Looking Up: Wonders await your eyes the next clear night

Peter Becker

Oh, the joy of seeing the friendly stars. Unlike many other hobbies, enjoying the stars never takes up a vast amount of time. This is not because of a lack of interest; rather that unless you live in the dry Southwest, you likely have more cloudy nights than clear.

The other night broke clear and full of stars. There wasn’t ample time, however, to set up the telescope and spend even a good hour searching the universe from my deck. Nevertheless, I had a few minutes, just enough time to span across the millions of miles of the solar system and the thousands of lights years among the stars visible to my eyes.

Note: You will need a few minutes to allow your eyes to begin to be adapted to the dark. If practical, have the lights low inside before you step out, and stay away from a brightened window once outside.

I could imagine the vast swarm of galaxies that occupy the spring sky invisible to unaided eyes. Many are in reach of my telescope that for now waited inside, its open end meant to collect starlight but covered to keep out dust.

Before me as I faced south, reaching upward to the zenith, were the large spring constellations Virgo the Virgin, with its sparking blue-white star Spica in its lead, and the kite-shaped constellation Bootes the Herdsman, marked by its prominent, orange star Arcturus. I knew that beyond these stars lay this incredibly large field of galaxies, traveling space in a super-cluster of mutual gravitation and cosmic affection, no doubt.

For now I was content just knowing they are there, waiting for someone to see them. The view of stars before you come in layers; first is what you behold with the unaided eyes, what mankind has enjoyed from Day One (make that, Night One).

It was not until 1609 that the next layer began to unfold, as Galileo trained his telescope to the night sky. A very small instrument by our modern expectations, his crude telescope opened a whole new cosmos of understanding and depth. Thousands more stars could now be seen, which before had lain undetected or locked in the haze of the mysterious Milky Way Band.

With progressively bigger telescopes, you can see fainter and fainter stars, as layers of magnitude peel back. Exponentially, the number of stars explodes to the millions and billions available to your eye at the lens, or a camera mounted on the telescope.

With eyes alone, I traced out the wonderful constellations that have followed our seasons  since our time began on the Earth. Like faithful friends, the likes of Hercules the Strong Man, Ursa Major the Big Bear, or Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs, keep coming back. A telescope wouldn’t work at all, to appreciate the constellations.

I didn’t need even binoculars to behold the beautiful pairing of Mars and Regulus, in the southwest that night. Did any of you see it? The bright reddish planet Mars was within a couple degrees above the bright bluish-white star, making a stunning duet. Binoculars would have served only to widen the pair and lessen the effect.

Not that evening, but many times before I have been joyously startled by a meteors streaking across the heavens, sometimes leaving a thin gray trail that vanishes in a second or less. If you keep watching, on any night you will see satellites circling our globe above our blanket of air. On very rare nights, I have been treated to the marvels of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.

All this without even a telescope or binoculars. All you need is one of those clear nights that seem so scarce. Follow the weather reports or just peek outside and see if the clouds have parted. It will be worth your time; without a passport or spending a dime, you will take a trip far beyond your backyard and back again, in time to make your sleep that night all the more sweet.

New Moon is on June 12.

Peter Becker writes for the News Eagle. His new e-mail address is news@neagle.com.