Thursday night was clear as a bell.
Hungry for stars, I gathered up my red light, green laser, binoculars, and library copy of H.A. Rey's "The Stars: a New Way to See Them," and persuaded Rob to join me in search of a good dark wide-open sky. We drove south, planning to check out the Charlemont Reservation...an unimproved park that I'd heard from fellow BRAS members had no restrictions on usage after dark. A few stray fireflies still lit up the fields along the way. Not too long ago, those same fields would've been positively aflame with little trails of green phosphorescence rising like hot embers from rows of young soybeans.
Just south of Wellington I impulsively turned onto my old mail route, curious as to whether we might just as easily find a good parking spot somewhere along the lonely farm roads. Sure enough, just east of Findlay State Park we turned onto a gravel road bisecting two fields of corn and found a little shoulder turnout well away from any homes, streetlights, or tall stands of trees. The darkening sky opened above us like an embrace...a glaring Venus hung on the horizon, the summer triangle edged toward zenith, and the great swoop of Scorpius virtually erupted from its southern abode.
Rob pointed up at a quickly moving speck just below Lyra, "Hey look...a satellite." "Two..." I added, noticing another trailing about a hand's breadth behind, "and watch, the first one is about to flare!" In the next few seconds, the first satellite grew in brightness till it surpassed even brilliant Vega: an iridium flare. Caused by sunlight momentarily beaming off the reflective surfaces of communication satellites, iridium flares can be easily predicted by consulting Heavens Above (much to the delight of star-party audiences), but our spontaneous encounter seemed especially thrilling.
My goal for the night was to better learn a few less-familliar constellations and stars...Ophiuchus, Chepheus, Draco, Boötes...I haven't been out under a dark sky nearly enough in the past 3 years, and some of my skills have grown a little rusty. As I explore the future possibility of working or volunteering with the park service's Dark Rangers, I want to make sure I'm at home finding my way around the celestial sphere. To help get the ball rolling again, I checked out H.A. Rey's book at the local library a couple weeks ago, and have since eagerly awaited a clear night on which to use it. Filled with helpful guides and interesting tidbits of science and folklore, its welcoming and lighthearted approach can help demystify the night sky for stargazers of all ages. I'd heard others sing its praises ever since I joined SLAS years ago, but hadn't delved in myself until now.
As the sky darkened the Milky Way emerged from obscurity (the first time I'd been able to see it in ages), and we easily lost track of time. Not a single car passed our little turnout...though we occasionally heard one rumbling off in the distance. We took turns scanning the sights (especially in the south) with our binoculars. M7 (Ptolemy's Cluster), M8 (Lagoon Nebula), and its nearby companion M20 (Trifid Nebula), are all old favorites, but I immediately regretted not bringing a second reference to help identify the myriad "faint fuzzies" that also came into view.
At one point, I looked to the east and was stunned to see a dark-orange gibbous moon hovering between stands of tall corn directly above our little gravel road. The sight was glorious to be sure, but meant that the sky wasn't going to be getting any darker. No matter. It had been a good night, and I had work early the next morning. We gathered our things and returned home happy.