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"Beacons in the Heavens" (March 2012)

Pondering a planetary peep show, and the mysteries and intricacies of an immense universe.

It would be hard to miss the celestial dance going on just after twilight in the western sky. Jupiter and Venus, coming closer together until about March 13th, bright reflections of our own brilliant star. One closer to the sun, one very far from the sun, yet appearing practically side by side in the heavens. Madeleine and I have been watching them drawing closer together for a few weeks now.

There's nothing like planets and rockets to get a kid fired up about space. Thanks to my free NASA app on my iPhone, and another cool freebie called Planets that shows the visible planets at any given time, my kid is experiencing wonders in the sky and pictures sent directly to my phone from amazing robots launched years ago and traveling millions of miles away. We've marveled at the Martian landscapes, stony fields on Saturn's moon Titan, an immense volcano on Venus, and the brilliant blue marble that is Neptune. We watched video of the launch of Curiosity, the latest Mars explorer. And we've gone out and looked at the stars with wonder, the little kid and the big one.

Space reminds us both of our amazing accomplishments and potential as well as our limits. It is mind-boggling to contemplate designing, building and launching spacecraft that travel years in the numbing cold vacuum of space, only to arrive at a planetary destination, undertake missions and send home pictures over millions of miles.

Yet those planets are like next-door neighbors compared to the stars and nearby solar systems. Travel to even the nearest star will be science fiction until we find the means to rewrite the laws of physics and relativity. We stare back in time every night - to realize that stars we see with regularity that are 10,000 light years away emitted that light before Mesopatamia or the pharoahs and pyramids, before the great Chinese dynasties. It took that light 10,000 years to get here.

And in that time billions of people have been born, lived long or short lives, passed away, and nearly all been forgotten. Cities and empires, rise and fall. As beautiful as it is, it is inevitable that a long life richly lived will be eventually be overtaken by loss and time. I look at those stars and find comfort imagining beloved family and friends that I miss here on earth freely making magic in the heavens. Angel stars perhaps. Sometimes while we're stargazing I hold Madeleine a little tighter. She has no idea why, she just loves being close to her Dad.

So we watch and we wonder. We talk about rockets. This week we get ready to marvel the 5-planet display - while Jupiter and Venus take the headlines, Mercury is at its brightest on March 3rd, and the earth passes between the sun and Mars for our best view on March 4th. Meanwhile, Saturn arrives in the eastern sky later in the evening. All of our visible heavenly neighbors making an appearance in the incomprehensible immensity that is our celestial home. Makes things on a troubled world seem a little smaller too.


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