"We are going there. It’s what we do; we go places. You can go, too. Get out of
your seat, turn off your porch light, go out into the night, and look up. What do
It was Friday, a bright day in August, and the two-lane blacktop through the Danforth Hills in northwestern Colorado snaked over the horizon. I was in my Subaru, heading west out of Craig, a one-stoplight town with little more to offer than a place to take a short stretch after the long drive from Denver. Looking down the road, I could tell the next leg would be a roller coaster ride. The black asphalt rose and fell over the hilltops, twin yellow lines cutting the center. There was no traffic, no cars, or trucks, or highway patrol. Just me, on top of the world, about to take a rolling ride to my first star party.
My stomach plunged with each dip and defied gravity with each crest. I hardly noticed; the landscape had my eye and my destination had my thoughts. The sky was clear and crisp and, a few feet from the road, silver green sagebrush and ragged rocks flew by behind barbed wire fences. Every once in a while golden sunflowers raced by, a sunny reflection of my mood. I sat back, enjoying the ride, each new hill a new horizon. And at the end of the road, a new experience, a look into the past of both heaven and Earth.
The road ended this side of the Colorado/Utah border, where the Yampa River feeds into the Green River, and where dinosaurs once roamed. Our campsite wasn’t your everyday campground site. It was a large open field sprinkled with dwarfed sagebrush, a dusty back road leading to who knows where, and three Port-O-Potties set up just for us. Our site rested on top of a ridge, overlooking parched land dotted with massive brown buttes wearing scrubby green hats. The star party at Dinosaur National Monument, which sits in both states, was about to begin. By the time I arrived, the sun was casting its last peachy rays as if reeling in the twilight. There wasn’t much time left to set up camp and see the show of a lifetime.
* * *
Amateur astronomy clubs are scattered all across the country. They range in size from three or four like-minded individuals in a small community to over four hundred in a metropolitan area such as Denver. The clubs typically meet monthly, though usually not during new moon when the skies are dark and members would rather be outside observing. Guest speakers discuss their research at the meetings, as well as club business by officers, observing reports by members and, of course, updates on current events in astronomy. Usually, after the meetings, members congregate at social gathering of some sort, cookies and cola in the lobby of the astronomy department on a college campus or a late night breakfast at Denny’s, a favorite restaurant of amateur astronomers.
Astronomy clubs are not just about meetings. The mission statement of most clubs generally includes a component of public education and outreach, usually accomplished in the form of a public star party. The star party may be for an elementary school class observing the Moon for the first time or a public event at the local science center or observatory for a special event, such as Comet Shoemaker/Levy 9 crashing into Jupiter in July 1994. Club members set up their telescopes on the lawn and lines quickly form for a glimpse of something wondrous through the eyepiece. Unfortunately, light-polluted cities have limitations and some of the jewels of the night sky are lost to most.
They are not, however, lost to amateur astronomers. Most clubs typically host star parties at dark sites not usually attended by the general public. A long weekend with camping may be involved, or for a quick dark sky fix, an overnighter to a site closer to home. A new moon is the best time for such outings, far from any lights, where it is so dark the Milky Way casts a shadow. Here’s where the “big guns” come out, telescopes with mirrors ranging from six to thirty-six inches in diameter. Anything smaller is an embarrassment, anything larger problematic. The sites are typically in open fields with a full view of the sky, much like the site at Dinosaur National Monument.
* * *
By the time I set up my campsite, a couple of fellow observers arrived. As this was my first star party, I was unsure what to expect. I thought, however, there would be more people. Surely they didn’t rent one Port-O-Pottie per person at star parties. Before the point of twilight, a fourth member arrived and quickly set up his telescope. Once the Milky Way was visible, we began to observe.
I was a novice. My observing station was simple. A lounge chair provided a viewing position so I wouldn’t strain my neck looking overhead; a blanket so I wouldn’t freeze to death at 7200 feet; and a pair of 7x35 binoculars, an embarrassment, though I didn’t know it at the time. My meager optics did resolve stars and a few other unknown objects. The three seasoned amateur astronomers each had at least eight inch telescopes and were more than happy to share, not only the eyepiece, but their extensive knowledge of the object.
For the first time, I watched the constellation Scorpio travel across the southern sky, with the red star Antares at its heart, rivaling Mars as the reddest object in the night sky. I learned that the constellation Sagittarius is the heart of the Milky Way and isn’t a centaur at all, but rather a teapot to the left of Scorpio. It is full of globular clusters, ancient stars grouped together, appearing like glitter on black velvet. I saw galaxies, small fuzzies best viewed when not directly looked at, a technique known as averted vision. For the first time I saw the Veil Nebula, the remnants of an exploded star flowing across the sky looking like lace and so large the telescope must be panned across several fields of view to take it all in. The sky that night was overwhelming. For the first time I felt what it was like to be part of the Universe. I was no longer simply a resident of planet Earth, feet firmly planted on terra firma, but I was a wonderful speck of something bigger, vaster, something infinite with many more jewels to share.
* * *
In the northern hemisphere, one hundred and ten objects are considered the gems of the night sky. It is a list composed out of frustration by an eighteenth century comet hunter named Charles Messier. He would find a fuzzy object in the night sky, mistake it for a comet, and later find it was a galaxy, globular cluster, or one of those pesky nebulas. Today, he is known not for the comets he found but for his infamous list of rejected objects. The objects are known by their position on the list, such as M1, M2, and so forth, though many are known by other names, as well.
Objects in the sky can have many names, or designations, depending on what list they are on. Buying a star name, a commercial business by individuals only interested in taking your money, is not a list accepted by the scientific community. The organization responsible for “officially” naming objects is the International Astronomical Union, which has its beginnings from a nineteenth century team commissioned to name the features on the Moon. Today, lists of astronomical classifications abound. There are lists of binary stars, companions that rotate around each other, often more than two stars. Some say that “four out of three stars is a binary.” Galaxies are listed, and supernova, and bright stars, and on and on. If a new category is discovered, a new list is compiled.
At M1, the Crab Nebula is the first entry on the Messier list. It is the hazy remnants of a supernova, the explosive death of a massive star, which occurred in 1054. Edwin Hubble, of space telescope fame, confirmed the year, as do historical records from China and Japan. Rock art, such as pictographs and petroglyphs located in the American Southwest, are accepted by archeoastronomers to be depictions of this event by the long-lost Anasazi peoples. For up to two weeks the supernova was so bright it was visible during the day, and remained a prominent object in the night sky for up to two years. Today, to see this first object on Messier’s blacklist requires a telescope of appropriate aperture.
And where better to show off the size of your telescope than at a Messier Marathon, a special star party held in March or April when it is possible, with the proper skills and equipment, to view all one hundred and ten objects in a single night? It is a feat worthy of a certificate from the Astronomical League, a super-cluster of astronomy clubs. It is a dusk to dawn affair and not a star party for the novice.
* * *
The next day was for exploring, to follow in the footsteps of the behemoths of the past. My three fellow observers had their own plans, for which I was thankful. I felt uncomfortable despite the cosmic night we had just shared. They were still strangers. I was the novice, a little intimidated by their knowledge, a little shy, the lone female. I wondered about this as I meandered through the Green River valley, making my way to the dinosaurs. Where were the women? Didn’t they come to star parties?
The metal and glass visitor’s center at Dinosaur National Monument butts up to a two-story rock outcropping¾with dinosaur bones practically pouring out of the rock. The bones aren’t actually pouring, more accurately, they are painstaking picked from their rocky tomb by technicians in white coats and latex gloves, slowly revealing the ancient inhabitants of Earth. Once again, the grandeur of it all filled me with awe. Here before me were relics, on our own planet, as old as some stars. I felt like a blip in time, boggled by the immense expanse of time and space it had taken to come to this point. From the sixty-five million year old bones, petrified and jumbled together as a result of the creatures’ quick death from a flash flood, to galaxies of stars over fifteen billion years old, to a supernova explosion seen in the day sky less than one thousand years ago.
I learned a lot about dinosaurs that day at the visitor’s center, just as I had learned a lot about the sky the night before. Most importantly, I learned I could be a mere speck in the scheme of things and still experience the glory and wonder of an entire Universe.
Before heading back to Denver, with my first star party under my belt and a greater appreciation of the world in which we live, I learned one final thing at the local rock shop. For a dollar I bought a piece of dinosaur bone and, according to the grizzled old merchant sitting behind a display case by the door, all fish fossils come from Wyoming¾though I doubted the truth of his claim. In that moment, amid my chuckles at his outrageous declaration, I recognized the long journey of humanity, the special nature of one.
* * *
Since that night at Dinosaur National Monument twelve years ago, I have attended many more star parties. There have been many new discoveries; new comets spanning the night sky, new planets found orbiting distant suns, expanding lists of new discoveries of exotic objects, and a new mission for humans in space.
We are going there. It’s what we do; we go places. You can go, too. Get out of your seat, turn off your porch light, go out into the night, and look up. What do you see?
I wrote this paper for a creative non-fiction writing class at the University of Arizona. During our workshops, where we critique each others' work, my fellow students' comments were generally favorable. At the end of class that day, one of my classmates said he thought I was the best writer in the class. High praise indeed! My professor, on the other hand, had much more to say and not all of it so glowing. Even still, my paper accomplished its mission. My professor confessed that, after reading my paper, he took the long trek to Kitt Peak Observatory for an evening of star gazing!