First little telescope adventure

My dear wife and daughters got me something absolutely wonderful for Christmas: a beginners’ astronomical telescope! Alas, since then, the weather has gone out of its way to keep the night sky veiled and thoroughly hidden around these parts. Only last Sunday did I catch a momentary break in the cover, and an opportunity to check if my some-assembly-required-fu was as stellar as I’d hoped.

Some wobbliness still remained, possibly due to the fact that this was a non-IKEA product with no Allen wrench in sight for miles, thus forcing me to use such unfamiliar tools as — *gasp* — a screwdriver (neither vodka nor a single orange included). Plus I’ve never actually operated a proper telescope before, and much of the initial navigation of the heavens was by trial and trial and trial and utter trial and error. Stars are painfully difficult to track by hand, at least with inexperienced hands and unfamiliar controls, so both Sirius and Betelgeuse ended up far more successful in their game of hide than I was at my game of seek. I suspect my finder may be severely misaligned and the target of future calibration.

Enter trusty old Moon, whose location in the sky is hard to miss unless you try very, very hard indeed, meaning even I ought to be able to do it blindfolded (for the record, I tried without the blindfold, which may have helped). Let me tell you, the apparatus works! We spent a chilly fifteen minutes or so in –7°C, gazing at craters, ridges and plains all over the lunar surface, as well as the zig-zagging of shadows along the terminator. The moon is a big place when it’s up close! Just before I decided to let temperature dictate the duration of this adventure, I fired off a couple of shots with my iPhone into the viewfinder, and here is the result … though I ought to add that the image we saw with our eyes was far better than what the iPhone in my by then freezing hands could capture 🙂



For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the Universe — both the very, very large, and the very, very small — and found great excitement and pleasure not only in seeing the beauty that exists both without and within, as mesmerizing and terrifying as anyone could imagine, but also in the exercise of trying (though not necessarily succeeding) to wrap my head around the immense differences in scale, and the scientific explanations of how things work and how they came to be, explanations that become more detailed and accurate as our tools and our understanding of nature increases. One of the most profound sciences that repeatedly strikes me with awe is astronomy.

This blog post is an expansion on a small piece I wrote on Facebook earlier, with a few extra but relevant — or at least I think so — bits added to the end.

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If I were to name two astronomy photos that are the most humbling to me in the face of the Universe around us, I would firstly name “The Pale Blue Dot”, the image of Earth, appearing as nothing more than the tiniest speck suspended in vast nothingness, taken by Voyager I in 1990 from beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto, accompanied by Carl Sagan’s narrative.

Voyager's 'Pale Blue Dot' photo by NASA
Pale Blue Dot: photo by NASA

It’s hard enough to properly grasp the size of our home planet when we’re standing on it. It seems incomprehensibly large to one’s eyes, and even when you know full well that it has finite bounds, it appears as if to be a whole universe unto itself, with uncountable wonders and mysteries, most of them yet to be uncovered. To then perceive it as almost nothing compared to an empty void that despite its vastness is not even close to infinity, can take a tremendous, overpowering toll on the mind and the imagination.

The second would be the Hubble Deep Field image from 1995, where the space telescope looked outwards into a tiny, dark patch of sky which until then had seemed to us like nothing but empty space, yet it turned out to contain galaxies upon galaxies upon galaxies, each containing billions and billions of stars, stretching into unimaginable distance, and backwards into unimaginable time.

Hubble Deep Field photo by NASA
Hubble Deep Field: photo by NASA / Wikipedia

Either one of those two images, the Pale Blue Dot looking inwards, and the Hubble Deep Field looking outwards, and even more so when considered together, tell me that we are are next to nothing in the face of Cosmos, that this place, whatever caused it to exist, was not made for us, and if it was in any way created, it was not created with us in mind. We are too small, too insignificant, to matter in the grand scheme of things. But they also tell me that we are part of something immense, something tremendously big and beautiful. We are in the Universe, and the Universe is in us.

And when we are so small in the face of it all, when our existence is so minuscule as to seem overwhelmingly meaningless, then we should value it even more than we seem to do. We may not matter much to the Universe at large, it may not even know or notice that we are here, but we should certainly matter to each other, and we should make the most of our tiny place on this mind-boggling stage, and cherish the experience of being alive, together.

Welcome to the Universe. It is the biggest thing you will ever know.

• • •


Hubble and the Unexpectedly Crowded Sky

The history behind the Hubble Space Telescope, an embarassing failure that was turned into a tremendous success, and the birth of the idea and the mission that became the Hubble Deep Field image.

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Where is the Hubble Deep Field at?

And to think that such a daunting and mind-boggling image as this is taken from somewhere as homely and familiar as just above the Big Dipper, which even most children will easily be able to find in the sky. That’s practically in the back yard.

Screen capture from Stellarium

The little yellow square shows the approximate location of the Hubble Deep Field. Not to scale, mind you. The actual area is far smaller, about a couple of pixels’ worth in this image, or as the above video says, the head of a pin held at arm’s length.

From Wikipedia: The field that was eventually selected is located at a right ascension of 12h 36m 49.4s and a declination of +62° 12′ 58″; it is approximately 2.6 arcminutes in width, or 1/12 the width of the Moon.

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Taking a Closer Look

All those galaxies far, far away, what would they look like really, really close up? Well, being so far away means not even Hubble nor any other of our existing telescopes will be able to give you a nose-to-nose encounter. Rest assured, though, that each and every one of them is, in the words of Dave Bowman, full of stars. The one galaxy that we can have a closer look at, however, is our nearest neighbour Andromeda, a mere 2½ million light years away.

“The new Hubble image of the [Andromeda] galaxy is the biggest Hubble image ever released and shows over 100 million stars and thousands of star clusters embedded in a section of the galaxy’s pancake-shaped disc stretching across over 40 000 light-years.”

The jaw-drop moment is, or at least it was to me, when you reach the amount of zoom where you see mostly image noise … and then you realize when it keeps on zooming that the “noise” is actually individual stars. Lots and lots and lots of stars, floating like the tiniest droplets in mist, except these droplets are a million miles or more across, and light-years apart. You may also note a considerable difference in star density when comparing the centre of the galaxy to its outer rim territories.

I’ve added a few screenshots to demonstrate, but why take my word for it, when you can zoom it yourself right here?

Hubble Andromeda Zoom full view

Full view, showing about a quarter of the Andromeda Galaxy, like a smooth, translucent veil against the blackness of space, just like we know it already.

Hubble Andromeda Zoom max zoom

Almost halfway there, with what looks like background digital image noise. The larger stars you see here are all members of our own Milky Way galaxy.

Hubble Andromeda Zoom max zoom

Zoomed in all the way, and the “image noise” resolves into a glittery jumble of individual stars. And if there’s anything we’ve learned about stars in recent years, it is that they tend to have planets around them. This has been shown to be true of stars in our own galaxy, and there is no reason to think that the Andromeda galaxy should be any different in that regard. Here be worlds, upon worlds, upon worlds.

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Missed Conjunction

The evening of August 27, 2016, was scheduled to feature the conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter shortly after sunset, a marvellous mere ½ degree apart, the same as the apparent diameter of the Moon, which is pretty darn close in a big, big sky. That’s a must-see in my book! As a last minute decision I went for the best nearby vantage point I could think of, which was the west side of Slottsfjellet (“Castle Mountain”) in Tønsberg, a mere 20 minute drive from home. I was gonna shoot me some planets!

Hiding behind them there cloudses

Although the sky was mostly clear and outstandingly beautiful with the sunset and all, I missed the conjunction on account of lovely but otherwise annoying clouds on the horizon. On the upside, on account of wearing shorts, I have several brand new mosquito bites to keep me entertained the next few days.

Screenshot from Star Walk overlayed on camera view

I followed the planets until they were well below the horizon. Not only were they hiding behind clouds the whole time, the sky was still bright enough that they probably wouldn’t have been very visible anyway.

According to, “the next time Venus and Jupiter will get this close will be in November 2065,” by when I will be a whopping 96 years young. Bring it on!

In the mean time I’ll just leave you with this.

Screenshot from Star Walk overlayed on camera view

The sky beneath my feet.
Darkness and light.
And grass.


It is Protected!

The list of strange and fascinating things in the sky is longer than any one human being could reasonably hope to explore in a single natural lifetime, and this is equally true regardless of whether we only look exclusively at the ones that are strange, the ones that are fascinating, those that are both, or any combination of the aforementioned. Space is, in a word, mindbogglingly huge! I realize that’s two words, not one, but you probably catch my drift: It’s that big.

On September 19, 2012, NASA posted a Hubble Space Telescope image of the planetary nebula NGC 5189 in the southern sky constellation Musca as their Astronomy Picture Of The Day (APOD).

Image by NASA

And it is indeed a wonderful looking object. Majestic in posture, mesmerizing with its swirls and colours, it practically invites, nay, compels the eye to gaze upon it. At some three thousand light years distant, it’s certainly a cosmic landmark. Yet for all its otherworldly appearance, one cannot quite shake the almost haunting sensation that there is something eerily familiar about it, as if only you squinted the right way, or saw it from the correct angle, you would instantly recognize it for what it really is.

Naturally, this image, which is taken from a low Earth orbit, is what that nebula looks like from our side, in our line of sight. What, then, does it look like from the other side, another three thousand light years hence? With the limitations of our current space travel technology we simply have no way of actually going there to have a look for ourselves. However, if we simply rotate the image by 180 degrees around the vertical axis, in order to simulate by primitive means the directly opposite perspective, then it is no longer possible to miss what the swirly shape really resembles.

Click the image for larger version.

Right there, right in the middle of that celestial symbol, is where you would find us, our home in the Cosmos, with our Sun and our Earth. This is a sign, a message, perhaps even a warning. And since from our vantage point we see it inverted I can only assume that, whatever meaning it carries, the message isn’t intended for us. It has to be for whoever might be looking this way from that direction.

Considering all of the above, this message, put into words, can mean only one thing:

“Do not come this way.
Do not approach this world.
It is protected.”

And now we know by whom.

If ever we had truly compelling, irrefutable evidence that he exists and protects us, then this, without a sliver of doubt, is it!

And that leaves me with two questions. First, who, or what, is in that direction that needs to be shown such a warning when they look at us? And second, should they happen to come this way, would the son of Jor-El then be powerful enough to stop them?

Mars The Size Of The Moon — Impossible, But What If?

Did you get the message too, that on August 27 the planet Mars would pass so close to the Earth that it’d look as big as the full Moon in the sky? If you did, don’t believe a word of it, because that will never happen. That message is an echo of a hoax that has been going around the Interwebs every year since 2003 when, in fact, on August 27, Mars was closer to Earth than it had been since some 60 000 years ago, when the Neanderthals were still a going concern. So how big did it look? Not very, and I know this because I looked at it very, very hard indeed. It was a pinhole of light. A slightly red, bright star.

It’s a pity, though, because the sight of it as big as is rumoured would quite simply be absolutely mindbogglingly spectacular! I for one would gladly sign up to watch that.

Alas, not even remotely likely to happen.

The body of Mars is just under twice as wide (1.95 times) as that of the Moon, and in order to look the same size it would therefore have to be just under twice as far away. That would take it to 749 580 km. But Mars’ orbit can never take it that close to the Earth; the closest it got in 2003 was about 55 750 000 km, which is still 145 times as far as the Moon’s orbit.

Some even claim that this extreme close approach is the only time you can see Mars without a telescope, which is also wrong. If you’re in an area without too much light pollution, you can easily see Mars in the sky for much of the year, using nothing but your unaided eyes. It’s a tiny, bright dot in the sky, but it’s definitely visible. For instance, I took this photo of it with my iPhone on December 15th (blogged separately here), and for the record it looked much clearer to the eye than to the camera.

If an iPhone can see this, you can see this.

But how big can the planets actually get in the sky? There’s the chance you’ve seen science or science-fiction illustrations where the artist has taken some liberty with realism, giving the impression that giant planets in the sky would be a likely everyday occurrence, which is misleading to say the least. For measure, I put together this little graphic to illustrate the matter, not just for Mars, but for all the planets in our solar system.

Click the image to see full size (1080px square) with moon 1000px tall.

In order to show the planets at all, I had to significantly up the scale. In reality, if you look at the full Moon in the sky, next to your outstretched arm, then the Moon should appear as small as or even a little bit smaller than the nail on your thumb. So if you imagine the Moon in this picture that much smaller, then that’s how much smaller those planets are going to look, too. They are sorted by maximum apparent size, and their relative sizes should be fairly accurate. You will notice that both Venus and Jupiter show up as looking far bigger than Mars. Venus is both bigger and closer to the Earth than Mars is, whereas Jupiter is much, much farther away, but also considerably larger.

Just because someone asked, which tells me that I wasn’t sufficiently clear about it, if this was all entirely to scale, i.e. the Moon at its actual visual size, the entire picture would be as tiny as this one (right), and hardly any of the planets would show up at all. Remember, the Moon is the size of your thumbnail, and the planets should be scaled down accordingly. Ok?

Also keep in mind that the graphic shows only the planets’ relative sizes, and not their actual brightness or detail. For instance, both Venus and Mercury, whose orbits are between the Earth and the Sun, will be invisible when they are at their closest because we’ll be looking at their night side, which is inconveniently dark. The only times we’ll be able to see them at their closest at all is when they happen to be crossing in front the face of the Sun, which for Mercury occurs 13-14 times every century, and for Venus twice every 130 years (which most recently happened in 2004 and 2012, blogged separately here). All the other orbits are well outside that of ours, so we will always be seeing those planets’ daylight side.

For reference, here are the numbers:




Closest Distance



1 737 km


384 400 km



6 052 km


38 000 000 km



74 492 km


588 000 000 km

1 530


3 390 km


55 758 000 km



54 364 km


1 200 000 000 km

3 122


2 440 km


77 000 000 km



25 559 km


2 600 000 000 km

6 764


24 764 km


4 300 000 000 km

11 186


1 187 km


4 737 000 000 km

12 323


* The distance listed for the Moon is the average, not the closest. The Moon’s orbit varies between nearest at 356 400 km and farthest at 406 700 km.

** Pluto is included in this overview for demonstrative purposes only, for two reasons: First, it’s no longer counted as one of the main planets, which has been a matter of considerable boo-hoo since 2006, and second, it’s far too tiny and too far away to even show up unless I make the entire picture ridiculously huge. Neptune is both closer and much bigger than Pluto, and it still only shows up as a single, barely visible pixel in the large version of the image where the Moon is 1000 pixels tall. If I had attempted to draw Pluto at that scale, it would have been 0.00000134 pixels wide. In order to make Pluto a single pixel wide, the full image would have to be enlarged by a factor of twenty. Ain’t nobody got time for that! Incidentally, Pluto’s closest approach to Earth for another 200 years was on July 3, 2014, at 4 737 000 000 km, but its current distance is 5 085 500 000 km.

The relations between the planets’ actual sizes, their distances and their apparent sizes, is a tough noodle to flex your mind around, as demonstrated in the following video, where a group of practical-minded enthusiasts attempt to put those factors into proper perspective. It turns out you need quite a lot of room for that.

To Scale: The Solar System

“Every picture of the Solar System that we ever encounter is not to scale. If you put the orbits to scale on a piece of paper, the planets become microscopic, and you won’t be able to see them. There is literally not an image that adequately shows you what it actually looks like from out there. The only way to see a scale model of the Solar System is to build one.”

But lets say, just for the fun of it, that the planets could come near enough to compete with the Moon for sky dominance. How close or far away would they have to be? I gathered them all in this overview, sorted in no particular order, and although the Earth is naturally absent, since we’re standing on it, I’ve included Pluto here as well, just because Pluto needs a little love too.

Click the image to see full size (1000px square).

The above is how they’d look head-on, which is nice and lovely and all that. How, then, and I ask the question so that you won’t have to, would they look from the side? Well, if you’re in the mood for a long, long scroll, you can click on the image below.

Click the image to see full size (500px × 4250px).

Again, just to keep the Ninth Planet fans happy, I’ve included Pluto. It’s interesting to note that, in this illustration, it is posing even closer to Earth than the Moon is, but that is simply because it is smaller than the Moon. Remember, this one is not about actual distances, but about placing every planet at such a distance from the Earth that it appears the same size as the Moon. Hence the smaller ones will have to be closer, and the bigger ones have to be far, far, farther away. So far that Jupiter, the biggest, ends up floating more than a tenth of an Astronomical Unit away (a nine and a halfth of an AU, to be precise), with an Astronomical Unit being the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, or roughly 150 000 000 kilometres. That’s quite a distance, but then again Jupiter is a big fellow.

Curiously enough, as the planets in this line-up appear the same size as the Moon, they also appear the same size as the Sun. This is linked to the fact that although the Sun is 400 times bigger than the Moon, it is also 400 times farther away from the Earth as the Moon is, which is why we have those spectacular solar eclipses which have frightened the wits out of people all the way back to ancient times, and even today.

Mind you, as awesome as this would have looked, we would have been in serious trouble, and the reason for that is gravity. Short term wise, the gravity of the Moon is what causes the tides in our oceans. With the added gravity of any one of the planets would increase tides by a considerable factor, causing tsunamis, world-wide flooding, death and destruction. Long term wise, the gravitational balance between the Earth and the Sun is what keeps Earth in its orbit. That balance is delicate, and such a close approach by any one of the planets would greatly disturb it, permanently changing our orbit, which in turn would drastically affect the climate to become far colder or far hotter, possibly to the point where we’d find ourselves irreversibly extinct, along with most or all other life forms with whom we share the world.

How far can we take this? Quite a bit, it turns out. Youtube user Yeti Dynamics has made a few videos that push the envelope pretty far, being as spectacular — and frightening, to be honest — as they are unlikely.

If the Moon were replaced with some of our planets

We started with the premise that Mars might look as large as the Moon. What if some of the planets were actually orbiting the Earth in place of the Moon? Aside from the side effect from the massive increase in tidal forces, it would look awesome.

If the Moon were at the same distance as the ISS

The Moon isn’t the only thing out there orbiting the Earth. We have all sorts of satellites for all kinds of purposes at all kinds of distances, as well as an entire space station with people on it! The ISS is just 400 km out, which, to be honest, isn’t all that far into “deep space”, but it does give a tremendous close-up orbital view of our planet. Apollo astronauts on the Moon had an equally spectacular view of home, but it was much smaller in their sky. What say you, we bring the Moon closer to let the Apollo crews have a view matching that from the ISS?

A visit from Saturn: What if Saturn flew past the Earth

What if someone stepped on Saturn’s emergency brakes, making it slow down or even stop? All planets require constant speed to keep them in orbit, so a slow-down could lead to only one thing: The planet would fall inwards, towards the Sun. Imagine ourselves in the path of the ringed planet’s perilous plunge, or try the video which has this already imagined.

How did I do this? First of all, I’m not a genius. It’s easy to find the numbers on planets’ sizes and orbits, which are all available on easily accessible websites like Wikipedia, as well as minimum distances, which takes a modicum of Googling. Once the numbers are on hand, it’s all just basic arithmetic (simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) with a touch of geometry, both of which should be familiar to anyone who has completed nine to ten years of public school, and you’re allowed to use a calculator. It’s not rocket science, people! What I did do to take it that one step further was to include all the planets, not just Mars. The illustrations are just a matter of putting the numbers to pixels.

What prompted me to make this blog post and planet size overview was the surprising discovery that a number of people that I know, whom I hasten to add are quite intelligent and otherwise well educated, had absolutely no idea how planetary orbits work, or how far from each other the planets are, and gladly accepted the suggestion that Mars, or even Neptune, might occasionally give Earth a close fly-by. It worries me that people in general are so, I’m sorry to say, willing to accept wild nonsense as fact, and I hope that with this, I’ve managed to both educate and amuse.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Relevant links

Pluto: Radius 1 187 km, current distance 5 085 500 000 km (closest 4 280 000 000 km)

Moon radius = 1 737.1 km (0.273 Earths); average distance = 384,400 km
Mars radius = 3 389.5 km (1.95 × moon); closest distance: 55,758,006 km (145 × moon)
Jupiter radius = 74,492 km equatorial (41.2 × moon); closest distance = 588,000,000 (1,530 × moon)
Venus radius = 6,051.8 km (3.48 × moon); closest distance = 38,000,000 (98.9 × moon)
Saturn radius = 54,364 km polar (31.3 × moon); closest distance = 1,200,000,000 km (3,122 × moon)
Mercury radius = 2,439.7 km (1.4 × moon); closest distance = 77,000,000 km (200 × moon)
Uranus radius = 25,559 km equatorial (14.7 × moon) ; closest distance = 2,600,000,000 km (6,764 × moon)
Neptune radius = 24,764 km equatorial (14.3 × moon); closest distance = 4,300,000,000 km (11,186 × moon)

Moon width = 1
Planet width = dWidth / dDistance
Mars width = 1.95 / 145 = 0.0134
Jupiter width = 41.2 / 1530 = 0.0269
Venus width = 3.48 / 98.9 = 0.0352
Saturn height = 31.3 / 3,122 = 0.0100
Mercury width = 1.4 / 200 = 0.00700
Uranus width = 14.7 / 6,764 = 0.00217
Neptune width = 14.3 / 11,186 = 0.00128
«But not since the Neanderthals lived have Earth and Mars been quite as close as on August 27, 2003 at 9:51 Universal Time (the time in Greenwich, England) — 55,758,006 km (34,646,418 miles) from center to center. That was the nearest the two planets have been in almost 60,000 years!»

at 1 339 250 km (3.48x)
closest 38 000 000 km (99x)

at 538 160 km (1.4x)
closest 77 000 000 km (200x)

at 749 580 km (1.95x)
closest 55 758 000 km (145x)

at 15 837 280 km (41.2x)
closest 588 000 000 km (1 530x)

at 384 400 km

at 5 496 920 km (14.3x)
closest 4 300 000 000 km (11 186x)

at 5 650 680 km (14.7x)
closest 2 600 000 000 km (6 764x)

at 12 031 720 km (31.3x)
closest 1 200 000 000 km (3 122x)

at 262 545 km (0.683x)
closest 4 737 000 000 km (12 323x)

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