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Astronomy: Discovering Something Old

1-27-12 QuadrantidMeteor2012_Crop_Chumack
A meteor cuts through the winter sky. Credit: John Chumack.

I was in high school when I got my first telescope. It was a Christmas gift, and I took it out of the box and assembled it in record time. Fortunately it was a clear night, so I hauled it outside on its rickety tripod mount and set it up in the backyard. Aiming it at the brightest "star" I saw, I fiddled with aligning the finderscope with the main tube and then inserted an eyepiece. After some focusing, BOOM, there it was: a bright sphere of light with faint points of light on either side of it. I rushed inside to dig through some magazines and books on astronomy that I kept in my bedroom. I felt pretty sure that I knew what I was looking at, I just didn’t know it was possible. After a little time spent sleuthing, sure enough, I read that not only was Jupiter up and bright on that December night, but with a little optical aid it was possible to see four of its moons. Even though Galileo had first seen Jupiter and its moons hundreds of years ago, my discovery of it on that cold Christmas night felt just as earth-shattering.

While amateur astronomers occasionally do make real discoveries, such as new comets and the like, when most of us observe we will only be discovering things that are new to us. It can still feel just as exciting to stare at the dark sky and let your eyes adjust and wait to see what appears. You may be able to trace out the constellation that winds between the Big and Little Dippers as you discover Draco for yourself, or spy a cozy little diamond grouping of stars in the summer sky and check a star chart to  learn that this is the constellation Delphinus the Dolphin.

What can you discover on your next night out? The options are endless. All you need is a good star map (and there are many apps that work great for charting the sky and identifying objects) and some patience. This weekend after sunset as the stars begin to appear, examine the night sky. Do you know what the bright star is below Orion? Or the group of stars that looks like a V on its side? What about that orangish-looking "star" rising in the east? There are countless distant objects that are billions of years old waiting for you to discover them for the first time.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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