July 5th, 2003

just Chris

astro dog!

So last night Kij and I took a few of Jim Gunn's science-fiction workshoppers and our dog went down to this great dark-sky site, Scopeville, about 75 miles southish of Lawrence.

When we arrived, we discovered we were the first on the grounds, because the gate was still locked. Turns out that no one else arrived all night, so we had the place to ourselves. Scopeville felt magical, really, with that kind of wide-open privacy: dozens of miles from the nearest small town, beautifully dark and clear skies, the Milky Way wheeling overhead, cows and rabbits and owls and coyotes making their sounds all around.

About two hours after we arrived, the Moon set (early waxing crescent, so it was never too bright). We mostly lay around on the wooden platforms staring up at the sky, chatting. But someone was always using my telescope (a nice 10" Dobsonian reflector) -- we saw several nebulae, a couple of galaxies (one edge-on, like our own Milky Way, but soooo much farther away), star clusters, and of course the Moon and Mars. Folks were getting tired by the time Mars came out, so that planet was always pretty low (not great seeing through so much sky), but a few of us were able to pick out the bright polar cap and a big V-shaped brown region across the face of the very-red world. Best image came from a 28mm Plossl eyepiece attached to a 3X Barlow and a polarizing filter to dim it down enough to see good contrast. Of course, that meant the planet only spent a few seconds in the field-of-view before whooshing back into the darkness (Dobsonian mounts don't have clock drives to move with the stars).

Hope ran after a few rabbits -- you could hear their lightning-fast pattering across the grass -- but she immediately gave up the chase when we called to her. Good dog! Mostly, she slept on the platform with the humans. Early on, she was very anxious (even so far from fireworks -- only visible from the rooftop platform, and almost silent -- she could hear it, and it must have sounded like a thunderstorm), but at some point the shows must have ended, because she just plopped down and lay still, completely relaxed, for hours.

That's just the way astronomy should be: friends hanging out beneath a blanket of black and stars, talking about life and the infinity of night and suns with attendant worlds rushing across the sky; the utter silence of the country where you can hear the blood in your ears when you walk a few hundred feet away from the chatting; a telescope to carry you out into the universe beyond -- but not one with a computer go-to finder, which seems to me to draw in an inappropriate level of technology to the activity. I've always felt so at peace on nights like that, so close to the universe which some people call "god," in a way I never did in a church (though perhaps while hiking and camping in the Montana Badlands, amid the ruins of fossilized dinosaurs and a billion years of erosion, with the occasional desert flower struggling to life alone amid all the broken stone; the way it feels to discover a "new" galaxy or nebula while wandering through the night sky).

We got home about 4:30am. Wonderful night!

Best,
Chris