual hatching upon his return to the Quorzok homeworld. Her enquiry meets with a discouraging response: his homecoming was a mere six seasons ago. How could he have lived the balance of his years with no destiny? Is he somehow beyond destiny? Yet she judges - by the quiver of his lower mandible and the piping of his voice - that this client would not welcome that news. An uncomfortable pressure builds in her gas bladder, brought on by stress and uncertainty.
With a deep inhalation the astrologer begins to speak, drawing upon intuition rather more than usual. The client departs eight pizeks poorer but reassured: it seems that now is an opportune time to reorganise the office filing system.
The astrologer, pressure released, relaxes and congratulates herself on a difficult job well done. Her gaze sweeps the artfully precise chamber and she rises to reward herself with lunch. On the desk lie unheeded the words of the half-sage, obscured by her discarded notes: “A seed of doubt, once planted...”
Here's an image I took of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus, using a 200mm lens. It’s a supernova remnant, the remains of a star that exploded perhaps 5,000 years ago. This event would not have escaped the notice of our ancestors, shining more brightly than Venus for a few weeks and visible during the daytime. We can only wonder what they made of it. (I can't really do the Veil justice with a camera lens, this deep hydrogen alpha image by Sara Wager shows its structure in intricate detail.)
Today the expanding nebula spans 3 degrees of the sky, six times the apparent diameter of the full Moon. The red colour is mostly hydrogen while the blue indicates an abundance of oxygen, glowing at a temperature of several thousand degrees. Most of the visible material is interstellar gas swept up by the supernova shock-wave, but mixed in is a sprinkling of heavier elements such as iron, cobalt and nickel from the core of the progenitor star. If you jangle your keys you’re handling materiel cooked up in an explosion like this.
The rightmost component of the Veil is often referred to as the Witch’s Broom for obvious reasons (astronomer see, astronomer say). Above it lies a dust lane, obscuring the stars behind it. The Witch’s Broom is aptly named, as the Veil expands it's sweeping this dust away and revealing - or unveiling - more stars, making it a functional as well as figurative broom.
Eventually the products of the supernova become mixed into the interstellar medium, where they can be incorporated into the next generation of stars and planets.
A simulated view of the winter constellation Orion to show the difference that observing from a dark site makes, and what long exposure photography can reveal.
From town only the seven brightest stars are visible through the murk of light pollution - if you see more in the left hand pane then your screen, like mine, could probably do with a clean. From a truly dark site a plethora of stars pop into view and the Orion Nebula is clearly visible at lower middle. The long exposure reveals thousands of stars, several nebulae and dust lanes in the Milky Way.
Another advantage of a video like this is that it gives a better sense of the relative brightness between objects. Deep images of the sky are both revealing and subtly misleading - due to the limitations of human vision objects of greatly differing luminosity must be presented at a similar level. With the video the brighter objects appear first.
The source image was taken using a 50mm lens on a modded Canon 1100D camera, with a total exposure time of roughly 75 minutes.
Here's an image of the recent Venus & Jupiter conjunction I shot with a 250mm lens. I then pasted in an image of the Moon taken previously to show their relative apparent sizes. At the time the shot was taken Jupiter was about 11 times further from Earth than Venus but being 11 times larger they appear as roughly the same size. Venus, on the left, appears as a crescent due to the angle of illumination by the Sun. Jupiter on the other hand always shows a full disc as it is outside our orbit. The only way to view Jupiter as a crescent is to go there, as the New Horizons probe did on the way to Jupiter.
Planetary imaging requires a seriously high level of magnification. If my maths is correct - something that can never be taken for granted - Jupiter is about as big as the tip of your finger from 200 feet away. The image below was taken with a 12" newtonian telescope fitted with a 4x barlow lens, giving an effective focal length of 6 metres. The mark to the left is the shadow of one of its moons, Io. The famous red spot was on the far side of the planet at the time it was taken.