Tuesday, October 3, 2023
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Reach for the stars

Tatum Hunter

THE WASHINGTON POST – On one hand, space is for everyone. On the other hand, no it isn’t.

We saw that starkly this year as we gazed up into the cosmos in humility and awe, wondering what it must be like to found a billion-dollar corporation and acquire Whole Foods.

2021 was declared the year of the space billionaires after Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos launched themselves into the great beyond on rockets owned by their space companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa – who rode a rocket into space recently – bought every seat on a SpaceX commercial flight to the moon slated for 2023.

Some people hail the trips as one small step for billionaires, one giant leap for humankind as we weigh our chances as an interplanetary species. Others have called the rides tone-deaf when the rest of us are fretting about finances and struggling to find toilet paper.

Founding an airline empire or an e-commerce behemoth aren’t the only ways to get to space, though.

You could dedicate your life to training as an astronaut, attend a boot camp for space tourists or join hundreds of thousands of others in a raffle, such as the one for a seat on one of Branson’s forthcoming commercial flights to the edge of the thermosphere.

Geoff Clayton, a professor and astronomer at Louisiana State University, took the third route when he entered a drawing for a spot on a space flight commanded by billionaire Jared Isaacman. Clayton didn’t win the ticket.

“I decided when I was eight-years-old that I wanted to be an astronomer,” he said. “I would love to be going up into space; I just don’t have the money yet.”

In his research, Clayton focusses on tiny, dispersed particles of space dust – or as he puts it, “almost nothing”.

But the best way to describe his relationship to space would be “love”, he said. His favourite fact about space? Every atom inside of your body was, at one point, part of a distant star.

Clayton and the rest of us may not have the stuff to become captains of industry.

But, as he tells the 300 students in his introduction to astronomy class, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the cosmos from your own backyard.

I asked him and a few other space experts for some tips to tide us over as we wait for our savings accounts to hit 10 digits.


There are plenty of affordable telescope options for space enthusiasts, said Diana Hannikainen, observing editor at Sky & Telescope magazine.

But most families don’t need to spend anything at all to get a much better view of the night sky. Just dig out those binoculars from the junk drawer and step outside. You’ll be surprised by the extra things you see, Hannikainen said.

For instance: Most people can count about six or seven stars in the Pleiades cluster with the naked eye. Hold up your binoculars, and you’ll be “blown away” by all the new detail, she said. Then check out the crags on our moon and even the moons of Jupiter on a clear night.


Scientists estimate there are nearly 10,000 visible stars in the night sky – which, for the uninitiated, is way too many to navigate without some help.

Stargazing apps point you toward constellations, planets and even faraway galaxies, and all you have to do is hold your phone up to the sky. Some, such as Star Walk, offer extra science-y information about whatever you’re looking at. I learned why Neptune is blue (methane) and scrolled through a gallery of photos from large telescopes.

Our experts also recommended SkySafari, SkyView and Stellarium as the best apps for stargazing.


As an observatory manager at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Wallace Astrophysical Observatory, Tim Brothers is an expert at working with the often tricky equipment required to take research-worthy photos of the cosmos. But some of the best shots he’s ever gotten were taken with his cellphone, he said.

If you use the latest iPhone 13 Pro Max or a Google Pixel 3 or later, your phone comes with an astrophotography mode for capturing the night sky.

Get inspired by downloading the official NASA app, selecting the Images tab and tapping on the three-line menu in the upper right corner. Then, choose “top rated overall”.This shows you which space photos other people have ranked highest since the app’s inception, according to the app’s project manager at NASA, Jerry Colen. Most people gravitate toward photos of stars and other heavenly bodies, he said, while he prefers photos of astronauts and spacewalks.


Your smartphone is a helpful stargazing tool. But the blue light from your screen can kill the vibe. Light on that end of the colour spectrum tampers with our eyes and makes it harder to see the light coming from the sky.

“It takes your eye about 30 or 40 minutes to get fully adjusted in the dark, so as soon as you look at the phone, it resets that clock again,” Brothers said.

He recommended using your stargazing app indoors to orient yourself, then going outside phone-free. If you must bring the phone along, switch it to night mode or red mode to avoid blue light’s effects. (On an iPhone, go to Settings – Display & Brightness – Night Shift – Manually Enable Until Tomorrow.) Settle in with a blanket and a hot drink and enjoy some peace and stillness while the stars come into focus.


Depending where you live, there’s probably an amateur astronomy club nearby. If you’re ready to dedicate some time and money to observing, get yourself an affordable telescope and join. But you can also soak up some space knowledge with no commitment at all.

Track down a local group’s website and visit the “outreach” section, Sky & Telescope’s Hannikainen suggested. Most clubs host amateur astronomy nights, where enthusiasts set up their rigs and point them toward different spots in the night sky. Visitors can walk among the telescopes taking in the views and learning from real people. This is a good activity for families, as well, she noted.

“Amateur astronomers love sharing their passion for the sky with people, so you shouldn’t be shy if there’s a public outreach event organised by amateurs,” Hannikainen said. “They just can’t wait to show you what they love so much about the sky.”

Planetariums and science museums also organise space-themed events for communities.

Check their calendars for viewing parties next time there’s an upcoming eclipse or passing comet.


Want to witness a space event but not sure when they happen or where they’re visible? Open the NASA app, tap on the three-line menu symbol in the top right and flip on the notifications. This will alert you when to catch a glimpse of the passing International Space Station – you can also sign up for simple text alerts here.

To see when to expect cool phenomena such as meteors, check out the calendars in stargazing apps including Stellarium and Star Walk.

And while you’re playing with apps, download Spacecraft AR from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You can flip through augmented-reality models of spacecraft from different parts of the solar system and project them onto any flat surface. Pinch your fingers to move them around and zoom in and out, and tap the question mark to learn what purpose they serve.


The night sky is always changing. Travel back in time with Stellarium’s Web-based astronomy tool and see what the cosmos looked like from Earth on the night you were born, right before you met your partner or for your ancestors on a different continent.

Just open the online planetarium and click on the date and time in the bottom right corner.

Then punch in which moment in history you’d like to visit. Click the “near” button in the bottom left corner to choose a spot on the globe.

Before you leave, check out the ‘Planets Tonight’ tab in the left-hand menu. It’ll prime your stargazing by telling you which celestial bodies are easiest to spot where you live.


Apps and outings make it easier to appreciate the night sky we usually take for granted. But it’s also okay to just step outside, look up at the stars and do some navel-gazing. Maybe your problems will feel smaller.

“Our world is this fragile little ecosystem zipping around this normal star in a normal galaxy that’s one of millions and millions of other galaxies – maybe we should rethink our attitude toward our neighbour,” Hannikainen said.

Or, even better, maybe you’ll be struck with a billion-dollar business idea.

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