So Many Attractions, So Little Time!

448(author’s lens)

For most of us in the United States, by now evenings are beginning to have a bit of a chill in the air. That’s thrilling for a couple of reasons, especially for those of us residing in the Deep South: not only does it mean no more wiping sweat from the brow a full hour after sunset, swatting mosquitoes and gnats, but also that dusk is occurring about a minute earlier with each successive night (which of course means more stargazing time!).

There’s good and bad associated with that. Scorpio’s beginning to have a pronounced downward tilt, hanging precariously low in the Southwestern sky after it gets fully dark. Remember that the scorpion hosts the sun during November, so its remaining time on display for 2014 is short. It’s silly, but as much as I cherish Fall, I hate to see these Summer Attractions vanish (Scorpio will be back, however, its singular baleful red eye of Antares hanging low in the pre-dawn Southeastern sky, late February).

Take a quick tour of the aforementioned Sagittarius points of interest mentioned in my previous, recent blog entries…then it’s time to move along. As one “group” of stellar highlights take a dive, another group is coming up: again the night sky is, for my seasoned orbs, the ultimate i-max theater. the show is constantly, albeit incrementally, changing from night to night.

Let’s return to the group of previously overhead constellations that are now positioned high in the western portion of the sky: Cygnus, Aquila and Lyra. If you want to revisit the attractions I last mentioned (The Veil and North American Nebulae), by all means take a quick gander at both. They’re positioned about as nicely as they ever are right now. By that I mean where you can comfortably gaze upward, through a telescope, without unduly craning your neck!

Summer Triangle(internet source)

Next up: slew your scope toward the constellation Lyra (again, I think of it as the “shopping cart”, because that’s exactly what it looks like). Focus on the space between the two stars that define the “front” end of the “cart”. This is where a nice, two or three degree field of view comes in handy, as the object we’re going to hunt down next is a tiny one: the Ring Nebula, or M57, its official designator.

M57, a.k.a. The Ring Nebula

M57, a.k.a. The Ring Nebula (internet source)

This photo is closer to what you can expect to see through a backyard telescope, albeit a “smoky grey” image, versus this color one. Someone might ask, at this juncture, “Then why bother getting out and going through all the hassle, if a black and white image is all we can expect?” I can only answer in that NO photograph can convey the “3D” aspect of gazing through an eyepiece…you have to experience this to appreciate it. Also, you can slew around the object to gain perspective (something no photo can do).

Processed with MaxIm DL(internet source)

Anyway, back to The Ring: this little guy is a planetary nebula, due to its generally round appearance. Higher magnification actually shows it to be oval-shaped, a “smoky”doughnut” against a starry backdrop. The ring shape is more obvious if you employ a technique known as peripheral, or averted, vision. Look away from the nebula, focusing on an adjacent star, and you’ll more easily discern the ring shape.

Again, the common question is always, “Why aren’t these objects in color, like the photographs?” Cameras doing time exposures can gather SO much more light than the color receptors in the human eyeball! That said, an enormous aperture lens or mirror will begin to reveal faint green and even fainter pink hues in the brighter, nearby nebulae…but who can afford one of those observatory-sized instruments, much less have the shelter required to house it?

Full moon, pre-dawn

Full moon, pre-dawn

More to follow…clear skies!

Jesse

Swan Song

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As I’ve alluded to in the previous post, if there’s a singular frustration with the Sagittarius/Scorpio region, it’s that of sheer sensory overload: there’s just so, SO much jam-packed into this celestial real estate that the casual observer cannot do justice to adequate time spent on each “attraction”! Add to that, the section of our galaxy which stretches up beyond the scorpion and the archer/teapot, into the constellations Cygnus (the swan), Lyra (the harp/shopping cart), and Aquila (just the Eagle)…”the hits just keep on coming”.

Not too many years ago, I finally figured out an approach that would keep me from getting frustrated with trying to take all of these showpieces in during one evening:

You can’t.

With Sagittarius and Scorpio now being in “prime position” shortly after dusk, they are on prominent display for about an hour, followed by taking a bow and beginning to set (by early October, they are hanging low in the SW sky shortly after sunset). Enjoy this region hosting the center of our galaxy while you can. Don’t worry about the section of sky overhead…it’ll keep. The archer and the scorpion won’t be positioned like this again in the evening sky until mid-summer, next year.

Next up: Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila.

Venus, aka the evening star, 5/7/12

Venus, aka the evening star, 5/7/12

These denizens were almost directly overhead recently. As goes Sagittarius and Scorpio, the next group takes the stage, still hanging high in the sky, albeit no longer directly overhead, each with its own set of deep sky attractions imbedded: Cygnus hosts the Veil Nebula, the North American Nebula, and is a guidepost to one of the brightest nebulae in the sky, the Dumbbell, in the neighboring constellation of Vulpecula.

Cygnus has a nickname, like a lot of these familiar guys. It’s also called the Northern Cross. Probably because it resembles one. One of its stars, Deneb, makes up one of three bright, first-magnitude stars that comprise the “summer triangle”: Deneb (Cygnus), Altair (Aquila), and Vega (Lyra). More on that trinity shortly.

As you look at the “cross” shape, slewing a telescope to the westernmost “wing” will reveal a ghostly nebulosity that is the major portion of the Veil Nebula. Patience is an enormous asset with this one. It’s relatively faint, and extends over an almost three-degree section of sky. It reminds me of an ancient appendectomy scar…just a ghost of what once happened (a dying star having expended the last of its energy, followed by violently casting off its “shell”). Finding a dark site, and I mean one with absolutely zero lighting, is essential for spotting this elusive gem. But “bagging” this particular quarry is well worth the effort. It’s breathtaking in its beauty.

Slewing your scope upward to the “top” of the cross (the swan’s hind end, actually) will reveal an even less defined, but substantially larger, player: the North American Nebula.
Again, a dark site and dark-adapted eyes are crucial to seeing these attractions in all their, well, nebulous glory. Try to catch this one early in the evening, right after it gets totally dark: under pristine skies, and with your eyes fully dark-adapted, you can actually make out a vague “peninsula” representing Florida, and the “gulf” of Mexico!

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A little accessory called a nebula filter will make these faint gems “jump out” (yes, as is the case with virtually all hobbies, spending a bit of money becomes almost inevitable–but stargazing still beats flying or sailing, folks, any day of the week, in terms of the ratio of cash outlay to what the hobby yields; at least IMHO).

Now slew your instrument down to the “head” of the swan (or foot of the cross). A rather nondescript star, named Albireo, turns into a razor-sharp, beautiful pair; one orange, the other a pale blue…nice contrast! It’s also a welcome departure, at this point, from the “nebulous” objects (we amateur astronomers call ’em the “faint fuzzies”).

I’ll be posting about the other pair of “DSOs” (Deep Sky Objects, remember?) next time.

Till then, enjoy! Jesse

Two Stellar Vistas!

I love this time of year: late Summer, about to yield the floor to Fall. Depending on how intrepid you are (read: willing to burn the candle on both ends!), there are two profoundly different panoramas of stars available right now. The Sagittarius/Scoprpio region (evenings)…and the Orion region (pre-dawn).

This is because Earth’s night hemisphere is pointing toward opposite sides of the galaxy, depending on whether it’s Spring or Fall. Right now, our night time vista is looking out towards the Scorpion and The Archer. Just before dawn, we’re looking back towards The Hunter. During late March/Early April, the scenario is reversed.

I personally love to get up before dawn (I’ve shared my reasons for this particular variety of insanity in earlier posts!). Orion is emerging now, low in the Southeast, just before the sky begins to turn pink with the encroaching dawn. I’ve always associated Orion with crisp, cool mornings (late September-early October) or crisp, cool evenings (late March-early April).

Summer’s Galactic Climax!

Okay. After a shamefully long hiatus, I’m back. Once again, I’m Jesse McGlown, veteran, a student at Troy University…proud father of two fine sons, happily married for almost as long as I’ve been a stargazer (a little over three decades for the former; over four in the case of the latter…).

My intent is to faithfully update this blog at least weekly. There’s a lot Up There, each night, and especially so this time of year (see below!). I’ll do my best to keep up with all of the “attractions” on display each evening.

Okay! Let’s get to it.

It’s late August, and we’re right smack in the middle of the Dog Days of Summer: heat, humidity (if, like me, you’re situated in the Deep South!), bugs, torrential afternoon thunderstorms, more heat, muggy conditions, etc…yet arguable the finest celestial show visible from Earth is in prime position, an hour after sunset, facing the southern horizon. The constellations of Scorpio and Sagittarius are well placed, prominently on display to our South. These two constellations play host to the very center of our Milky Way galaxy, as it weaves its way almost exactly between the the archer and the scorpion.

And these two Summer Denizens happen to host a LOT. We’re talking sensory overload! Where to begin?

Perhaps a great attraction for openers is the Lagoon Nebula (its Messier Object designator is M8). It couldn’t be easier to locate, as it’s the only object visible to the unaided eye…if you can see the “teapot” asterism of Sagittarius, the bright nebula seems to be a, well, nebulous patch, almost like the “steam” emanating from the “spout”. Even a modest telescope reveals this object to be much, much more. Second only to the Orion Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula warrants some serious scrutiny…upon first glance, it seems to be comprised of two major components: the hazy nebulosity itself, complemented by a nice, contrasting open cluster of razor-sharp stars opposite the “cloud”. If you have the luxury of a wide, two-degree field of view, your telescopic vista will also encompass the neighboring Trifid Nebula (M20), heading a beautiful arc of a half-dozen stars.

Let’s focus on the Lagoon for the moment. Upon switching to a higher magnification eyepiece, more detail begins to bloom…you can actually see a couple of stars seemingly imbedded in the nebulosity. This is an actual “stellar nursery”, where new stars are being formed: unfathomably distant, and indescribably enormous! That “cloud” you’re taking in spans roughly forty light years across (the amount of time it would take, traveling at approximately 186,000 miles per second, from one side of the nebula to the other…just a cosmic “nature hike”, really).

Venturing beyond the Lagoon, we’ll move up a few degrees, to a gorgeous open cluster, M22, just to the left and slightly above the “steam”. M22 doesn’t have a proper nickname, but it should: it’s an unspeakably beautiful ball of tightly packed stars. In reality these guys are typically a light-year apart from one another. Try to imagine what an extraterrestrial night sky would look like, from a planet orbiting one of those distant suns. Think of the brightest two, maybe three, stars you’ve ever seen in a night sky, then imagine a hundred of them out at the same time. It wouldn’t be dark. Just a constant twilight.

Now shift your scope a few degrees left of that cosmic jewel, and you’ll likely stumble into the field of M24…and “field” is an appropriate descriptor, because this attraction is a literal field of stars resembling a black velvet carpet sprinkled with diamonds. Just overwhelming!

Continue in the same direction, and the next one up is M17, a.k.a. the Swan Nebula (or also colloquially known as the “check mark” nebula, as that is what it resembles through a back yard amateur telescope).

Are we in Sensory Overload yet?

I never cease to be, return visit after visit. My chief frustration stems from the fact that there are SO many attractions in this rich region that I want to linger on each one…yet I feel compelled to constantly jump from one to the next!

Summer Triangle

SummerTriangle

Okay, now that the sky has significantly changed over the past month, let’s take a look at “upcoming attractions”.

There are three prominent stars that constitute what’s known as the “Summer Triangle”: Altair, of the constellation Aquila; Deneb, of Cygnus; and Vega, of Lyra. When these three are directly overhead, they form a huge triangle that is the guide to finding numerous celestial gems. Incidentally, only first-magnitude stars have proper names. The remaining stars are categorized, in descending order of magnitude, by Greek nomenclatures: Delta, Epsilon, etc.

Vega is the flagship star of the constellation Lyra (the harp, although it’s always reminded me more of a shopping cart). There is a gorgeous double star in the equilateral mini-triangle “handlebars” of this shopping cart: Epsilon Lyra. It’s a relatively tough double to “split”, ergo a great barometer of your telescope’s resolution capability and the quality of its optics. Something else resides in this “shopping basket”: M57, or the Ring Nebula…this one’s not a beginner object, but surprisingly easy to find once you’ve located it for the first time. You’ve almost surely seen a picture of it: a gorgeous oval, with brilliant red and yellow color. No less than Captain Kirk, of the Starship Enterprise, thought enough of it to have a color photo on the bridge of his ship!

M57, a.k.a. The Ring Nebula

M57, a.k.a. The Ring Nebula

Processed with MaxIm DL

The Ring Nebula sports a vast array of beautiful colors in pictures, but looks like a ghostly grey doughnut through the average backyard telescope. It’s very tiny, situated almost exactly between the stars that form the “front end” of the shopping cart. Low magnification shows it as a small, grey “blob”…changing to a high-power eyepiece begins to show the smoky interior of the “hole”, plus that the nebula is oval in shape. Again, don’t expect color! The cones in our eyeballs-our color receptors-aren’t sensitive enough to be stimulated by the faint hues these Deep Sky Objects (DSOs) emit. The Ring Nebula is a prime example of a planetary nebula, one in which the original star exploded, and violently cast off its outer “shell”; hence the ring. It’s ever so slowly changing shape, but because of the sheer distance and vast size, we earthlings don’t discern the change over a lifetime. Think about just how distant and large that object has to be, for such a “gaseous anomaly” to appear stable to us.

Albireo, "head" of Cygnus

Albireo, “head” of Cygnus

Moving a few degrees away, we stop at a star named Albireo, which is the “head” of Cygnus, a.k.a. the “Northern Cross”. Can you make out the shape? The bright star of this neighborhood, again a part of the Summer Triangle, is Deneb. When we zoom in on Albireo, at the opposite end of the “cross”, we are in for a pleasant surprise: it’s not only a brilliant double star, but the two emit faint color! What’s particularly striking about this pair is that one is orange, and the other blue (that’s right; these actually exhibit color through a telescope!). The duo is easily resolved through virtually any amateur instrument.

Now shift your binoculars or telescope a few degrees away from Albireo, and you’ll spot another gem: M27, or the Dumbbell Nebula (I didn’t name these attractions; please bear that in mind). In the above rendering of the “trinity”, M27 is almost exactly positioned opposite M57, albeit on the other side of Albireo (it’s located above the word “Sagitta” in the top illustration). Like the nearby Ring Nebula, this one resembles something other than what it’s named for…at least for moi: M27 reminds me of an apple core. This one’s also a planetary nebula…in this case, we’re gazing at one “sideways”: think of a six-inch slice of garden hose, about an inch in diameter. Given M27’s shape, we’re looking at this truncated piece of hose from the side. In the case of the Ring Nebula-M57-we’re holding it so that we’re looking into the hose. Somewhere across the Milky Way “neighborhood” in which we reside, E.T.’s seeing the Ring from his sideways perspective, yet the Dumbbell straight on! Interesting hypothetical to ponder…

M27, a.k.a. The Dumbbell Nebula

M27, a.k.a. The Dumbbell Nebula

The Dumbbell is one of the brightest, easiest objects to see. It’s a delight for beginners…again, just a few degrees from the “head” star, the aforementioned Albireo, of Cygnus. Draw an imaginary line, from M57 through Albireo, to the vicinity opposite the Ring Nebula, and start hunting. It won’t be nearly as tricky to locate as the tiny ring.

Speaking of degrees, make a fist, and extend it upward to the sky. The width of your fist represents about ten degrees of the sky your hand is obscuring. Five degrees would be the span from your thumb to the knuckle that’s your…yeah, that finger. That’s about as much as you typically see, gazing through a pair of binoculars. A telescope’s field of view is about one-maybe two-degrees of sky.

The third star of this stellar trinity is Altair, in the constellation of Aquila, a.k.a. The Eagle. Altair didn’t get dealt any significant cards: no attractions to speak of. It’s in a lonely parsec of sky. It does, however, boast one planet, Altair 4, formerly home of The Krell, Dr. Morbius’s research indicates.

Just kidding about Altair 4 and its erstwhile inhabitants! Giving my age away, I am.

I’ll cover the more elusive attractions of this region next time.

Clear Skies,

Jesse

“Photographic” Memory!

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Way back in 1989, living in Mobile, Alabama, I went out one evening with a friend, to a county road on the outskirts of town, with my small refractor and his trusty 35mm camera ( sorry; I don’t remember what brand, but the “garden variety” shutterbug camera of the day ). One thing he could do was manually hold the shutter open, literally keeping his thumb on the button!

Even though my telescope was a department store instrument, it had an equatorial mount. Just no clock drive for the right ascension axis, which keeps the telescope centered on a celestial object, countering the earth’s rotation. So…while he was holding the shutter open with his thumb, the camera duct-taped to the top of the telescope – “piggyback” astro-photography, sans piggyback mounting accessory!- I was gazing at a random bright star through the eyepiece, manually guiding the telescope, tweaking the R.A. (right ascension cable; think of it as the “horizontal”, or “longitude” control of an equatorial mount, versus the declination, or vertical/latitude knob) in an attempt to keep the “guide” star in the center of my eyepiece field of view.

With steady nerves, and a manual right ascension cable, you can keep the scope in sync, offsetting the earth’s rotation, for about 30-45 seconds (especially if you have an eyepiece with crosshairs, which I didn’t). You cannot, cannot achieve this in any state of inebriation: “friends don’t let friends manually guide Under The Influence” (GUI). It’s just enough of a time exposure for some stars to show up on the picture. About half of the two dozen of our jury-rigged attempts actually came out! I still have the prints, but of course the negatives are long gone (or are they, Terry?).

It was a priceless evening for us, as I’d either turn the RA knob too much, too little (the shot is ruined if you’re not slowly turning the knob in a steady motion)…or Terry would let go of the button on his camera…or, what I think actually spoiled most of those shots: one of us would crack a joke!

Bear in mind, too, that this was in a bygone era in which film reigned supreme. You had a finite number of exposures. No “delete: are you sure?” option. You finished the roll of film, dropped it at a drug store…and when the prints were finally ready to be picked up, I don’t recall the I-Don’t-Like-X,Y,Z-Prints option. You got ’em all; warts & zits included.

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I wish we could recover those negatives.

I still get the image in my mind of two guys, on the shoulder of an obscure county road at night, hunched over in what probably looked like a vampire embrace. If a County Mountie had come along, a) we might have been arrested b) our ‘dark adaptation’ would’ve been ruined for the evening, c) our film might have been confiscated, and d) he might have inserted something extra into reading our Miranda rights (“You have the right to remain silent. I’m going to kill you. If you cannot afford an attorney…”).

What we did shouldn’t have worked. But again, almost a dozen of those turned out!

There’s an old adage that goes something like this: You Can’t Learn How To Make An Omelet Without Breaking A Few Eggs…but, sometimes, a bit of egg yoke on the face can end up being one of your more precious memories!

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Anecdotes: three of ’em!

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.

Culmination of a pre-dawn observing session

Culmination of a pre-dawn observing session

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!

Waxing crescent moon, late afternoon

Waxing crescent moon, late afternoon

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!),

Jesse