The photo below is one of the reasons I go on living in this crazy world. I mean, seriously, take a moment to bathe in the quiet alien beauty of this spiral galaxy, NGC 5033. In May of this year, astronomer Adam Block took this shot through a 32-inch telescope using a CCD camera, they toyed with the image using Photoshop and another astrophoto program. This kind of photograph is now within reach of small instruments (nowadays, some individuals even own 'scopes that size!), and digital imaging and processing further democratizes the once-esoteric field of astrophotography, which used to require vast knowledge of chemicals, supercooling tech for film, processing tricks, glass plates, and so forth - and some of these exposures took all night. Mess up the emulsion or developing time? Your night is lost. Not any more. Now we get astrophotos like this on a regular basis:
Click the image to see a very large, full-size image courtesy of the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter.
That should blow your mind! For reference, here is what the pre-digital age of astronomy looked like - and this is one of the era's best-known photos of one of the nearest galaxies, taken through the world's largest telescope at Mt. Palomar:
Click the image to see the Wiki page about the Andromeda Galaxy.
I mean, just compare the two. Check out how the vintage Andromeda photo is devoid of clear division between the spiral arms; notice how playing with color filters helps you identify the different types of stars in the newer photo; and so forth. But perhaps most impressively, check out the giant, 2MB version of NGC 5033, and you will be astounded by how many of the "stars" surrounding the galaxy are, in fact, more galaxies.
It makes sense, of course, because the universe holds more galaxies than our galaxy holds stars, and galaxies are larger than stars - they have to be really far away to appear smaller than a star. But WOW. LOOK AT ALL THOSE GALAXIES. That photo contains literally hundreds more identifiable galaxies! Perhaps THOUSANDS to an expert eye. WHOAH.
Now, for just a moment while you are floating in space, hunting for galaxies millions or billions of light-years away, turn around. Look for the Milky Way Galaxy among the stars. There, far out in the Orion Arm of our spiral galaxy, that's our Sun. Can you see it? Maybe, if you know where to look, and if you're using a big telescope and a high-resolution digital camera and using excellent software. Our star is a mundane one, smallish compared to the giants easily visible among the swirling multidudes.
But on a little rocky planet not far from the Sun's flares, bathing in its warmth at a temperature high enough to melt water ice - but not so hot as to boil it - dwells an intelligent species that not only ponders the meaning of life in a vast universe, but only looks upon the pinpoints of light in the sky and asks what they are, and is currently taking tiny steps in their direction. Every thought that every intelligent creature on that little planet has ever held, every hope and dream and fear and frustration, every feeling of love or hate toward another, every drama and birth and death: All that every human being who has ever lived has thought or done is contained within a narrow orbit around that little star, within a handful of miles of the surface of a planet invisible from this distance. Yet some of those beings still consider themselves to be masters of the universe.
It is charming, really.
This perspective... this is one reason I sky the skies (and the internets) for such discoveries. It's also why I love science fiction. This is where I derive my love of astronomy, and sharing it through photos and words is where I derive most of the pleasure.