Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Watching the Night Sky

We stood out on the deck and watched the International Space Station pass over Carson City (start here to see when it's over your town). It looked like a fast-moving star, going straight over our zenith from southwest to northeast in less than four minutes. It's hard to imagine how fast it must be moving. I'd love to be up there, looking back down as the Earth slid past beneath me. I remember, as a child, standing out in my backyard and my folks pointing out the satellite Echo in the night sky back in the 1960's. I'm still just as awed and fascinated that mankind can do something like that as I was then.

I'm sad that we've lost a lot of our view of the stars due to the increased development and all their accompanying lights around our house. We used to be able to see the Milky Way, but now are lucky to see only the major stars in the constellations from our backyard. A good thing about the increase in population is that our local community college was able to raise the resources and build a world-class observatory in town. I've been able to see the moons of Jupiter and Mars, and the rings of Saturn, during their free telescope viewings Saturday nights. I hope having it in town will encourage more "dark-sky" building practices as more developers come to town.

I love the night sky. I actually don't mind if I have to get up in the middle of the night when I'm out camping to make a trek to the restroom, because I know I'll end up standing in the middle of the path staring up at the sky. One of my favorite memories of Peru was looking at the southern night sky. I could vividly see the long curving tail of the Scorpion that usually gets lost in the light haze near our horizon. On the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, the Milky Way is so bright I could see how the Incas saw patterns and named the dark spaces between the "milk" the same way we name constellations. While there, it was such a thrill when I recognized a familiar grouping so far from home - the Big Dipper (or Great Bear) that circles round the North Star - shining there, right above the horizon. Like a sailor just finding my bearings, suddenly all was right in my world.

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