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"Shorts, Outtakes and Rants"

Most weeks I write a column for my paper; occasionally my daughter writes one. Usually they're focused at local issues, but every now and then I come up with one that I think Spearfish Lake Tales readers would find interesting, so I post them on the Spearfish Lake Tales Message Board. Since I've been neglecting "Shorts, Outtakes and Rants" recently, I decided to repost a few of them here, like this one. I hope you enjoy it! -- Wes

Dark skies

July 2016

My wife and I were driving home from a car race Friday evening. "It sure would be a good night to go out and look at the stars, wouldn't it?" she asked as we were getting close to home.

She was right. It was very clear, about as clear as a Michigan sky ever gets, and there was no moon in the sky, which meant that the stars were showing about as nicely as they ever do. It was a little coolish -- down in the fifties -- but I've spent a lot of time out under a night sky looking at stars when it's been considerably less warm than that.

Over twenty years ago amateur astronomy was my primary hobby; on a dark, clear night like that I wouldn't have been at a race, but somewhere else, looking for difficult-to-find faint fuzzy objects. I quit doing it for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that my night vision degraded to where I couldn't see a sharp star image any more. Besides, a number of my friends wandered away from the hobby toward other things or moved away, and like other activities, stargazing is less fun when you always have to do it by yourself and can't share it with other people.

In those days I got to be pretty good at finding those faint fuzzy objects, galaxies and nebula and star clusters. It took good star charts, practice and patience, as well as a big "light bucket" telescope that I assembled myself from parts. It is a real art to work your way from a known object past faint stars to some dim target. It's called "star-hopping," and I got to be pretty good at what is becoming a lost art.

The reason that it's becoming a lost art is part of why I let my interest in amateur astronomy slide. Even in those days computerized telescopes were making an appearance. At the beginning of the evening you had to initialize the telescopes to tell them where they were pointed, and then if you wanted to find the faint fuzzy object you just keyed in the designator and listen to the servo motors point the telescope toward it. There was no challenge to it, no feeling of triumph in knowing you'd weaseled some dim wonder into the eyepiece. The only real challenge was paying for the thing in the first place. Such telescopes were not cheap, and still aren't. At least to me, it seemed like cheating, and really, it still does.

Still, it was a clear night, and the old temptation was there. While I sold the big "light bucket" over a dozen years ago, I still have the little one I put together over thirty years ago. I still get it out every now and then, but really, not very often -- but it's one of those things I will keep however little I use it. My knowledge of the sky and the stars and the constellations is rusty -- it's a "use it or lose it" and I've used it very little in the last decade. Besides, it would have taken me half the night to gather together the bits and pieces scattered here and there through the basement, and then drive out to a dark spot. I probably ought to do it again just to make sure I remember how, because I'm not sure I do.

There is a particular beauty and feeling one oneness with the universe that comes from being out under a dark sky looking at the stars, and some of the other things that can be seen there, like occasionally being able to see the aurora borealis or meteors. It's almost always a thrill that very few people even bother to seek. It's been too long since I've done it, even to just go out to a dark spot, shut off the car and wait for a while to get my eyes dark-adapted just to enjoy seeing the Milky Way, which is impossible around the lights of town, or even the yard lights usually seen in the country.

However, I knew I had to get up early to go get photos for the paper, so I gave it a lick and a promise with a glance at what sky I could see under the yard light, and went in to get ready for bed. Maybe someday, and I probably ought to do it soon.

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