We make our way up to my Mother’s house in New England most Friday nights. It can be a moderately arduous trip after a long work week when we might rather sit back at home and take in a movie, sleep, or just enjoy each other’s company.
None the less, we go. My Mother is 82 and lives alone. My kids live nearby with their Mother and Step Father. We stay connected.
Kristin usually drives. As we make our way north and farther away from urban skies, I often look up and check on the sky. There are few stars visible in Manhattan.
When we arrive at my Mother’s, it is typically quite late. She also bathes the entire yard in flood lights. None the less, I have to spend at least a few minutes looking skyward if it isn’t completely cloudy. I sheild my eyes from the lights as I make out whatever familiar constellations or planets I can.
I’ve been captivated by the night sky since I was a little boy. I can remember looking up at night and seeing a full blanket of starts filling the night sky from horizon to horizon—the faint colorful ribbon of the Milky Way stretching above.
My Mother lives not far from that place where I grew up—but sadly much of that dark sky is gone. Light pollution from urban areas to the north and west, and to some extent the east, have made dark skies like the ones I remember just a memory. But on a good night, you can get some wonderful views over head down to about thirty degrees, and down as far as the tree tops will let you in the south-east to south-west.
This past Friday, the sky was nothing short of magnificent. I stepped out of the car and was dumbfounded. I can’t express the feeling I have when I look up at the sky and have such a breath-taking view.
There was no moon, it had set hours previously. There were no clouds in the sky. Thousands of stars were visible in nearly all but the most light-polluted directions.
I told my wife that no self-respecting sky-gazer could let such a night go by without some viewing. So I went to the garage and dragged out my 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and set it up in the drive way.
I’ve been an astronomy buff for a while. I don’t have much opportunity living in the City—so a night like the past Friday was particularly exciting. I first pointed my telescope at the Orion Nebula. This is perhaps the easiest object to find in the sky and one of the most impressive. The first time I ever saw it was through a cheap department store telescope and it was still amazing. All you really need are a good set of binoculars. Binouculars are a much overlooked astronomical accessory and every beginning astronomer should start looking at the sky with binoculars.
So I pointed my Telrad sight at the second ‘star’ down in Orion’s sword. As I focused, the most beautiful and stunning sight filled my eye piece. I’ve looked at the nebula in Orion dozens of times. But Friday, has to be the most stunning I’ve ever seen it.
My eyepiece was filled with the green glow that all deep sky objects have when viewed through the telescope. (the colors only come with long photographic exposures or artificial processing). The wispy green ends of the nebula stretched out like lime-flavored cotton candy. Hot bright stars shined fiercely in the middle, like precious, un-reachable diamonds. All of this display contrasted against a black velvet sky. It was the first time any object other than perhaps the moon has been too big to encompass in my widest eye-piece. The wispy green web-like strands seemed to flow out forever.
I began to notice an ever loudening chourus of coyotes in the background. First one would howl, than another would answer. Then another would answer, than even more. At one point, it was so loud I was sure our two small dogs were going to start barking in the house. It was an eery haunting sonic backdrop to my stellar voyage.
Next I pointed my telescope up to Mars, which was particularly bright and orange. There was a lot of shimmering going on and I had trouble focusing my all-manual telescope. The sky wasn’t so still, but Mars was a beautiful orange disk with just a hint of polar cap as usual.
I next turned my telescope over toward Andromeda. Andromeda is a tough one for me strangely. Andromeda is one of the brightest deep sky objects in the Northern Hemisphere, and one of the largest. It is also the largest and brightest galaxy visible from the Earth. None the less, it gives me a lot of trouble.
I don’t use a computer controlled telescope. It might save me a lot of time, but I enjoy the challenge of mapping things out, holding up my thumb and pinky to map out ten degrees—finding a nebula or galaxy that I know lies within a few degrees of a given star, or halfway between one star another…
Andromeda is ‘easy’ because Cassiopeia, the constellation points right to it… more or less. The Andromeda galaxy hangs off one arm of the Andromeda constellation.
The tough part is that Andromeda is usually in a not so great part of the sky for me. It is either too low, or completely drowned out in artificial backwash from man-made light reflecting off the sky.
I still managed to find it on Friday. It was in the west-southwest up just high enough that I could catch it. There was still some artificial twilight to contend with, but I got to look at it. It’s 2.5 million year old light was bouncing off my retina.
I went inside and put my gear away after many hours. The next day was a struggle due to the lack of sleep – but it was so wonderful. A most magical night.
–Orion Nebula photo courtesy of: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team