Friday, April 3, 2015

Wonders of the Night Sky

While we were talking about the partial lunar eclipse that will occur in a  few hours, my son and I reminisced about other lunar eclipses we have seen. He reminded me that a lunar eclipse occurred the night the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. A fitting celestial salute, we both thought. As he mentioned a few other memorable lunar eclipses he had seen, I took a little trip down memory lane in the night sky.

The first lunar eclipse I remember happened one chilly autumn night when I was in first or second grade. We three children were already in bed (and most likely asleep) when my father gently awakened us and told us to put on our coats and come with him. I can still see him wrapping my little brother up in a warm quilt to carry him outside. We stood on our front steps in wonder at being out so late at night, and then my father pointed out what was happening to the moon. If we were amazed before, we were speechless then (at least for a little while--we were very young and this was a completely new adventure, so comments abounded shortly!). I imagine my father didn't keep us out on the steps for the entire duration of the eclipse, but we were there long enough to see significant changes in the moon's light.  It was just magical.

Over the years, we frequently hung out in the back yard to watch lunar eclipses. I confess that I don't know if I was ever able to marshal my own children like my father did us and show them a lunar eclipse in Chicago. It's always hard to see anything clearly in the Chicago night sky because there is so much ambient light from the city. I hope to see some lunar eclipses with my grandchildren!

That first eclipse experience opened the door for a love of things astronomical and celestial. And there is a practical family connection to astronomy. My Uncle Bob, who learned sophisticated optics while making bomb sights at the Washington Navy Yard during World War II, later used his skills to help supervise the polishing of the mirror of the telescope at Mount Palomar Observatory in southern California. We always thought of telescopes in a proprietary way as a result!

My mother took a course in astronomy when she was in college, and could rattle off the names of distant stars and constellations with great ease. I'm not sure she could pick them all out in the night sky by the time we were old enough to  be interested, but she liked to star gaze with us, too. And she aced the course.

In the last decade of my father's life, he bought a telescope which he would take to the Outer Banks each August when we rented a cottage there. He and my youngest son had some wonderful times setting up the telescope, using its electronics to search out objects to view, and summoning us outside to see Jupiter or whatever other exciting tidbit the universe had on display that night. Usually our visits coincided with the Perseid meteor shower, too, so we had both the telescopic views of distant planets and the meteors seen with the naked eye.

During what turned out to be my father's last visit to the cottage, he and my son and I sat out in the little yard behind the house and watched the Perseids. What a treat! Warm breezes, the sound of the ocean nearby, and a clear night sky across which flashed meteor after meteor in wonderful display. I treasure the memory.

My older son has introduced me to the delights of Google Sky in recent years, and I do confess a great fondness for that. It's rather staggering to take my phone, use Google Sky, and hold the phone up to identify exactly what I'm seeing in the night sky above me. My father would have loved it! And sometimes doing this is the only way I can actually "see" what's in the sky here at night.

I wish there wasn't so much ambient light from cities and towns now. It's difficult even here in South Bend to think of a place where the night sky would be particularly clear for using a telescope. There is a park with bright street lights behind my house and a very large, well-lit traffic roundabout near it, which means an overabundance of light. So I don't enjoy the wonders of the night sky as much as I could in other times and places. But isn't it astoundingly beautiful when you do find yourself in remote places where the heavens are ablaze with stars and planets? And my father's telescope is in a closet upstairs!