“What’s that?”

My son asked me the question on Christmas Eve while we were at my parents house. I had been looking for something in the basement and discovered a telescope that we had purchased when I was a kid. I promptly dragged it out of its hiding space in the closet and brought it upstairs.

“That’s a telescope.”

He worked the words around in his mouth before trying them out. This was a great find. Shortly after his birth, I took off for a week to attend an astronomy workshop out in Wyoming and had about a semester’s worth of science and physics lessons crammed into my head in just five days.

Since then, I’d vowed that the two of us would take a look at the stars together.

I explained to him how a telescope worked, and he peered through one end to the other side of the room. It needed to be cleaned, but that would be easy to do.

Unfortunately, the evening had clouded over, and there was nothing that we could see that night in the sky. The telescope came home with us and promptly went into the basement, waiting for the next opportunity for some sky gazing.

Night Sky Family

The night sky invites curiosity.

On one late drive home, my son started yelling: “Mon! Mon! Mon!” I was a little startled because I thought that he’d been asleep, but also because I had no idea what he was talking about.

It wasn’t until we stopped at a light that I noticed him pointing out to the moon overhead, shining in all its glory over the tops of the buildings of a development.

Since then, he greets the moon when we see it in the sky. He asks where it goes when it dips below the horizon, and recently, asked my wife if we could go there, as though it was easy to pack up the car and drive off for a short trip.

Space is opening up, through the efforts of NASA’s publicity teams, but also because of their accomplishments in the past year.

For the first time, we visited our solar system’s two dwarf planets, Ceres and Pluto, a comet, explored new parts of Mars and discovered liquid water, and took new, detailed pictures of Enceladus. Our space telescopes have discovered thousands of new planets in alien solar systems and all sorts of other fantastic things.

All of these discoveries are the result of a question: “What’s that?”

It’s the one question that starts every journey and every epic discovery. A child looked up into the sky and was curious about the bright points of lights hanging in the darkness, or the clouds in the sky, or the way the rocks on the highway are layered.

The natural world rich with mysteries that we as adults seem to be blind to. We take the stars and clouds and rocks for granted, things that have always been there, and which don’t impact our busy lives.

Most galaxies possess a majestic spiral or elliptical structure. About a quarter of galaxies, though, defy such conventional, rounded aesthetics, instead sporting a messy, indefinable shape. Known as irregular galaxies, this group includes NGC 5408, the galaxy that has been snapped here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. English polymath John Herschel recorded the existence of NGC 5408 in June 1834. Astronomers had long mistaken NGC 5408 for a planetary nebula, an expelled cloud of material from an aging star. Instead, bucking labels, NGC 5408 turned out to be an entire galaxy, located about 16 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). In yet another sign of NGC 5408 breaking convention, the galaxy is associated with an object known as an ultraluminous X-ray source, dubbed NGC 5408 X-1, one of the best studied of its class. These rare objects beam out prodigious amounts of energetic X-rays. Astrophysicists believe these sources to be strong candidates for intermediate-mass black holes. This hypothetical type of black hole has significantly less mass than the supermassive black holes found in galactic centres, which can have billions of times the mass of the Sun, but have a good deal more mass than the black holes formed when giant stars collapse. A version of this image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Judy Schmidt.

This was running in the back of my mind as I pulled out the telescope from the basement.

I don’t think that I had ever properly learned how to use it, but the question and curiosity from my child stirred something. I want to see the rings of Saturn with my own eyes, just as I want to stop and look a little closer at the rock outcrop that we pass by without a thought.

Children are curious creatures: the world is new and wondrous to see for the first time, and we owe it to ourselves to do more than dismissing the question: “what is that?”, and explore the world with them.

The night sky invites curiosity, and it’s that question that sets us off on our journey, whether it’s a car trip to a new sight to see, or through the lens of a telescope, looking at new worlds.

It’s a good time to bring out the telescope from where it was hiding and put it to work answering those questions.