Out of This World

The stars are out, and it is a good thing. Sixty people, adults and children, have gathered on the lawn to consider things that are out of this world. Telescopes stand sentinel in the parking lot. In the twilight the group sits on blankets and tarps to listen to Ralph Libby, YSI’s astronomer extraordinaire, speak of space, of stars, of stories and time beyond imagining.

Four telescopes, as well as a pair of gigantic binoculars on a tripod, each a little different from the next, point skyward. There are the refractors, the long skinny tubes that most of us think of when we hear the word “telescope”. And there are short stout reflectors gathering and reflecting light with large parabolic mirrors. One has a built in computer that can be set to track points of light as they–or more accurately we–move across the night sky.

How extraordinary these scientific gadgets are that let us see back into time. They are fascinating to fool with, to understand, to look through. They transform the heavens.

We eat watermelon and wait for the stars.

Daylight fades. Points of light pierce the gathering darkness. First one, then five, then many, until the eastern sky is covered. A few bats fly erratically in the space between the fading light and us. We begin to fall silent, even the kids. The stars are working their magic.

A line forms at each scope. There is talk of constellations, of planets, of comets and asteroids. On this moonless night the Milky Way washes across the sky in a broad fuzzy band. A satellite moves quickly through the stars. What seemed like an incomprehensible sky full of stars begins to take form and shape. Patterns are discovered, colors discerned. The heavens have come alive.

Stars are as individual as the members of this group watching them.

There is the cluster. At some point in space thousands of stars, or maybe more, are grouped together. So dim any one would never be noticed, as a group they glow like an misty ball.

There is Alberio, the double star. Two stars rotate around each other in a spatial embrace–an elegant and precise ballet. One is truly red and the other blue.

Even stars are not forever. The Ring Nebula is sighted. This star exploded many light years ago leaving a dying core to live on. The explosion sent gasses far out into space. The layer of expanding gas was illuminated from within by the dying core and glows with eerie beauty forming a green halo around its fading source. Has this star burned out yet? Who will see its end, years hence, when the last light reaches Earth?

A few have not moved from their blankets. They lie on their backs looking up, lost in a realm beyond science. All of the stars belong to each of us–on this planet. They are part of our music, our dance, our architecture, our history, our stories, our science, our lives on this Earth. Do they belong to others on other planets as well?

The stars are out, and it is a good thing.

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