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Feature - Down to Earth

Studying the cosmos gives John Nemy a sense of place



So where are we, anyway?

Ask an astronomer that question and be prepared to feel a little smaller after you hear the answer.

We live in Whistler, British Columbia, a tiny mountain town in the northern hemisphere of Planet Earth, third planet from the Sun – about 92 million miles out – in our young solar system.

Our solar system is itself located about a third of the way out on the western arm, also called the Orion-Cygnus Arm, of the Milky Way, our home galaxy.

The Milky Way is immense, stretching more than 100,000 light years from end to end. That means it would take a spaceship travelling the speed of light 100,000 years to fly from one side to the other.

Our galaxy is of the spiral type, which means that it has a huge and incredibly dense bulge in the centre and tapers off towards the edges, like a celestial fried egg. On clear nights, well away from the glowing lights of town that get in the way of star gazing, it’s easy to see the white band crossing the roof of the sky, like a long cloud that stretches from horizon to horizon. That milky river is actually a side view of our galaxy, the white of the egg, where gases, interstellar dust and stars are denser.

The universe doesn’t end when we reach the edge of our galaxy. Back in 1929, astronomer Edwin Hubble proved that some of the objects we see in our night sky are actually distant galaxies.

The Andromeda Galaxy is our closest neighbour, about 2.3 million light years away. It’s visible to the naked eye as a blurry mass just two stars to the left and two stars up from the top left-corner of the Square of Pegasus.

Billions of years into the future, Andromeda and the Milky Way will slowly collide, drawn together by the forces of gravity.

We won’t be around to see it, but it should be spectacular.

I learned the basics of modern astronomy and a lot more in just two hours with Whistler’s John Nemy, an amateur astronomer who has taken his passion for the night sky to another astral plane, combining his unique ambient music and love for night photography with the science and beauty of star gazing.

Many long-term Whistler residents will probably remember Nemy and his partner Carol Legate from a series of multimedia stargazing presentations at the top of Blackcomb Mountain from 1992 to 1995. After the presentations in the Rendezvous Lodge, everyone would head outside to view the cosmos through Nemy’s 16-inch reflector telescope.