Coming to the Wild Point of View

Amateur astronomers standby telescopes waiting for dark

Observers set up equipment in the last light of day, then wait for dark

Cool desert evening. Clear sky. Sun crossed the horizon a few minutes ago as my friend, Bob, and I head towards the Snake River south of Boise, Idaho. The Owyhee mountains stretch across the horizon before us. Around us flat rolling grassland slowly descends to the river, but just a mile short we arrive at Dedication Point—a ubiquitous dessert historical site complete with parking area, restroom, intense quiet, unobstructed view in every direction, and, most importantly, the promise of dark sky.

The Boise Astronomical Society gathers here tonight. Taking advantage of waning light, members set up a dozen telescopes of every variety—refractors with big lenses, reflectors with big mirrors, and Schmidt-Cassegrains with both. Some have fancy cameras attached. Many sport computerized, GPS guided drives. Enter the name of a planet, star, comet, or galaxy and the scope automatically points to it.

The Planet Saturn

The Planet Saturn

Night overtakes dusk. Birds bed down. Tiny red lights snap on at scope controls. Then, one by one, jewels join a growing panoply above. First the planets Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Then the brighter stars, Vega, Altair, and Deneb. After that, Polaris (the North Star) in the Little Dipper. And Mizar along with its companion, Alcor (in the Big Dipper’s handle). Soon hundreds more join.

The Milky Way

What we call ‘The Milky Way’ is actually our home galaxy seen edge-on.

Finally, the crown of Earth’s night sky stretches up from the southwest, arcing high overhead near the zenith, then descends to the far horizon in the northeast. The Milky Way (our galaxy viewed edge-on) shines. The multitude of stars, a thick river of diamond dust, reveal themselves to even unaided eyes. Through binoculars and telescopes, they multiply unimaginably. Always more. Always deeper. Vibrant, alive, flashing rich color—white, blue, orange, green, yellow, pink, and red. Here, far from city and town, we find wild sky, seen as it was created to be seen, naked and unashamed.

Conversation softens, hushed, almost reverent. A voice in the darkness offers, “I’ve got M13, the globular cluster in Hercules in the scope. Who wants to see it before I move on?”

The Ring Nebula, M57

The Ring Nebula (M57) created when a star exploded.

Another says, “Here’s the Ring Nebula, M57.”

Someone else explains the intricacies of astrophotography as he captures an image, while his neighbor talks of the lesson he’s preparing for his 7th-grade class. Mat moves from scope to scope answering beginner’s questions, and also relays the site’s geographic coordinates to a member who’s alignment computer is acting up. Bob shows M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, to two sisters. He volunteers for the astronomical society’s events orienting all comers with clear, patient sky tours. (For more info about our own galaxy, see this excellent article, What Is the Milky Way)

The Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is the Milky Way’s nearest neighbor.

The eclectic member and guest mix bumps about in the dark for one reason—stand awed, even mesmerized by an immense, complex universe. Eventually, all understand one thing. Day or night, cloudy or bright, city or field, seen or not, remembered or not, believed or not, we are immersed in a creation that continually pours out light, that never stops speaking, that always restores a true perspective.

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