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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Under the Stars

I had been invited for a night of stargazing. To my left and right, a half dozen amateur astronomers, each armed with a bucket list of nebulae, double stars, and globular clusters pointed their telescopes at the sky. I sat back in the old catskill style chair, looking straight up at the dome of stars. An occasional car rumbled by on Ridge Road, hidden by the big stand of pines behind the house. Other than that, there were only muffled voices discussing the next celestial object in someone’s crosshairs. A voice rang out from the dark. “Anyone want to see M-9 in the big telescope?” M-9 was a globular cluster in the constellation Ophiuchus. You need a small telescope to see it at all. I climbed five steps up a ladder to reach the eyepiece of this thirty inch scope, and put my eye gently to the glass. M-9, normally a cottony blob of light through smaller instruments, became a riot of individual stars held together in a cluster by its own gravity. I had come to be in this back yard courtesy of the Culpeper Astronomy Club. The club meets once a month at the library, but maintains a relationship with a gentleman who has a superb observatory in his backyard. The observatory’s thirty inch dobsonian telescope is likely the largest telescope in private hands in Virginia. It was longer than my car. Looking through that telescope at M-9, twenty-six thousand light years distant, took me back in time. The light carrying M-9’s image to my eye began its journey when the earth was at the height of the last ice age, twenty-six thousand years ago. I felt sadly nostalgic for a past I could never recapture. This sky would never be as clear and as striking as the sky had been when I was at sea. Back then the stars would twinkle against a pitch dark sky, untouched by city lights. On a few calm nights, when the wind had died to nothing, the sea would sit flat like glass. The stars would twinkle off the water as if it were a mirror, just as they were twinkling in the sky. As the ship slipped through the water with a gentle hiss, the stars on the water would surround it in a magic display as if it were gliding through space. Those few special nights made memories that only sailors can have. They are memories that sailors have had and held for thousands of years - as long as we have gone to sea. No one who hasn’t gone to sea can have that experience. It’s something we can store away, remembering that excitement at sea wasn’t limited to hurricanes, and emergencies. Some of them are just moments of peaceful beauty.