Friday, August 8, 2014

Nebraska Star Party: The Stars of the Party

The stars.

I have put this post off because trying to describe those stars in words that adequately capture their grandeur escapes me.  So here is my best attempt.

If you wear glasses, do you remember that first time you put them on?  That whole fine-tuned world that suddenly popped into view? Noticing that trees had distinct, individual leaves?  That letters on the page were sharp and clear?  When before you had glasses you thought you could already see everything that was there, but you really had no idea what you were missing? 

Truly dark skies do that for the stars.  With only your naked eye, you see more of them than you ever thought existed.  They glisten and sparkle brighter than you thought possible.  And the whole sky is full of them, even down to the horizon because there is no glow from neighboring cities and towns to hide them. And when you look up and see all of that, you have to remind yourself to breathe. And you notice you have a tear streaming down your cheek because it's all so overwhelming, this magnificent sky of ours.

Telescopes like this one were set up for all to experience.
Have you ever seen the Milky Way?  The faint, milky white band of stars that paints across the sky and is part our own galaxy?  At home in Lincoln, I can sometimes make it out, and if I drive into the country it's usually a bit easier to see. But here at NSP?  The Milky Way is so bright that it casts a shadow.  When you face the Milky Way, you can look behind you and see your shadow. Indescribable. And you see distinct arms of the Milky Way as well, and you wonder how, before this night, you had never really considered that we live in the Milky Way's spiral galaxy.  We can only see the part that is overhead because we are part of it. 

With most telescopes, you can see detail on Mars and Saturn.  But with telescopes like Eric Balcom's you can easily see that Mars has polar ice caps, and as pointed out by young Sam beside me one night, "Of course, they are smaller right now because it is Martian summer."  Of course.

Linda recommends this as the best guide
for learning about constellations.
And, thanks to Linda, who lives in South Dakota and works for the census bureau, but spends a week at NSP every summer "to fill her soul," sharing her constellation talk, you can now find your way around the night sky. You watch for Vega, the first star overhead that is visible after twilight.  And then find Deneb and Altair, the three of them making up the summer triangle, which is your guide to three constellations, Lyra, Cygnus (the Northern Cross) and Aquila.  And then Linda tells you something that makes you anticipate Christmas Eve more than you already do:  While it lies on its side during the summer, the Northern Cross appears distinctly upright in the northwestern part of the sky at 10 pm on Christmas Eve.  A brilliant cross in the sky on Christmas Eve. How cool is that?

While Linda mentioned the adult version, I am
starting with H.A. Rey's book for 4th graders!
Then Linda, who closes each of her talks by singing Monte Python's Galaxy Song, uses her green laser pointer to show us the teapot of Sagittarius in the southern sky, complete with its pointy lid and steam cloud of star clusters. And she jumps to another part of the sky to show us Queen Cassiopeia lounging on her throne while her husband, King Cepheus with his pointy hat and block-shaped head is next to her. "Always reminds me of my ex-husband, who is also a block head," Linda chuckles. (Note to those of you who want to learn more about the sky without wading through so much advanced vocabulary - Linda's favorite guide to the constellations is The Stars, A New Way to See Them by H A Rey, who also penned the Curious George picture books.  My copy of both that book, and Rey's companion book for children just arrived today, and I love them.) 

Thanks in part to all of those light restrictions, as it gets even darker and your night vision ramps up, you notice the myriad satellites that are always in motion across the sky. And you see more shooting stars in one night that you've seen in your whole life.  Then Linda tells you how to distinguish a Perseid meteor from others (they always originate in the Perseid constellation - near our royal friends Cassiopeia and Cepheus - and travel away from it) and you see your first brilliant Iridium Flare flash across the sky. And you learn that a solar flare in 1989 "fried" a whole network of communication satellites that still orbit the earth, and when their antennae face the sun just right, a bright flash (the Iridium flare) bursts through the sky. Multiple times each night, with published schedules so you know where to look for them.  But you never knew to look.

And you suddenly realize that all the stars and planets practically race across the sky every night from east to west. Because when you look through Eric's telescope at those polar ice caps on Mars at 450X magnification, they disappear out of your eyepiece within a few seconds.  Because the earth is moving so fast. And you wonder how you never noticed that before.

And you try to think of how you'll describe this to people so they understand how magical it really was. 

And you are reminded of the creation story from the Bible:  Genesis 1: 14-18:  And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good.

And it was good.


  1. Wow in my era of evaluating writing you would got all 4's in all the traits..loved the glasses comparison in the intro and also really thought the ending from the Bible nailed it..thanks Doc!

    1. Thanks, Peggy. With all of your experience with writing evaluation, I take that as a great compliment!

  2. Lynne, I have know since I first met you that the Lord blessed you with an unbelievable ability to write! Well done! Love You!
    Peggy, I agree with you on the ending. Brought a tear to my eye.

  3. Oh my...GOODNESS! Thanks, Lynne!

    1. Thanks for reading, Marylyn. Love having you part of this experience.

  4. Your apprehension about not being able to describe the stars was misplaced, Lynne. Your account was fabulous and very moving. Thanks for sharing your talents with those of us not as brave as you!

    1. Thank you, Nancy. I really appreciate your encouragement for the Brave Project!