The skies belong to everyone, part seven: Galaxies

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, May 10, 2011

In the past six parts of this miniseries, we’ve looked at all types of objects you can easily observe in the night sky — the Moon, planets, comets, stars, star clusters, and nebulae. In this final entry, we now turn to deep space, to galaxies far beyond our Milky Way.

Andromeda Galaxy (M31) Photo credit: Terry Hancock
Our galaxy, a collection of at least 200 billion stars, is but one of at least 125 billion galaxies in the universe. We can’t see them all — most are too far away to be viewed by instruments other than the Hubble Space Telescope — but just thinking about them is pretty awesome. The closest big spiral galaxy to ours, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), lies 2.5 million light-years away (that’s 15 million trillion miles) and is the most distant object that human eyes can see without optical aid. Dozens more galaxies are easily within range of a 4-inch telescope under a dark sky; a large backyard telescope reveals many hundreds of galaxies.

So, if you’re just getting interested in astronomy, think about what you may want to look at. Backyard astronomers do more than simply observe the heavens. There’s also astroimaging, a whole field built around recording the universe in your very own images. There are numerous astronomical societies, clubs, and star parties where you can meet others who enjoy astronomy and get to know what makes the hobby tick.

If you find yourself in “this astronomy thing” but aren’t too sure about it, not to worry. Get outside this spring and simply stand under the stars and look at them. If you get a relaxed, philosophically curious feeling, then watch out! You may be in for one of the most enjoyable, enlightening experiences of your life. You may be turning into a backyard stargazer.

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