This wonderful ritual began more than twenty years ago, shortly after we were married. The evening before our weekly garbage pick up we'd carry our trash and recycling out to the end of our long driveway. As we'd turn back toward the house, Brian would announce that we couldn't go back inside until we'd spotted a satellite. Being a city kid, I didn't even know you could see a satellite with the naked eye. I'd strain my head backwards, searching the heavens for movement, when Brian would say, "Look, there's one!" By the time I located my own satellite, Brian would have spotted a half-a-dozen or more gleaming points of light and my neck would be aching from craning my head backward. Eventually, I just gave up and lay down right in the middle of the driveway.
If it's a particularly warm, clear night, we'll sometimes grab an old blanket or sleeping bag and gaze up at the heavens for hours, feeling at once both very small and very much a part of something infinite. We hunt the night sky for constellations, satellites, high-flying jets and planets. We've seen shooting stars, meteorite showers and even a comet or two. When Canada's first astronaut in space, Dr. Mark Garneau, took his maiden voyage on Challenger, we got up early in the morning to wave at him as the shuttle flew over our house. One particular summer we were entertained for several nights in a row by an unusually vivid showing of the northern lights. Rather than simply dancing on the horizon, the colored flares reached up to the apex of the sky where they joined together and formed a giant cathedral of light. It was breathtaking.
Occasionally while we're lying there Brian will casually mention that there is absolutely nothing between us and the stars above.
"You have to admit that we're awfully brave being out here with nothing between us and the stars," he'll say. "If the law of gravity were repealed right now we'd simply float out into the heavens."
The thought is both frightening and reassuring. During the course of our busy lives it's easy to lose our sense of connection to the Universe. On nights when the stars are shining above all it takes is a few minutes of gentle observation to reconnect to something much greater than our individual selves. We are, after all, star stuff. Our bodies contain the same essential elements that make up the stars in the heavens above. We are all part of the greater whole - never alone, even on the darkest of nights.
Summer is a particularly great time of year to gaze at the stars. The nights are warm and celestial events abound. In particular, there are two meteor showers visible in the night sky. According to the StarDate website, each shower is named after the constellation from where meteors appear to fall. The first, the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, occurs between July 14 to August 18, with the maximum occurrences on August 13 and 14. The second, and perhaps better known, is the Perseid meteor shower which will be most visible in the northern hemisphere on August 12th.
The key to great stargazing is to get away from artificial light sources such as streetlights and buildings. StarDate recommends that you wait for a night that is clear and dark, preferably one when the Moon is not shining brightly.
For even greater enjoyment, StarDate suggests taking along a skywatching kit that includes a blanket, binoculars, a simple star chart and a flashlight to read the chart. Covering the end of the flashlight with red paper will reduce the light’s impact on your night vision. Give your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to the dark, lie back and enjoy the show!
StarDate.org is the public education and outreach arm of the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. The website has loads of great information for both novice and experienced stargazers.
For more on what's new in the night sky visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Planet Quest.
www.skynews.ca has lots of great stuff for stargazers.