Twinkle Twinkle

I’ve seen stars. They’re those twinkly things in the night sky.

I can pick out Orion’s belt, maybe point you to the two Pointers, and on a lucky night I might even correctly guess where Jupiter is (okay and yes, for all those fastidious scientists dying to point it out, Jupiter is a planet and not a star).

I’ve seen stars, you’ve seen stars, we’ve all seen stars.

But making out constellations is entirely different to seeing stars. Or at least seeing stars more closely. That much I learned when I spent an evening at the Mamalluca Observatory, in the Elqui Valley just an hours drive from La Serena. Until that night, I hadn’t really given stars that much thought. Certainly I never realised just how beautiful they are.

The evening tour started late, after 9pm, when the night sky had sufficiently darkened. It was also cold, really cold. So cold our breath hung in the night air, and our hands remained firmly jammed in our coat pockets. But once our guide starting talking I forgot about the temperature.

She explained, firstly, how the magnification of telescopes work. I tried to understand but the part of my brain that deals with basic maths equations shut itself down a long time ago. I remember when it happened too – it was the second I answered the last question of my final highschool maths examination. I’ve never attempted to turn that part back on. And to be fair, I was actually kind of crap at maths anyway.

So there was no chance I was going to understand what she was on about. I looked sideways at A, who was nodding with interest. Smart arse. I did pick up that telescopes make things far away look big….that’s about the extent of it.

Thankfully the hard stuff finished and we were on to the stars. Our lovely guide whipped out a high-tech laser pointer and began to point out the constellations, her clear green beam stretching out across the night sky.

(I developed a case of “laser envy” during the tour. It was a really really cool laser, and now I want one. No, I have no immediate use for a laser but give me 10 minutes alone with it and I guarantee I would find a use. I could just see myself sitting on the lounge, and pointing at things. Saying things like; “A, could you make me a cup of tea (points at teabags, then kettle) and could I have some biscuits with that too (points at biscuits).” Actually, best not give me a laser, I’ll probably become really annoying.)

I digress. Our guide waved her beam at a particular constellation.

“Does anyone know what this is?” she asked

“Si si,” my hand shoots up. “El Cruz del Sur.

Yes, a gold star to the Australian for knowing what the Southern Cross looks like. It only adorns the national flag, and the arms of a few million bogans back home.

After that it was Orion, the Scorpius, then Sagittarius, then Libra. I had never realised how the stars linked to form those shapes, but let me tell you, that Star Trek-worthy laser was making things particularly clear. Next we were shown the constellations of the ancient cultures. Interestingly, these cultures didn’t link stars to form a shape, they use the stars as a border, as an outline. The shapes are found by looking at the black space. There in the darkness we found the llama and the serpent. Once you get used to looking at the negative space, you really do see the resemblance.

Then to the main attraction, the telescopes and the stars. First up the telescope was directed at Antares, the star which forms part of the constellation of Scorpius. Looking through the telescope I was surprised to find the star was not white – as it looked in the night sky – but was in fact a distinct reddish colour.

Next we looked at a star cluster called the Jewel Box. When I looked through the telescope the name instantly became clear. What looked to the naked eye like just one or two fuzzy stars in the distance was actually 100 or more stars that twinkled in hues of blue, gold and red. The nursery rhyme rang true; they really were like diamonds in the sky. Tiny diamonds, sparkling and blinking against a velvet black backdrop. They were so beautiful.

We adjourned to the proper observatory which housed a more powerful telescope. We were told that it was the most powerful telescope available to the public in the Southern Hemisphere. It had a magnification of x200 which means…?? Well it means it makes things extra faraway look big. (My next vocation; science teacher surely.)

Things like Saturn. Yep, we got to look at Saturn. And guess what? It really does have rings. Now I understand that everyone knows Saturn has rings, because it’s in all the science books. But I’ve now seen the rings of Saturn. Looking through the telescope I could clearly make out the gold planet, with a band circling it. It wasn’t beautiful – not like the stars – but it was still a little bit wonderful to see it, and just confirm with my own eyes that the scientists did get it right. Well done them.

The tour ended shortly after that; we had a quick lecture on how the nightsky moves and turns but soon enough we were on our way back to La Serena. As we drove back I stared out the window, up at the stars. They looked the same as they always did, but then a little bit different as well.

How did I not know they were up there all this time? How did I not know they were so beautiful?

And how do I get my hands on a laser like that?

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