Lesson 8) Someone Like Us
The walls of the classroom today are covered in posters depicting massive structures shaped like bowls and funnels. A poster of the first moon landing hangs in the center of the blackboard. Professor Gagarina is putting the finishing touches on a gleaming suit of armor standing next to her desk; as the class enters the visor snaps shut and she pulls her hand quickly away from the helmet.
Humanity has always had an inflated opinion of the Earth, even as they sought to understand the heavens. Until 1543, people believed that the Sun, Moon, planets, and even the universe revolved around Earth. Nicolas Copernicus was the man who changed minds and used his observations of the night sky to prove that the sun was the center of our solar system. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were then understood to be Earth’s fellow travelers around the Sun. Much later, observations of the slight movements of Mercury and Uranus hinted at the existence of planets further still. Neptune was discovered soon after, though there was no planet Vulcan between Mercury and the Sun.
We continued to build bigger telescopes and attached them to computers, electronic devices that can see light and track movement better than human eyes over great distances and long periods of time. Other telescopes were built that used radio waves to “see” objects too distant for light to be detected. In the 1960s, some scientists argued that other beings on other worlds could be intelligent and advanced enough to send and receive radio communications. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI Institute) continues to this day, though no radio waves have proved to come from life in other worlds. Several robotic expeditions to Mars have also been pursued, this time searching for more primitive, single-celled organisms to prove that any life may have existed on other planets. Others believed that the best course of action was not to search for evidence of life, either in our own solar system or the far universe. Rather, they should search for planets on which life was possible, and then begin to look for extraterrestrial life.
In 1877, the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli looked at Mars with his telescope and described the “canali” he saw there. While he originally meant channels, paths that water creates as it flows, he is often mistranslated. People believed that he had observed canals on Mars, implying that ancient beings had dug channels to move water from one place to another, possibly for the irrigation of crops. Armed with this new evidence, many believed that Mars was indeed home to intelligent life, much like us. Optical interference and difficulties in viewing the planet only fueled the speculation that there was indeed an entire civilization on the red planet.
One of the first experiments to detect intelligent life on Mars took place in 1924. At the time, Mars was in the absolute closest place to Earth that it would be in for almost a century. American citizens were prompted to take part in almost two days of “radio silence” turning off all terrestrial radio signals so that a clear signal might be received at the United States Naval Observatory. Despite having a receiver attached to a dirigible three kilometers above the ground, with the United States Army’s best code breakers standing by, no conclusive discoveries were made.
Mars, as our closest neighbor, and also the only other planet to hint at habitability in our solar system, has always fascinated us. Despite the failure to find advanced civilizations on the planet, we have continued to search for water and for life. When observational astronomy was exhausted, robotic vehicles, machines that could be controlled from Earth and filled with different instruments to take measurements and search for life, were sent to our nearest neighbor. Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity all successfully landed and carried out experiments on Mars. While no conclusive evidence of life has been found, it has been established that there is indeed some water on the red planet, though it is all ice and there isn’t enough of it to sustain life. Undaunted, scientists are now pushing for more advanced missions to Mars with people, not machines, working and living on the planet.
Can you all hear me?
Light, the various colors we see and experience daily, are nothing more than waves. The waves of light that we see fall on a very small part of a very long spectrum. Some waves have a higher frequency; more of them are in a given amount of space, while others have a lower frequency. Anything that emits or reflects light can also be reflecting other waves in the spectrum. Radio waves have a much lower frequency than light waves, and are emitted by objects in space, as well as from manmade sources. Here on Earth we translate those signals into sounds, allowing us to hear Celestina Warbeck’s latest comeback tour concert without having to spend all those Galleons. Radio waves coming from celestial objects can be used to see an object too far away or too dim for a telescope to see. The different frequencies of radio waves paint a picture with the right technology.
Some believed that other life forms could have access to radio technology much like our own. To that end they built gigantic radio receivers, not only to look at stars and the universe, but also to listen for those signals that were being sent out by alien radio technology.
Can you all see me?
The search for life doesn’t always have to be about the life itself. For a long time, we thought that we were a lot more unique here on Earth. The fact that we were part of a solar system seemed to be a novelty, despite the sheer number of stars in our night sky, we and our seven sisters were the only planets we had ever seen.
The way Earth’s atmosphere bends light means that there is a limit to the distance and clarity that we can see objects from the ground. This was felt most clearly when astronomers sought to detect the passage of planets in front of their stars, known as a transit.
The Kepler program, named for the astronomer Johannes Kepler who discovered the laws of planetary motion, involved launching satellite telescopes. These telescopes, located far beyond the atmospheric distortion of Earth, combined with computers have helped to discover hundreds of unknown planets throughout the universe. The Kepler telescopes look for the slight dimming of distant stars caused by a planet’s transit in front of the star. If the dimming happens at regular intervals, it’s a very good chance they’ve found a planet.
Shoot for the Moon
Muggle astronomers are not the only ones searching for life amongst the stars. There are also several notable examples of magical attempts at space exploration with the goal of finding life outside of Earth.
In the early 1920s, students under the guidance of the astronomy faculty at Uagadou School of Magic in Africa designed and built an early form of a magical radio telescope. Shaped like a massive funnel and attached to the second highest roof at the school, this telescope was hoped to gather celestial transmissions, amplifying them and allowing students to hear broadcasts made by other living beings in our near solar system.
The Uagadou Radio Gatherer (URG) failed to receive any signals of interest or note until the late 1950s when it began picking up a very loud and mysterious beeping noise. When experts from around the world failed to decode the noise, many believed that the enchantments placed on the URG had failed. The telescope was dismantled, re-enchanted, and rebuilt in just over ten years’ time. The URG came back online in the summer of 1969, just in time to receive a faint transmission: “…Stepman, one giant leap enshrined.” It was determined by several experts that this broadcast came from an advanced Martian civilization with a complicated and confusing sport involving jumping great distances with great precision, and whose commentary was broadcast across the solar system. A further two months passed before anyone realized just how wrong they were and the URG was put out of use, though it has never been taken down and remains a central fixture at Uagadou to this day.
Apollo 11 – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Land Among the Stars
A young wizard living in West Germany in 1974 was so inspired by the first moon landing that he decided that he too would visit the moon. While Helmut Neumann did not have access to any Muggle rockets, he did have the Shooting Star racing broom he had used to great effect playing Quidditch at Durmstrang Institute. He made his first attempt in the summer of 1975 wearing a second-hand suit of armor enchanted with various protective spells. He made it to an altitude of 20,000 feet before he turned back, unable to breathe.
Undaunted, he set about creating a spell to protect himself from suffocation. The result was the Bubble Head Charm, which allows anyone using it to breathe clean air under harsh conditions by covering the head and face in a transparent bubble that filters oxygen from one’s surroundings. To perform the charm one must point their wand at their face and make a series of small, counterclockwise circles using the incantation Ebublimir (eh-BUB-lih-meer).
After rigorous testing of his new spell and with the sponsorship of the Nimbus Racing Company, Helmut Neumann made his second attempt in 1978. He made it almost 500 miles away from Earth before having to turn back yet again when he discovered that the Bubble Head Charm does not work in the vacuum of space where there is very little to no oxygen. It is unclear if Helmut intended to make a third attempt: he was killed in a Death Eater attack in the winter of 1979 while defending a family of Muggles.
Space travel and exploration in the magical community has always been seen as somewhat eccentric. Indeed many inventions have been created with the express purpose of avoiding costly experiments and long distances. Today we have orries, lunascopes, and telescopes which allow us to see and experience space from the comfort of our homes. That hasn’t stopped inventors like Helmut from reaching for the stars. Sometimes, they say, it is important to change your perspective even if it means leaving planet Earth.
That will be all for this week. Don’t forget to complete your essay to hand in next week. Remember that our next lesson will end with the final exam, so be sure to study all your notes in preparation!
If you are interested in being a PA for Astronomy, apply here: https://bit.ly/30kzdEu