Dr. Judith Irwin may have stars in her eyes, but when it comes to getting a closer look at the celestial bodies, her feet are planted firmly on the ground.
Irwin, a professor of astronomy and physics at Queen’s and a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, studies nearby galaxies. She admits “nearby” is a relative term in astronomy.
“A nearby galaxy might be up to 20 mega-parsecs away,” she said. “A mega-parsec is a million parsecs, and a parsec is about 3 light years. You have to visualize things a bit differently.”
A recreational star-gazer, Irwin is actively involved with the Queen’s Observatory, which has operated out of Ellis Hall since 1960. She suggested the observatory’s monthly open houses as a valuable starting point for would-be astronomers.
“It’s a lot of fun. You get a talk and a little tour, and when it’s clear the amateur astronomers can bring their telescopes and set them up, and there’s lots of telescopes to look through. People really seem to enjoy that.”
And there is certainly occasion to bring out the telescopes this fall: currently, Jupiter and its moons are highly visible.
“It’s the brightest thing you’ll see,” she said. “After the sunset, it’s in the southwest, very high in the sky. To the naked eye it will just look like a bright, steady shining dot in the sky, and four of its satellites—Io, Ganymede, Europa and Calypso—are especially visible.”
Later this fall, the Leonids meteor shower will make its yearly appearance.
“In November, we will pass through the Leonid stream, and from the direction of the constellation Leo in the sky, they will appear to stream towards us.”
Irwin said that, while the changing of the seasons brings a routine change to the skies, there are other changes occurring in space as well.
“Changes are of a couple of different types. As the seasons progress we do see changes in the sky, but those are regular changes,” she said. “For example, we know that in the summer months and into now we can see towards the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, whereas in the winter months, we don’t, and that’s just due to the fact that as we go around the sun, certain parts of the galaxy are behind the sun, so they’re up in the daytime, and certain parts of the galaxy are in the opposite direction.
“So we see different parts of the sky in winter, summer, spring and fall. There are also variable stars, which are a certain kind of star that gets brighter and dimmer with time, and a small number of them are observable with the
Irwin added that seeing and tracking these changes was as simple as training the eye.
“Delta Cephei, in the constellation of Cepheus, is up all year round, and if you watch it over the course of five days, you’ll see it change in brightness, and you can learn to watch the sky and see these changes over time.”
With so much to see in the skies—the “nearby” Andromeda galaxy is also visible to the naked eye—Irwin said budding astronomers don’t have to look too far.
“There’s a lot that’s actually accessible without a huge cost to somebody who just wants to start out.” She said. “Really, without any aid, just finding a dark spot and getting a little away from the city lights, without anything except a star chart and maybe a little red flashlight. It’s a lot of fun actually, just quiet and peaceful, maybe take a friend and get to know the sky.”
Those desiring a closer look can head to the Queen’s Observatory, to make use of their more sophisticated equipment.
James Silvester, a PhD student studying astronomy at Queen’s, said the observatory can also help new star gazers see things they might not know were happening, because it covers special astronomical events such as lunar and solar eclipses.
“We pretty much do all events that occur at a reasonable hour, sort of between eight in the morning and 11 o’clock at night,” he said. “I think we had a lunar eclipse recently and we’ve had some solar eclipse coverage in the past. Even if we can’t see anything from Kingston, we can still live web stream these things from other places so people can see.”
A big event for the observatory and for astronomy at large is next year’s International Year of Astronomy.
“The exciting thing that is coming up is the International Year of Astronomy, which is next year. One hundred and twenty-two countries are taking part in this, so every country has a plan for the International Year of Astronomy, and one of the plans we have in Canada is to have a million people see a planet for the first time through a telescope, because a lot of people haven’t seen that. We want people to have a ‘Galileo Moment’,” he said.
Silvester added that astronomy as a subject seems to excite and capture the imagination of a broad audience.
“All the sciences have a role, obviously—chemistry, biology, things like that are important to our everyday lives—but I think there’s something about astronomy that tweaks everyone’s interest,” he said. “And I think it’s because it tries to answer some of the big questions about the universe, such as where we are and what our place is in it. I think an observatory is important because it allows people to get a little bit closer to these objects through a telescope.
“It puts it all in context, and helps us remember our place in the universe. With astronomy, everyone has questions, and I think that’s the important thing. It’s fundamental stuff, really.”
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