When I was a child growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, I remember my father showing me the stars at night and explaining that some of them might no longer exist because it took so long for the light to reach us from such distant places. There were no street lights where we lived, and the Milky Way dazzled us with its brilliance each clear night. My father took my siblings and me to the observatory built in 1820 in the suburb of Observatory (named after it) where we first viewed the heavens through a telescope. Afterwards we would go to a nearby Greek café where the food was good and plates were sometimes smashed in moments of high exuberance. These days, like other big cities, Cape Town suffers from light pollution, so all serious observing takes place at the new observatory a four hour drive away near the village of Sutherland. This area has some of the clearest, darkest skies in the world, and is home to the South African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, opened in 2005, with a mirror 36 feet in diameter. Sutherland is considered the most geologically stable place on earth, yet has a 66 million year old volcano not yet officially declared extinct. Along the town’s main road, Planetarium Highway, stone plinths were built to scale depicting the solar system’s planets relative to the size of the sun, and showing the distances between planets.
Farther north in South Africa, near Johannesburg, is the Vredefort dome and crater, with a diameter of 186 miles, the largest verified impact crater on earth. At over 2 billion years old, it is the second oldest known crater, just under 300 million years younger than the Suavjärvi crater in Russia. The asteroid that struck Vredefort, estimated at over 6 miles wide, is one of the largest known to have impacted earth. Igneous rock found nearby, created during this same period, suggests the impact may have been so great as to trigger local volcanic activity.
South Africa’s astronomy legacy includes British astronomer John Herschel who arrived in Cape Town in 1834 to catalogue the stars, nebulae and other objects in the southern sky. During his stay he observed the return of Halley’s Comet and met with Charles Darwin when the HMS Beagle arrived in 1836. Both men made substantial contributions to science based on their observations and discussions while there.
Closer to home, join the Springfield STARS Club on Tuesday, January 26th at 7:30pm in the Seymour Planetarium at the Springfield Science Museum for a tour of the night sky. Astronomy educator and former STARS Club president Jack Megas will discuss star clusters, bright stars, constellations and the mythology associated with them. Refreshments will be served, and the public is welcome free of charge. Also at the Springfield Science Museum, the next Stars over Springfield will be held on Friday, February 5th at 7:30pm. Amateur astronomer and software developer Ed Faits will present Ground Hog’s Day, Cross-Quarter Days, and Our Place in the Universe.
Amanda Jermyn, of Longmeadow, has been a member of the Springfield Stars Club since 2000 and currently serves on the club's board of directors. For more information, visit the Springfield Stars Club Web site at www.reflector.org or call 1(800)336-9054.
Copyright © Amanda Jermyn