3:00 a.m. simply doesn’t exist for some people. It’s an obscene time of day to roll out of bed, for those who have to. Even among “dedicated” amateur astronomers, it isn’t a natural act, to get out from under those warm blankets, don long johns, three layers of clothing-we’re talking January/February mornings here-cook a Thermos of coffee, and Go Out Somewhere.
So why do I do it?
I ask myself that very question, every time I do an early morning observing session. And when I get out to one of my sites, I have my answer.
There is a palpable difference between after-dusk and pre-dawn observing. For one thing, the utter tranquility, during the wee hours of the morning, is beyond describing. I have a favorite place, about a hundred feet off a county road, twenty minutes from my house. Virtually no traffic at 4:00 a.m. (imagine that). Very few, if any, beer or cigarette runs. Even the indigenous life has bedded down. I can truly say there hasn’t been a single occasion (other than when it clouds or fogs up, ten minutes after I get the scope assembled on site-yes, it happens) where I have regretted getting up so early, even on a cold morning. The ethereal quiet has to be experienced. Words fail.
Another reason for my insanity is that you get to take in those “out of season” constellations. The Sagittarius/Scorpio region “crests” evenings, late August/early September…or mornings, late March/early April. Ditto Orion (early mornings, September/October; evenings, February/March). Our planet’s night-time hemisphere is facing a totally different panorama of distant star groups, dovetailing with both equinoxes and solstices.
So if I could get out at a “civilized” time, viewing the same constellations, why do I engage in something that is borderline masochistic, getting up during those uncivilized hours of the morning, to see the same panorama?
You could make the argument too that, all other inconvenience aside, it means a finite time for observing: dawn’s coming, after all. But that’s part of the experience for me. I don’t have to worry about having lost track of time. It begins to get light! Interestingly, the first harbinger of encroaching dawn is invariably birdsong. How they know, I don’t have a clue. Birds don’t sport watches or smartphones. They just know.
Another reason is simply the region of the country where my wife and I live: in the Deep South, the climate is oppressive, mid-May through mid-September. It doesn’t get fully dark till about 9:00 p.m., a month before and following the Summer Solstice (June 21st/22nd). The humidity and temperature aren’t conducive to stargazing. Swatting at gnats & mosquitos, juxtaposed between wiping sweat from the brow, isn’t my idea of fun. An apt analogy would be that of strolling along a beach, accompanied by a wind chill of thirty degrees! What would be the point?
All of the above rationale, though, doesn’t stop the occasional arched eyebrow from my wife, as I’m dragging in around 6:00 a.m. A few more of these occasions, and she’ll have the guys with the butterfly nets haul me away.
Anyway. I decided to do a little time-lapse video, last time out. I set the video camera, mounted on a tripod, and shot a few seconds, at five-minute intervals, aimed in the general direction I knew the sun would begin coming up.The time span encompassed about an hour and a half. While that takes patience, the end result-a little over six minutes in duration-was pretty nice.
Pre-dawn observing’s not for everyone. But till you’ve seen the vista I have, from a dark site, don’t earmark me for the Looney Bin just yet!
After all, some folks jump out of perfectly sound airplanes…or huddle in a deer stand, zero dark thirty, to scratch their “itch” (in the case of the latter, they can’t even talk to themselves, like I do…it keeps those interloping animals away, for sure).
And last but not least: after packing all the gear up, leaving the chair for last, I occasionally pour that final mug of java, sit back, and…well, perhaps the photo below lets the moment speak for itself.
On another occasion, I had my telescope set up just off the walkway between two apartment buildings where I lived. It was late. I’d actually lost track of the time. Saturn was in full bloom, with the rings almost completely open (I was more of a “planet” kind of guy back then, so the lights of the apartment complex didn’t really matter).
I was totally engaged, taking in the pristine view of the ringed planet, when somebody walked up.
“Hey, what’cha looking at?” he asked. “Mind if I take a look?” I told him sure…and that the object really didn’t need an introduction (there is NOTHING as intrinsically satisfying than showing the planet Saturn to somebody for the first time). I guided him to the eyepiece, and he bent over to look.
“@#$!!?*&!?!!” he said.
“Kind of takes your breath away, doesn’t it?” I asked.
“I had pretty much the same reaction, my first time,” I said. I thought he was about to ejaculate another expletive. Then he looked up.
“You’re gonna be here for a few minutes, right?” I assured him I was.
“Not going anywhere, right?” I assured him I wasn’t. He began backing away, also looking toward one of the buildings. “I’ll be right back, okay…not going anywhere, right?” The guy kept looking back at me, as if I were a bubble on the verge of popping. Then he was gone.
I turned back to gaze at Saturn for a few more minutes…then slewed the telescope around to look at something else. Some time passed. Then I heard footsteps, coming closer. Two people this time. And voices, one of them clearly female.
“This had better be good,” she said.
I looked at my watch. After midnight. Wild, unkempt hair, and a pink bathrobe. I mean hair that looked as if it had lost a battle with jumper cables. Dude, what did you do?
And there they were, him looking a little shamefaced, as if realizing that maybe acting impulsively wasn’t such a great idea this time. She looked more than a bit annoyed.
We mumbled introductions-had I told him my name?-and I turned the scope back to Saturn. She bent over, looked.
“Mmmmph. Nice.” She padded away in her bunny slippers, tossing her hair as she went, leaving a wake of silence. He immediately excused himself, thanking me, then off to catch up with her. Presumably some major damage control, but I didn’t see much to salvage.
I’ve often wondered just what The Morning After was like for them. I’m still thinking he must have taken her, the following night, to a restaurant with the manager’s name chisled into the marble flanking the entrance!
I spent some time in the United States Army. My last duty station, Ft. Rucker, Alabama, boasted, among other amenities, a few lakes. One such lake was situated adjacent to an airfield, where a lot of Night Vision Goggle aviation training went on. It was one of my favorite sites to drag a telescope out to, as there were no lights. The attack helicopters would roar overhead occasionally…but again, because of the NVG training, the pilots used no landing lights. This meant that I could observe, my eyes fully dark-adapted, all evening, with only the noise of the aircraft to deal with.
One Saturday night, with no military training going on, I was out with the scope. It was quiet. I mean preternaturally quiet. It was a February evening, cold, and silent. I could hear my ears ringing. An occasional ripple from the lake…the snap of a twig in the nearby woods…but otherwise an ethereal quiet, holding court over the place.
I was taking in a section of the dome, between the constellations of Leo and Virgo. This little part of the sky has a nickname: The Realm of the Galaxies. Far removed from that “curtain” of our Milky Way galaxy, the area represents kind of a “hole” in space: a section where the normally obscuring dust lanes of our “neighborhood” allow us to look out beyond our galaxy, and see other galaxies, some unfathomably distant. “Island” universes, or major cities far, far beyond our home “island.”
These remote “cities” show up as mere ill-defined, gray “blotches” through my telescopes. Forget dazzling spiral arms! These guys look almost like jellyfish, scattered over an incomprehensible ocean. You first see one…then another…and still another…till you realize you’ve counted over a dozen of them. And the distance from us, to one of them? If it takes two grapefruits, placed two thousand miles apart, to illustrate the distance between our sun and Alpha Centauri-the next closest star to us-you’d have to place a watermelon, representing the nearest galaxy outside of our own Milky Way, out beyond Pluto’s orbit, to begin to get a sense of what intergalactic distances really mean…it just beggars description.
I remember, this particular occasion, taking this “group” in, sitting back…and suddenly feeling a sense of utter irrelevance. So completely alone. It lasted a few seconds. And then, seemingly unbidden, a phrase came to mind:
“Yet even the very hairs of your head are numbered…”
That was it. Nothing else.
One other significant thing capped off that Saturday evening: I was just about to pack it in (the eyepieces were getting too cold to handle!). I kept saying to myself, one more…one more celestial morsel…when I heard the footfall behind me.
You’ve heard the phrase, His heart leaped up into his Chest? I can attest to that sensation! I looked up, so cautiously, slowly turning around…and there he was. I say “he” because, dark as it was, I could make out the little buds that would become his antlers! The yearling stood frozen, just as I was. I don’t know how long we held each other, locked in each one’s gaze.
After what seemed like minutes, but probably mere seconds, he turned away, and slowly walked back into the woods.
Bambi knows. He knows what constitutes a “good” scope: one that doesn’t have cross hairs, piggybacked on a rifle!
Happy Hunting (whether that’s a Metaphor for what you do, or literally!),