Friday, December 7, 2012

Into The Black Showing The Light

When I was a child, I felt the Milky Way was a fantasy like Santa Claus.

After all, I can't see it.  I would go out onto the yard with a telescope, armed with a pocket book called "Stars" from my school library, and try to find the stripe of the Milky Way.

Failed every time.

Oh sure, I could find the Big Dipper, The Little Dipper, Polaris the North Star, the belt of Orion and a few others.  The Moon itself was fascinating to turn that 50 power telescope on and pretend you could see the landing sites. 

Hey I was a kid with an active imagination.  Now I'm an adult with an active imagination.

I didn't actually see the Milky Way for myself until I got my first Jeep.  A couple of us had Jeeps at that time and we took them out to the New Jersey Pine Barrens to poke around.  I loved doing that and will do it again, you can depend on that.  Next visit...

One time we got caught out there at night.  We wandered around on the sugar sand trails on a warm summer night and found ourselves up by the fire tower on Apple Pie Hill.  Deciding to be daring, we'd climb up on the fire tower and look around.   Once I got up above the tree line I simply stopped as if welded to the spot.  There it was, the Milky Way.   It really did exist.

The reason for that skepticism was that I lived in the great Megalopolis in a small corner of it called Cherry Hill, New Jersey.   Zip code 08034.  Just about 10 miles from The Bell in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

It's not a great place to learn to appreciate the stars.  Being in the middle of things, the great hive of Humanity on the Eastern edge of the North American Continent, you had a lot of neighbors.  People would turn on things like light bulbs, car headlights, and street lamps.  Even in smaller towns, there were always lights around us.

There I was smack dab in the middle of the stripe of people that goes from Portland, Maine to Richmond, Virginia, and beyond in all directions thinking that I'd get to see stars.

Sure if I slipped on something left by my dog when I went outside and hit my head on the ground on the way down.

Lately NASA and the Suomi National Polar Orbiting Partnership put together a project called "Into The Black" that illustrates it perfectly.  Be patient, the links load very slowly.

The idea was to throw a satellite up into orbit and turn it back at our shared globe and take nighttime pictures showing as much as could be seen.  There are some incredibly detailed pictures there that show cities, ships, offshore oil rigs, and many other items as evidenced by the lights that were used to mark their way.  Think of it as the negative image of the street maps that you see on any of the GPS applications on your favorite computer.  Like this one of the US, Canada, Bahamas, and Mexico.

I'll admit, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing.  I can sit entertained for hours skimming the globe looking at Google Earth and zooming in on street level at places I'll never have the pleasure of even driving through.  Give me a border city and I'll try to find the state or national border.  It shows some borders very sharply like that of North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, and others.  There's a sharp line of lights that marks the borders then a difference in color or intensity that shows the difference in societies priorities or wealth clearly. 

The links are notoriously slow but here's another annotated link of the picture of North and South Korea.

The Project also shows why I can never see the stars.  Even here in South Florida, I still look up for the buckle of Orion's Belt, but see very little else.  I'm smack dab in the middle of things again, and if I want to see differently I'll have to get out of town.

One trip down here, I took my motorcycle.  If you get a chance to do this you have to plan carefully.   Using a motorcycle or a convertible car, drive South out of Miami.  Do this before sunset so that you hit the Seven Mile Bridge just as the sun extinguishes itself into the Gulf of Mexico.  Night time falls quickly there and in three miles at average traffic speeds you will hit the top of that bridge at the right time.  The best way to describe it is that you're standing in a room and someone just threw glitter into the air, and some of that glitter will be the thing I didn't believe in - the Milky Way.

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