People have asked me if I have a specific object or two in mind when preparing for a night under the stars. Sometimes. But usually, whatever plan I begin with quickly falls apart and I wind up looking here and there without any focus. The funny thing is that the viewing is always better that way; serendipitous stargazing always seems to lead to something better than I would have otherwise seen. If only that were true everywhere.
During the first week in October I went “home” to New Jersey for a family event. Three generations of us piled into a beach rental not far from where my wife and I grew up. Everything was great, except the stargazing. It was basically nonexistent.
Family and friends I hadn’t seen in years marveled at my description of what can be seen from Patagonia after sunset. “You’re so lucky,” they said, remarking that they had to travel quite a distance to reach a dark location. It was a sad thing to hear. Among the toughest things about moving from New Jersey to Arizona were losing the smell of the ocean, the fresh seafood, and the waffle and ice cream sandwiches. But, regarding the opportunity to admire the stars, we clearly have gained so much.
That’s why, this month, I encourage you to do two things. First, do what you can to limit light pollution. We have a gift here that many have forever lost. Then, just take in the whole sky. It’s a treasure that is well worth protecting. Start with that wide-angle view of the heavens and see where it takes you.
For most of November, early in the evening, the Milky Way stretches across the sky almost perfectly east to west and almost perfectly overhead. So many wonderful objects inside its irregular borders. And yet, forgetting the individual gems and settling for its totality is, at least for me, equally satisfying. Any type of magnification zooms past such objects as the magnificent star Capella, the Perseus star clusters and the Summer Triangle of Deneb, Vega and Altair and sends you deep into the galaxy beyond.
Binoculars and even the smallest telescope bring out the haze of the Milky Way, the light from some of the billions of stars that orbit a shared, common black hole. If I’m amazed at the beauty of the Albireo double star at the bottom of the Northern Cross, I’m completely lost for words at the seeming infinity of the mass of stars of which Albireo is but just one member.
So, wander a bit. Enjoy the singular and the full expanse and, at the end of the evening, ask yourself where your journey has led you, for no matter how often I look, something new is always found. And, inevitably, what I find is not out there among the stars but, rather, within me.
During my New Jersey trip I visited Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty for just the second time. I sat on the same benches where my then five-year-old father sat in 1922, an immigrant from a place that didn’t want him. I put my hand to his name, etched in the wall outside the main building, and pondered how a horribly violent twist and turn of life brought him first to the New York City harbor and, after WWII, to New Jersey where, many years later, my interest in astronomy was born.
Every star I see reminds me of every step leading to this moment where, thankfully, the skies are still dark and where, also thankfully, I have not been forced from my home. Every time I look at the stars, I learn to be more appreciative for these things that I have and mindful of those who have not been, or are not now, so fortunate.