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21. 5. 2024

About Comets, the Universe, and Everything

Have you ever wondered how many stars there are in the universe? If the universe can influence our lives and how, or whether someone is watching us from it? Petr Michalík, a programmer by trade and astronomer by heart and soul, certainly has. We interrupted his work for a while on the latest technological innovations in Česká spořitelna and BankID, which he even founded, and which is based at DOCK IN TWO, and discussed with him what it was like to look at the sky and see miracles.

Since childhood, astronomy has been your biggest hobby. It’s not a very common hobby. How did you become interested in it?

We had astronomers among family friends, so I’d heard about it before. One day, my brother and I went to the planetarium for a children’s lecture, and we were blown away by it. Then I got into it on my own, buying my first telescope, freaking our parents out by going out alone at night to observe the stars... (laughs) Gradually, other interests filtered in such as electronics or programming, by which I make my living today. As a result, I was able to build or modify a lot of astronomical equipment. I still do this because a lot of it is expensive or unavailable.

You mentioned that you work in IT. Can astronomy as a hobby benefit IT and vice versa?

To tell you the truth, most astronomers I know are into programming. Without this and a basic knowledge of technology, you will not be able to observe the sky. Every astronomer has already created some algorithm, and even from their impulses, a lot of specialized software is created, on whose development they then cooperate with professional programmers. Tycho Brahe already knew that interdisciplinary cooperation was vital – he sent the mathematician Kepler his observations, who in turn used them to verify his own calculations. A fine example of symbiosis. Astronomy is an incredibly broad field; one can be a practitioner and walk around with a telescope outside, or a theorist, like an astrophysicist, who mainly sits at a computer and writes formulas. And this also applies to amateurs, whose ranks have gradually expanded with the availability of technology. I am also impressed by what kind of equipment they have available today.

How would you explain the concept of astronomy to people who do not know what exactly it is, or perhaps confuse it with astrology?

Astronomy is a natural science about the universe, about everything from roughly 100 km above the Earth. As a planet, Earth is also part of the universe, but it is dealt with in myriad other fields, so the rest is left to astronomy. Astronomy is divided into other sub-disciplines, which are devoted to stars, planets, exoplanets (those outside our solar system, meaning planets of stars other than our Sun)... The Czech Astronomical Society, a voluntary organization of which I am a member, is also divided into similar sections. The largest and most popular section is the visual observations section, headquartered at the Štefánik Observatory. Other sections are devoted to variable stars or interplanetary matter – this is “my” section, and we can include everything that is between planets: asteroids, comets, meteors... comets have intrigued me since childhood. They are quite traceable, but at the same time, you can still discover something new about them. If we now turn the telescope to the sky, we’ll find about 20 of them. We just need the equipment to see them, and the knowledge and calculations to even find them at all. They are small bodies, clusters of stones, ice and the like, and they are also unpredictable. There are hundreds of thousands of them around our solar system. Every once in a while, something happens that causes the comet to just pick up and shoot off somewhere completely different, maybe around the Sun. If it survives the orbit around it, i.e. it does not melt, it flies on. It can come back, its trajectory changes in various ways... And all this can be observed. Whereas for the planets we know, even for larger asteroids, it is all calculated, we can determine with accuracy to mere millimeters where they will be and when. This changes with comets. Until recently, practically only amateur observers supported the professional public. No one can afford a multi-billion-dollar telescope at the tip of a Hawaiian volcano to spy on a single comet for weeks. But amateurs, given that they have the mood and time, take the measurements and write them down in the tables. And imagine that tens of thousands of people around the world are doing it, not just one observatory...

Does the Czech Astronomical Society bring these observers together?

Everything is on a voluntary basis. No one compels me to send the results anywhere, but when I start freezing at the telescope, I think about coming back inside and sharing them... (laughs) And writing them down is a small thing. In the past, there was even a pretty decent chance that if you were the first to document something like this, thus discovering it, the space object would be named after you. Many Czechoslovaks have a comet named after them. They devoted themselves to it tremendously, for example, at Štrbské Pleso in Slovakia. Sometimes people’s hard work really surprises me. Some people make observing the sky their life’s mission. One person exemplifying this is Mr. Ikeya in Japan, who built a completely simple telescope in his garden for a few dollars and watches the sky every night. He has already discovered five comets and contributed to the discovery of eight others. Lacking expensive equipment, he just observes…Of course, he has a great talent for observation– when you look into a telescope, you see thousands of dots and he can come the next day and tell for himself what has just moved where. And then he sits down to the tables and calculates that it is actually a new comet about which no one yet knows… Mr. Ikeya is a phenomenon.

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If I also wanted to have a bearer of my name in space, a new comet, what is the probability that I would discover it?

You have just as much a chance as anyone else. One way of looking at it is that the probability increases with the number of your observations, but at the same time, if it happens it might come down to a total coincidence. Maybe you take a picture of a nebula or a galaxy and all of a sudden you look – and wow, here’s a supernova… (laughs) A supernova is one of the life stages of stars, and in simple terms, it means an exploding star. Most often, some small unobservable star from another galaxy begins to collapse, involving a violent and powerful explosion with a huge flash, and a new star is formed. At the time of Kepler, there was one such nova in the sky, from which we can now see only illuminated dust, a nebula. Previously, it was so bright it was visible even in the daytime. An entire astronomical section is devoted to such variable stars, which can predict that the star will have a problem and soon explode – but here, “soon” means perhaps a thousand years.

Do astronomers now expect any significant observable event?

Numerous astronomical projects are about waiting for some discoveries to be verified, most often concerning exoplanets (planets of other stars). Previously, we were left to observe the star, whether it would fade for a moment or not – where the fading meant that something had passed between us and the star. According to the length of the “eclipse”, thanks to Kepler’s laws, it is possible to calculate how large the asteroid is, how far it orbits from the star, and so on. Today, we can see it all better thanks to the James Webb Telescope, which is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, but there are still a lot of projects about patience. The astronomer waits at a telescope or scanning device at the time when, according to his calculations, a star is to extinguish. If it happens, his calculations have been proven correct. Then it involves waiting for predicted things from our solar system. For example, the return of a comet or something calculated long in advance like a solar or lunar eclipse. By the way, this year 2024 we are facing two solar eclipses: a total eclipse on April 8 across North America, and (for me), a more interesting annular eclipse on October 2. This can only be observed in the Pacific and the southernmost tip of South America. Witnessing it entails a trip to Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Argentina... Astronomers often go for an interesting event. It may not only be a solar eclipse, but also the passage of an asteroid past a star. This is such a small phenomenon that even my position on Earth determines whether I will see it or not. The belt from which a particular phenomenon can be seen is narrow.

Can we expect something similarly unique in the Czech skies in the near future?

Probably not anything too spectacular, but at the moment, Jupiter is extremely bright. If you have even just a small telescope, you can turn to it, and you will definitely see something surprising. Venus is something similar. In June, there will be the meteor shower Alpha Aquarid...the remnant of Halley’s comet – when the comet passes through the solar system, it leaves a lot of “junk”, and this is a nice sight for us. If you want to see a comet unobservable to the naked eye really well, it requires a visit to the Štefánik Observatory and convincing them to zoom the telescope in on it... It might not take too long to persuade them....they like to do it. (laughs)

Could you recommend the astronomical novice a place to go for a breathtaking spectacle? Let’s say there’s no financial limit.

Great places for this are in dry deserts, such as the Kalahari in Botswana or Namibia. There you will experience an amazing wow effect. What we usually admire only in beautiful photos in terms of color or details, we can see there with the naked eye. It’s a spectacular experience. It is similar in South America, for example in Patagonia or Chile, in the mountains, up in the Andes. Barring any terrible power outage, Europe can’t offer this. Our civilization and light pollution are basically destroying the possibility of observing something properly in the universe. Technology can suppress it to some extent, but it still doesn’t replace the experience when you just look up, and there it is… It captivates your heart. Botswana, for example, is a plateau, so it is still more than 1,000 meters higher than the Sahara. It is characterized by dry air and greater cold, which improves the observation conditions even more. The ideal time to visit is June, July and August, when the southern hemisphere is in winter. Although the nights are longer at that time, which can complicate travel, the clear air reveals beauties that one rarely sees anywhere else on Earth.

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Which astronomical experience do you consider your best?

In terms of observation, for example, the journey through the Kalahari, when it was just my brother and I, was absolutely unreal. It was a month-long expedition, on which we set ourselves the goal of driving crossing the barren land, and we took almost no technical equipment with us. Still, it was an amazing experience for me. We didn’t set any fires at night, we didn’t turn on the lights, we just sat and watched. Even with just a camera in hand, we took some amazing photos... Then we made a slightly better-planned trip to South America. I wanted to explore the constellations I had only read about until then. We also studied objects in deep space, whether they were small galaxies or part of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, which is mostly hidden under the horizon for us.

Do you still have any astronomical goals?

Sure, I’d like to return to South America, but this time with better technology affording even more thorough observation. In general, I love traveling, which I always like to combine with some other interest. For example, Africa has been close to my heart since I was a kid. I read about it, watched movies and my brother and I originally planned not only an astronomical expedition, but we were also inspired by the travelogue of explorer Emil Holub. We wanted to follow the same route and visit the same places he did, exploring the locations he described in his diary and comparing them to what they look like today.

Let’s say that our conversation captivates and inspires readers so much that they want to devote their time to astronomy. What gear would you recommend for them to start with?

Most of the time, astronomy is associated with binoculars, so it’s a good idea to get a decent pair. (laughs) I would recommend listening to the advice of experts who sell them, as they usually guide you well. It is key not to get discouraged by not seeing through a telescope all that you see in beautiful photographs in magazines. The naked eye is always slightly worse than using a camcorder or camera; the human eye cannot do as much. The camera can stay open for 4 hours for long exposures and fold light into gorgeous color photos. A thousand-dollar all-purpose telescope is enough to get you started, and it’s definitely cheaper than the computer you need, too; and those are the essentials. Then it is important to ask yourself what interests you. I would start by observing the Moon, an object that attracts many astronomers. When a person frees himself from wanting to see a full moon that tells him nothing, because it is like looking into a lamp, and instead looks at the crescent moon where there is a shadow that divides the illuminated and dark surface, the structure of craters... his reward is simply breathtaking. Even observation with a smaller telescope can excite. Moreover, there are other planets on which a lot of things can be seen, and then the objects of deep space begin, which are great, but it is better to work up to them gradually. They may be difficult to find at first. For basic orientation, constellations were created, according to which the objects that belong to them are also named. You can go to a bookstore and buy a map of the starry sky; newer versions will even show you how to search for objects in the sky. Then, when you start to look up at the sky, you gradually remember what the constellations look like and how they are composed, and you begin to orient yourself. The brightest is probably the Big Dipper, which everybody knows. And let’s say for example that if a planetary nebula is to be halfway between this and that constellation, we simply try to point a telescope there, and with a little patience we can find it. It may lead to a person discovering he is talented in this, such as in the case of Mr. Ikeya.

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Astronomy versus astrology – how do you perceive it as an astronomer?

It is just a persistent little argument over nothing. Unfortunately, astrology has no basis in scientific evidence, which is why the scientific community, which relies on astronomy, looks at it rather dismissively. On the other hand, I think that the universe, that is, distant nature, affects us just like the near, terrestrial one. For example, now in January, our planet was closest to the Sun. And this is something that just has to affect us, humanity living on this planet. Gravitational forces affect us more strongly and certainly have a subliminal effect on our lives. Were this not to happen or if a shift in time occurs, various life cycles may be utterly different. Or take for instance the tides – the fact that the Moon revolves around us affects the entire ocean. Without it, half of life would begin to die out in it, because life there relies on oceanic, tidal movement... The universe is full of interactions. Nothing is static and nothing happens in vain. Were I to climb beyond the limits of the atmosphere or magnetosphere that protects us from sunlight, I would find myself in a very hostile environment indeed. Not only will one half of my body suffer from blistering cold as the other half heats up to a hundred degrees, but I will also be exposed to X-rays. If anything penetrates our earthly protection zone a little more, the ensuing changes will be beyond astonishing. And these are just ordinary particles. If we took, for example, neutrinos that fly through a star and the solar system without problems, the probability is calculated that once in our lifetime, one will die in us. And what will it do to our organism? Maybe it will damage a cell and we will develop cancer despite having lived a healthy life until then. These are influences that we do not know at all, and then there are influences that we prefer not to admit, like when we talk about supernovas. This is such a powerful explosion that if one of those closer stars – and we have a few around us – were to explode, it could cause the extinction of life. These are things that the universe can surprise us with, and we are completely powerless against them. For example, the Sun: now it is about halfway through its lifetime, it has five billion years behind it and five billion ahead of it. Then it will probably turn into a red giant – it will inflate, gradually cool and fade (its color will change to red) and ultimately explode. But by then, life here will have long been wiped out. As far as we are concerned however, although it is a stable star for us for now, it does have its cycles. Once every 19 years, it switches from an active to a more passive cycle, emitting a little more or less energy, which can be reflected in a change in temperature or increased sunspot activity. This can also affect us humans. And this is one of the phenomena that we can observe this year. For example, even in the Czech Republic we may see the aurora borealis; this year, conditions to see it will be quite favorable here. This is only due to the fact that the Sun is now in a more active phase. It’s something we have no control over. We may wonder how we are going to stop global warming, but if, for example, the Sun were to suddenly decide to shine one percent more intensely, it would simply fry us, and that would be that. Most of these large phenomena have a long duration, they are enormous objects, and it takes time for something to change...

Are we now at imminent risk from space?

What may threaten humanity at the moment is Earth’s potential collision with an object that orbits in our solar system, i.e. the impact of large meteorites, comets... This is one of the topics that amateur astronomers deal with a lot, and their observations help to predict these things well in advance and, if necessary, to prepare for it somehow. However, as humans, we are just about powerless. The only option is to pick up the phone and call Bruce Willis... (laughs) There actually are several ongoing projects dedicated to defending our planet from such threats. One is called DART, and they are generally performing experiments on how to avert such a catastrophe. Some of the methods are, for example, bombardment or the use of a gravity tractor, where some rather heavy object would be sent to the dangerous one and began to orbit it, thereby deflecting it from its path. If such a thing was done well in advance, then at those huge cosmic distances, it can really mean that the object will then pass us by as a near hit. But it requires joining forces and really building something like that. At the same time, we need to accurately predict events. Observations are terribly crucial for us.

Is enough money being invested in such vital astronomical projects and research?

No, actually, or at least not yet. It is also starting to be interesting and lucrative, but it is actually purely science-based so far. As soon as a scientist deems it appropriate that she wants to research something, a grant or project is created, usually with the backing of a government. The government may in turn contact the respective space agency, but this is the only chance. There is no entity that regularly deals with this. We will see, because for us humans, it is unimaginable so far. We are calm here, at most a piece of ice falls on our head... (laughs) But then there will be moments, such as in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, when a meteorite fell there. The city of a hundred thousand suffered damage to thousands of homes and several people were injured mainly by the pressure wave. You could see the devastation it could wreak. If something like this happened over New York or Prague and landed right in the city center instead of a lake just outside the city, it would have devastating consequences.

What’s your feeling as an astronomer when you find out that a meteorite has fallen somewhere?

Of course, I am interested in it from the professional perspective – where it came from, if it was an asteroid, a comet – from what particular shower... just...its origin. Quite often, bolides fall on us; these are the relatively large meteorites that can get some space material to Earth. It happens every now and then. Every year, up to 40,000 tons of material from space fall to us, from small dust to larger pieces, which fortunately mostly fall into uninhabited areas. If something like this happens in our country, a few enthusiasts calculate the path, the given zone where fragments might have accumulated, and they go search for them. I know one such enthusiast who was able to find something at a calculated spot after three years of searching. So if I found out that a meteorite had landed somewhere nearby, I would at least go and check it out.

How do you know if what you found in the forest is an ordinary stone or a meteorite?

Of course, there are many types; in short, you could say that they are either iron or stone. An iron meteorite can be recognized almost at first glance as a molten something; if it is cut, it will be shiny. Even so, of course, it can also be remnants of some metallurgical waste, but it can also be chemically assessed. Stone meteorites can be determined visually and by cross-section. Anyone who knows them knows. Some astronomers have a microscope to look more closely. And then there are specific meteorites, pallasites, which are conglomerates of iron and stone; they make up less than 1% of meteorites, they are rare, even if they are larger.

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What space objects do you have at home?

I have a few meteorites exchanged between friends, some I even bought. Equipment takes up most of the space, but I managed to solve it. To keep from crowding my wife at home with things, I built an observatory next to the house. (laughs) It doesn’t have a dome, but a retractable roof, which is more practical. It is my special place, and I can be there even in winter... We cannot say in general that observers are veritable comfort lovers. Being up at night in the freezing cold, maintaining an attention span while watching some dot in the sky, it’s not easy.

What about your children? Will they, like you, also become astronomers?

I wouldn’t call them astronomers yet, but sometimes some of the children come to my little observatory to watch with me. And our youngest comes to me to tell him about the universe instead of fairy tales...

Are there any motivational astronomical activities in the Czech Republic, maybe not only for children?

There are astronomical camps and activities of the Štefánik Observatory, as well as other observatories or planetariums. It is also possible to order an astronomical lecture for a camp or other larger gathering, during which children can learn what can be seen in the sky. This kind of enlightenment is advanced here; the mere fact that we have two planetariums in the Czech Republic is a great thing... Similar practice is also widespread in the world. In North America, the community of astronomers is huge, and despite generally having the money, the results of their amateur astronomers may not be as impressive as those in other parts of the world, such as Poland or Asia. In any case, regarding education, it works in such a way that even in communities where the sky is nearly invisible, take New York for example, a telescope is built at the intersection and people are told: “Come and see how interesting the universe is.” Clearly visible objects such as planets can thrill even there.

What is the function of the Czech Astronomical Society?

Membership is voluntary; pay the fee and you’re a member, and then it’s up to you: you choose what you want to do and how actively you will participate. You can be a passive info-gatherer, join in on meetings or take part in preparing lectures for colleagues and organizing events. In total, the Czech Astronomical Society has about 700 members, and astronomy novices can easily become members first, and then gradually find inspiration in existing activities.

Space is a highly active place. I believe that many of us have thought about the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations before. What do you think?

I think that going by statistics alone, there has to be something out there. Imagine that we are in a galaxy, which is in a cluster of other galaxies and there are a frightening, unimaginable number of stars in them. If I took only those that are alone and are in an active developmental stage, and around them one or two planets in the habitable zone, such planets outnumber the grains of sand on the world’s beaches. Even if most of them were dead and there were only one percent habitable, it is still a gob-smacking amount where life could exist. But the universe is vast, and those distances separate us greatly, at least from our point of view and the way we are used to traveling. In addition, the ordinary person’s way of thinking about the universe is visually oriented – we say to ourselves: this is what we see, this is the universe. But from the physics and quantum mechanics perspective, it may also be that there are multiple universes, and this alone is usually beyond our comprehension. I say that there can be as many as there are particles, and that is unfathomable. So I think there’s a 100% chance that there’s life out there.

How do you imagine an extraterrestrial civilization? Like ours?

As people, we are influenced by what affects us, most often films, books; this is simply rooted in us. Most of us imagine it, and so do I. I think that ultimately, we will be shocked and what we discover will be incomprehensible to us. Although the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial life is high, due to the huge distances, we may never know what it is like. Various activities are underway, where we try to capture signals and derive the existence of civilizations from them, but even our own signals traveling through space can be double-edged. We might just draw the attention of someone who wants to explore our planet rather than us as individuals. There is no confirmed information yet. NASA runs the SETI project, which investigates the manifestations of extraterrestrial life; hopeful signals have been picked up, but counter-arguments have always been found to refute them. Nothing is certain for now. Of course, there are various conspiracy theories about whether someone has already noticed something and concealed it... But I’m just ready every day to learn something new.

Thank you for the interview.

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