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Heavens Above

Thursday June 12, 2014

I am dazzled by the starry night sky.

I have always taken a great comfort in looking up at the stars. When I look up to the heavens and the greater universe I find a perspective of the world that has kept me grounded and aware of my place in life. I discovered this reality as a child living on the James Bay coast in my home community of Attawapiskat. Now as an adult I continue to look upward and I always feel humbled when I spot a point of light that is 500 light years away and totally out of my reach.

When I was young and living on the James Bay coast, my life felt like it was disconnected from a greater world. My friends and I saw all of the images of great cities, towns and endless highways in movies, television shows, newspapers and magazines. It was all very alien to us.

We knew there was an exciting world out there that we could not be part of because it was just so far away. The realization that we could not participate in such an interesting, exciting and faraway world gave us all a great sense of isolation.

I yearned for some way to escape the dusty roads and confusing life on my landlocked First Nation. I found this escape in the school library where I devoured book after book. My favourite reading had to do with space, the planets and the stars. The deep void of space was an awesome concept that enchanted my imagination as a child.

My newfound knowledge was made even more exciting because I lived in a remote part of the world that had little light pollution and that meant I could view the heavens easily. On cold clear winter nights, I can remember looking up at the stars and being able to see faint points of light all the way down to the horizon. I literally felt like I was standing on the edge of the planet.

The more I read about our place in the greater universe, the more I felt that in a way, our tiny planet is just as isolated from everything in the cosmos in a similar way that my small Native reserve in northern Ontario is so removed from the outside world. I found some comfort in discovering that our planet is merely a small speck orbiting the sun, which is actually a star that is roughly 1.3 million times bigger than Earth.

As I read more about the accumulated knowledge of our universe, I found it fascinating to know that as we orbit our sun, all of us are travelling on earth at an astonishing accumulated speed of 390 kilometers per second towards the constellation of Leo. I was amazed at the ideas of space, time and distance in my reading. Things in space are so far apart that one way of measuring the distance of celestial objects is by the use of the light year, the distance light can travel in a year which is equivalent to 10 trillion kilometres. That boggled my mind.
The reading I did certainly expanded my appreciation of just how vast the universe is. It amazed me to discover that our sun and its solar system occupied a place in a small corner of our Milky Way galaxy. We sit about three quarters away from the centre, in a galaxy that measures about 100,000 light years across and is made up of possibly 400 billion stars, many of which are actually stars with planets. Our home galaxy is only one of possibly 100 billion other galaxies that are millions of light years away in all directions of our observable universe. What lies beyond is currently unknown. Now that’s big.

So these days I make sure to get out at least a couple of times a week to light a campfire and sit back to stare up into the starry sky. The knowledge I have gained from my reading of science and astronomy over the years really helps me to appreciate the majestic sight of the universe.

As technology improves I am thrilled to discover new ways to connect to the cosmos. I have downloaded apps on my iPad called Sky Guide or the Canadian made GoSkyWatch Planetarium to help me enjoy my stargazing.

They provide detailed information about the stars, constellations, deep sky objects and even satellites that orbit our planet. I have even started using Flightradar24, an app that requires a steady Internet connection in order to provide detailed up to date information on aircraft flying overhead. The night sky is more amazing to me than ever.

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