Scientists and astronomers use precise mathematical calculations to map even the most minute space objects that can be seen through a telescope.
Andrew Cunnyngham had a simpler method for tracking Jupiter and other objects with the naked eye during the Smoky Mountain Astronomical Society’s annual Star Gazing party late Saturday in Cades Cove.
“Hold up your fist like this straight out and look right here,” Cunnyngham said as he swept his hand around the horizon. “See that area there under your hand? On a clear night, the Milky Way will start there and shoot all the way across the sky over there toward Polaris, the North Star.”
The Jonesborough resident’s enthusiasm was contagious as he explained how the stars’ predictable patterns have shaped human history.
By moving in a 365-degree circle, the stars provided an eternal calendar for agriculture and other uses.”Each night, the stars change by four minutes,” Cunnyngham said. “It doesn’t sound like much but four minutes, over the course of the year, they move, If you come back here in 50 years on Sept. 7, they will be in almost the same position.”
Back on earth, Smoky Mountain Astronomical Society President Lee Erickson explained weather is the biggest hurdle organizers face each year when they schedule the event.
SMAS first approached the National Parks Service to organize the first party in 2005.
“It rained out,” Erickson said. “In 2009, it rained out again. That was the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of a telescope to look at the sky, and the whole world was planning a lot of events to to celebrate. Here in East Tennessee, we had a rainy year and we lost all of our star parties because of the rain.”
The club was thrilled when a stifling heat that hovered over East Tennessee for much of the week vanished Saturday into a cool, clear night.
Hundreds of spectators also were delighted when the Smoky Mountain’s natural insecticide — bats — swooped and danced across the sky at dusk catching mosquitoes.
Some tried to snap pictures of them in front of a vivid moon.
“We try to schedule when there is a quarter moon like this, because sometimes we’re fighting clouds and haze and sometimes we can only see the moon,” Erickson said. “This sky looks good.”
Many attendees were children, which also pleased organizers.
Erickson said he fell in love with astronomy on Jan. 27, 1967, as he heard a newscaster announce that astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee had perished during a preflight exercise aboard Apollo 1.
Autopsies confirmed they had died within about 30 seconds of carbon monoxide asphyxiation, a hazard Erickson said was always present since crews worked in fire-prone pure oxygen environments.
“I didn’t understand, I was 7 years old, but I understood that it affected my parents,” Erickson said. “We were going to the moon and I got that part. I was excited about that and I remain excited about it. My favorite moment is when a 10- or 12-year-old looks at the sky through a telescope and they squeal with delight, ‘Oh, I see the moon, I see mountains and I see craters.’”
Some features of the moon, including Mare Tranqillitatus (Sea of Tranquility) were known to astronomers centuries before Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins landed Lunar Module Eagle there on July 20, 1969.
Jim Paciello, of Maryville, brought a treasured keepsake to show with the crowd, a copy of the New York Daily News announcing the flight’s successful landing.
Erickson also hoped to show the crowd how to locate Mount Hadley inside Mare Serentatus, where Apollo 15 members David Scott, Alfred Worden and James Irwin landed on July 26, 1971.
Understanding space can be difficult, because time is not measured the same as it is on Earth despite predictable rotational cycles.
A galaxy often is confused with a solar system, which refers to planets and other objects rotating around a sun, but a galaxy can actually have more than one solar system present in it.
Light from our closest neighboring galaxy, Messier 31 or Andromeda, takes about 3 million years to reach Earth, Paciello said.“Light from the left side of the galaxy travels 100,000 years longer than that from the right side,” Paciello said. “That’s longer than an ice age.”
Each galaxy also has its own shape, often resembling a spiral that radiates outward.
“Some scientists think our galaxy is shaped more like a bar with arms instead of a spiral,” Paciello said.
Astronomers often have a favorite object to view and photograph. Cunnyngham’s favorite constellation is Orion, which is easiest to view in winter.
Named for the Greek god Orion, it contains two of the sky’s brightest stars, Rigel or Beta Orionis, and Betelgeuse or Alpha Orionis.
“You can see it really late at night right now,” Cunnyngham said. “My favorite constellation to view at this time of year is my birth sign, Scorpio.”
One of the brightest constellations visible in the sky, it contains several easily identified stars including Antares, a red giant.
“It’s one of the few objects in the sky that actually looks like what it is named after,” Cunnyngham said.
Cunnyngham said he uses NeuralCam, a cellphone app that combines multiple photos to create a single picture of the night sky.
Abby Cundiff and James Lundy, of Knoxville, also experiment with a pair of apps, Star Walk 2 and SkyView, that use GPS systems to chart objects.
Cundiff also enjoys using a more traditional method.
“When the moon is full and it’s clear, I can get my binoculars out and get a pretty clear picture,” Cundiff said. “He enjoys the mountains and this is something that we can do together.”