A couple of weeks ago I downloaded an “app” for my (fruit) phone. This app lets you look into the night sky and it identifies stars and planets, and, well, just about anything. It shows constellations and even space junk. The app uses the phone’s camera and somehow knows which way you are holding it as it seems quite accurate. You can look at the sky then hold the camera facing you and it shows an overlay with annotations. Once you center on an object, the app gives you information about it. It will show a star and tell you the official name; it even identifies space junk and when it was launched into space. The app is quite amazing.
For most of us, we have never fully seen the stars in our skies. We go outside and look up to see a scattering of distant stars, but seeing the endless stars of the Milky Way is not a common sight for us. I have been fortunate to have been way out many times. Of those times the conditions were right only a small amount of those. And of those, just a handful of times the Milky Way was amazing, well actually, incredible. To see the amount of stars stacked so deep that the sky appeared almost lit by the far away light is something that is hard to explain. Seeing this is like seeing a photo from the Hubble telescope. There are waves and colors and just a view like nothing else. The best view I had was one cold night in the Texas panhandle, the sky was dark and clear, yet lit with the millions of stars.
My new phone app shows constellations and planets and gives the names, which is amazing to me because these were discovered and named decades or even centuries ago. I guess many centuries ago, the night sky was their internet. The early astronomers would lay awake all night studying the stars and assigning shapes and characters to the groups. At that time, the view would have been uncluttered by earthly lights, so they would be able to see an incredible amount of objects in the night sky.
When I was young, my father bought me a telescope from Sears and Roebuck. Now it was indeed a telescope, but only by definition. It was a gray metal tube, with lenses on both ends, and it would focus. It was not meant for discovering new worlds, most likely it was meant to pacify a young boy who would probably lose interest in a few months. This telescope was good for looking at the moon, however for stars, it took small bits of light and turned them in to slightly larger bits of light. It was more useful for looking at birds outside. I couldn’t see planets or anything that was smaller than the moon. A few years later a friend of mine purchased a very nice and powerful telescope in preparation for an upcoming celestial event. During the few days of that event we went out in the middle of the night and set up the telescope. We had a good view of the event, however there was something even more amazing, to me. We found Saturn, rings and all. It was clear and detailed like all the photos I had seen, but this was actually me seeing this with my own eyes. I was more intrigued with Saturn than I was with anything else.
I am sure I will use this app a bit especially when there is something bright or a special event. I have a reasonable interest, but not one that would require me to spend the night outside looking up at the stars. If I have a real question my neighbor is a celestial genius. He can spit out names of stars and constellations like a computer. Of course he could be fibbing to me as I wouldn’t know the difference, but I am sure he is truthful. I am glad to have an app to help me out, however it is a bit ironic that the technology that assists us is actually what keeps us occupied and inside the most. Good thing the early astronomers didn’t have the internet we might not even know that we have other planets like Saturn, or especially Pluto.