Jimmy Westlake: Looking down on the universe
November 17, 2009
Steamboat Springs — Have you had the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon and stroll out onto the new Skywalk? It's a glass bridge that is suspended out over the canyon such that visitors can literally look down under their feet and see the depths of the Grand Canyon below them.
Not for the faint of heart, it is said to be like soaring over the canyon as an eagle would.
I get a similar feeling, albeit not quite as knee-wobbling, when I peer into the night sky and out of the bottom of our Milky Way galaxy. Our Milky Way is flat, like a pancake made of star batter. It's a spinning disk of stars about 100,000 light years across but only 3,000 light years thick. During the early evenings of late spring, we are positioned so that we can look straight up out of the top of our Milky Way pancake and into the intergalactic space that forms the rooftop of the sky.
Our constellation of Coma Berenices (Queen Berenices' Hair) is seen in the direction of the north galactic pole. Six months later, during the late fall, we can gaze out of the bottom of the Milky Way's pancake to see what lies beneath our feet, just like at the Grand Canyon's Skywalk.
The constellation that lies in the direction of the south galactic pole is a recent addition to the sky, being invented around the year 1750 by Nicholas de Lacaille. He alone is responsible for inventing 15 of our 88 official constellations. His constellation of l'Atelier du Sculpteur represents a sculptor's studio or workshop. It is the only room immortalized in the heavens. Known today simply as Sculptor, the stars in this constellation are rather sparse and faint as we look perpendicularly down out of the glass floor of our galaxy and into the infinity of space beyond. What do we see out there beyond the stars of Sculptor?
For starters, we see another beautiful "milky way" spinning in space, a galaxy known as NGC 253. Nicknamed the Silver Coin Galaxy, it probably looks much the same to us as our Milky Way must look to any curious eyes gazing our way from 10 million light years out. It is an easy target for binoculars or a small telescope on clear, dark November nights.
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Nearby, and in the same binocular field of view with the Silver Coin Galaxy, is a galactic interloper that circles our own galaxy, a colossal cluster of stars named NGC 288. A mere 29,000 light years away, NGC 288 contains some of the oldest stars in our galaxy, red giants that have been shining for as much as 12 billion years.
To locate Sculptor, look due south and close to the horizon at about 9 p.m. in mid-November, just east (left) of the bright star Fomalhaut and south of the bright star Deneb Kaitos. Hold on tight as you look down on the universe under the Earth.
Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published all around the world. Check out Jimmy's Web site at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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