Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Starry, starry night

On our recent trip to Ifaty that Sue mentioned in a recent post, we stayed overnight at Hotel Nautilus, where Sue and I and Paul and Maggie were in adjacent rooms under 10 yards from the beach.  Around midnight, Sue woke up feeling too hot, and asked me to open the door.  After a bit, we crept out in our nightclothes to admire the night sky.  The moon had set several hours before, and the only lights were the stars and planets, and a couple of fishing boats far out.   Paul and Maggie happened to wake too, and came out to join us.  Paul has a passion for astronomy, and helped us understand what we could see.

And wow could we see things!   Madagascar being so desperately poor, it has about the least light pollution of any country in the world.   Not only could we see the Milky Way as milky (duh!) areas in the sky, but we could also see the smaller Magellanic Cloud and dimly discern the larger one.  Andromeda was also visible.

Thanks to Paul, I can explain that the Magellanic Clouds (which an ignoramus like me would otherwise have thought of as strangely detached parts of the Milky Way) are actually other galaxies.  Andromeda is also a galaxy -- the other and furthest galaxy visible to the naked eye.   So we were seeing all four of these galaxies on the same night.   The light from Andromeda left there almost three million years ago, long before homo sapiens evolved from our hominid ancestors.

There were also a magnificent host of individual stars in our own galaxy, of course.    Of the planets, Venus and Mercury had already set, but Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were still visible.   (The other planets are not visible to the naked eye, and so were unknown to the Ancients.)

I was the first to spot a shooting star that night as it made a bright but brief streak above me.  But it was Sue who eventually saw the most -- five, IIRC.

Lying back on sun-loungers provided excellent viewing positions.   The four of us stayed out until about 1:30am when Mars was just about to set below the horizon over the sea to the west.

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