Looking up, by Prof Lucie Green
By Lucy Stagg, on 22 October 2020
For most people, looking up in the context of the research field I work in (space science) means turning our gaze towards the stars at night. We’ll often see advice that keeping an eye out for clear skies and finding somewhere with as little light pollution as possible will deepen the experience. Perhaps, use a deck chair and lie back as your eyes become dark adjusted, so that the Milky Way and a multitude of stars emerge before you. And this is good advice. But whatever environment you find yourself in, even in a city, there are things to see in the night sky and reasons to take some time out to look.
When I step outside my house I am surrounded by buildings, trees and a hill that means I actually only have a fairly small patch of the sky visible above, but I’ve found that this is all I need. During the COVID-19 pandemic this view has provided solace. The early days were dominated by Venus shining brightly in the western sky after sunset. Each evening, from my hallway window, I would watch it track across the sky, seen in my binoculars against the background stars, before it moved too close to the Sun to safely view.
A new comet appeared – faint and wispy above the tree line. I felt triumphant each time I spotted it. A challenge amongst the street lights.
In such difficult times, looking up has provided escapism. A reason to engage with something bigger and out of my control. But in a good way.
Looking up leads to activism too. I spent several nights waiting for the SpaceX Starlink satellites to pass over overhead. They were very prominent at the start of the lockdown. These satellites aim to provide global internet access, a laudable aim that requires a network of 12,000 of them. Many, including myself, have looked at the satellites crossing the sky like a string of pearls and felt concerned about what this means for future generations of stargazers and the “photo-bombing” that will happen, ruining images taken at observatories around the world and in back gardens of enthusiasts. The action that followed by those with a passion for the night sky was swift and to SpaceX’s credit they have listened and responded with measures to reduce the brightness of the satellites. Now, they should be barely visible to the naked eye and the conversations between SpaceX and the astronomy community bode well. There is still more do, but things are looking up.
One important area that needs more activism is how we make looking up a truly inclusive activity. Recently I learned about the trailblazing work of people like Dr. Wanda Díaz-Merced, at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Dr. Nic Bonne at the University of Portsmouth. Both have developed novel ways of using sound and touch to open up the night sky to people who are visually impaired. Wanda played me the sounds of a gamma ray burst and a cataclysmic variable, and we discussed how everyone has the right to access the inspiration of the night sky and be part of the effort to gain new knowledge about it. I realised that looking up isn’t actually about the “looking” at all. It’s about community, equity, and a drive to feel the thrill of learning more about the fascinating Universe we live in.