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One night in January.

It is cold. Actually, it's beyond "cold" and well into "frigid." I try to check my thermometer to see how far the mercury has fallen, but the zipper on its pouch is frozen. I've never seen the thermometer's felt-lined boot seize up like that. Then again, I've never seen my breath fall to the ground and shatter before, either.

I have been told that winter is the best time for observing the skies with a telescope. Obviously this myth was invented by astronomers sitting in nice, warm observatories viewing computer screens. If God had intended for us to be outside in winter, we'd have been born covered with felt.

Despite the cold, the star-filled skies beckon me outdoors, and I oblige. I have already hauled the scope out and know immediately what I am in for when the snow says "ouch" with each step. Snow does that when it gets below zero. It starts to speak as you move around. I wonder if it's really saying, "Get the heck off me." One never knows when one doesn't speak the language.

I set up the scope and begin to align it, thinking how quiet it gets in the dead of winter when neither breeze nor people are stirring. Tonight it is very still - and very cold. I have dressed for it, though. My body is entombed in long underwear, two pairs of pants, a flannel shirt, two sweaters, three pairs of socks (going from thin to heavy), felt-lined boots, and two ski hats. I have done this before.

The snow creaks with every movement, and my jacket answers in turn. What they're talking about I don't know, but they keep it up all the while. Maybe I am just more aware of it because of the splendid, incredible stillness that envelops me, somehow sharpening all of my senses and amplifying every little whisper into a roaring "Here I am!" It makes me want to be as motionless as I can to see how far I can hear. Sometimes, when it's this cold, I can hear sounds that would be a 30-minute walk away.

I face a second challenge tonight. The problem with trying to view the night skies from within town is the light pollution. Most of it comes from poorly designed street and parking-lot lighting, a problem I know is shared by legions of observers elsewhere. Consequently, instead of being able to see stars down to magnitude 6, I have to settle for 4 or 5. I fuss over this in my head: With each magnitude 2 1/2 times fainter than the next, my ability to see the night sky suffers greatly. Ideally I should be looking up at something like 1,500 stars. But tonight I'd be lucky to spot a fifth of those. Doesn't anyone but me care about the amount of wasted light not hitting the ground, I wonder half aloud, escaping instead to space and ruining my stars?

Despite the lights - and the constant yammering between the snow and my jacket - the transparent skies, still atmosphere, and lack of distractions promise a good evening of viewing. No Moon and winter's early dark skies are a combination hard to top.

Venus hangs low in the southwest, too near the horizon for a telescope to resolve much, but the rapidly changing colors get my attention. Venus and Sirius, the brightest points in the heavens, excel in their ability to dazzle us with this dance of color. Watching Venus set or Sirius rise is the best way I know to get in the mood for stargazing. Not only is no telescope needed and the show absolutely free, but on this night both are also performing on my celestial stage at the same time.

Orion is well up in the east, tailed by Sirius along the horizon. In the cold, still air the Orion Nebula is a soft gray patch against the background of the night sky, while Sirius dazzles the eye as it always has. On such nights I can empathize with the moth. I am drawn to these two glories. Their beauty seems to raise the temperature 10 [degrees] and it is no longer quite so cold. I watch as Sirius, shimmering iridescently as no diamond could ever hope to, slowly changes to a steady, opalescent gem as it rises in the eastern sky.

Breaking away from Sirius, I turn my attention to what is overhead. A faint luminescence studded with stars stretches in a ragged band from southeast to northwest. Slow scanning reveals little clumps of light. It's hard to make them out from in front of my house, and without binoculars the individual stars of these star clouds cannot be seen. But they are pretty impressive considering their distance.

Just to the south of the Milky Way, near the ecliptic, lie the Pleiades. In ancient times this cluster's stars were the Seven Sisters, all daughters of Atlas and Pleione. The attendants of Artemis, they were transformed into celestial doves by Zeus to escape the amorous intentions of the giant Orion. To this day Orion still pursues them across the heavens with his dog, Sirius. Nowadays only six are usually visible without aid. From where I am I can make out only four.

My upward gaze drifts a little southeastward to the Hyades, half sisters of the Pleiades, who were rewarded with a place in the heavens for their care of the infant Bacchus. This cluster is harder to see, so I move to the side of the house to block the glare from the streetlight barely looking away as I move. Keeping one hand on the wall and my eyes on the cluster, I feel my way around.

With the glare removed the cluster becomes more visible. It's still only a V-shaped asterism, but it's a larger aster-ism. In even a small telescope it shows a multitude of stars, but I don't have my telescope. It's still sitting out on the sidewalk in front of the house. For all I know, it's decided to do its own viewing. I look again at the Pleiades. I look carefully. Now I can see five for certain. Is that a sixth? I'm not so sure - but I count it anyway.

I slowly become aware of a soreness in my neck. I look down and twist my head back and forth. My watch is apparently broken. It says I've been outside for two hours. I begin to feel cold.

I look upward at the sky again, but the cold is becoming more noticeable. I decide to go in. I wander back around to the front of the house. There is the scope, still sitting right where I'd left it earlier in the evening before the freezing cold had been overcome by the wonders of the night sky. Hauled out, never used, and hauled back in again.

Some nights are like that.

Peck has been braving the winters of Marinette, Wisconsin, for many years.

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Title Annotation:astronomer's anecdote
Author:Peck, Hugh W.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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