heaven’s above

A few years back Zofia and I took ourselves off the Carter Observatory – the National Observatory of New Zealand and attended their courses in astronomy. They were great courses although at the front end I seriously misjudged the seriousness of the study involved. You could attend the lectures, and if you wanted, take the assessment at the end. We were study/learning things then and we figured, ‘Sure, bring it on.’

I asked when I registered for us if we needed to take notes. ‘Some people do, others just sit back and go with it.’ We’re both note takers so away we went. I have to say after a full day at work, sitting through a powerpoint in the half dark immediately following a fast dinner isn’t conducive to me staying awake and taking lots of good notes. We were both studying then as well. It’s hard taking notes in the dark anyway. But we soldiered on. And then there was the assessment. Oh dear. Suddenly it became very, very apparent that having taken extremely comprehensive notes would’ve been useful. We shared notes and worked our way through the questions together. I was in a job that permitted extensive web access and I spent several days diverting google’s attention from the usual porn and pipe bombs into the phases of the moon and the inner workings of our solar system. The questions were damn tricky. Things like a drawing of the moon – what is the time? Northern or southern hemisphere? Waxing moon or waning moon? Try and google that. Zofia came out with a B+ (I think) and I got a B.

A B! Pathetic. It was full on after that. We took notes on notes on drawings on notes. We took notes in the dark, in the planetarium, anywhere, everywhere. Next assessment we were prepared. I think I got an A, Zofia an A-. And then things got competitive… The next course we took notes that NASA still references, and we turned down Nobel prizes for note taking in the dark. We would’ve accepted, but we were so busy taking notes we begrudged the time. It got even crazier as the year rolled through Autumn, Winter, and into Spring…

In the end we finished out with a selection of course certificates and we were invited to the grand prize giving to receive our completion certificate. The courses had been well attended, and there were lots of note takers; but very interesting – I was surprised to find there were very few of our peers there, and even fewer stepped forward to receive their diploma. I think there was one other guy, Zofia and myself. I still proudly list my diploma in astronomy on my cv. I was completing my Masters at the time and the work and thinking required for the diploma was significantly more demanding.

One of the things I never really got sorted was the whole where are you/what is your star map thing. It always seemed so averaged out – so best guess, and not only is there no need for that, it’s not how it should be. Today, things have become very accurate and easy. Using two free software packages available online you can get an extremely high degree of accuracy about your position in the universe. First, using flashearth (which uses GoogleMaps) you can find where you are, using the precise latitude and longtitude coordinates. In my case I can zoom in to where I would actually stand to view the stars from. Yep, this is accurate to perhaps 1 -2 metres. Once you’ve found your viewing location, you can then go to Heavens Above, and key in your exact location. You can also just plonk in a general location from their detailed database, but where’s the obsession in that?

Once you’ve located yourself, you can the print out a star map for tonight, and you’re ready boldly go. The other night there was this very bright star – I thought it was an aircraft coming in given that it was on one of the flight paths, and I could hear a plane coming in. I decided it wasn’t moving and perhaps it was simply Venus, or maybe Jupiter – I must find a star map and check. The great thing about the Heavens Above star maps is I could set the location, the date, and the time, and ping, confirm it was Venus, although Saturn is kicking around in that corner of the sky at the moment too. Saturn would appear smaller – it’s much further away. The other option could have been (had it been there then) the International Space Station – Heavens Above does a bang up job on locating where the various bits and bobs of humanity are as well.

If you are interested in doing some study with Carter they offer some distance programmes, and also courses that relate to the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) – New Zealand’s national secondary school qualification. The material from Carter will be sound, and I would expect that if Richard Hall has had a hand in the student resources they will be visually wonderful as well.

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