Sunday, October 28, 2012

I've Always Looked Up

The night sky has always captured my attention. I remember a 4th grade slumber party at a friends house a few weeks before school started. We were outside under the stars with a huge bowl of popcorn talking and laughing. As the evening continued we noticed a lot of "shooting stars" and our conversations abruptly halted as we pointed to the bright flashes across the sky. I remember staying awake as long as I could to see just one more of those "shooting stars." I was certain we were the only people to witness the stellar event on that warm, summer evening. Since then I have realized that myriads of people were watching the night sky on that evening and knew there would be "shooting stars."

While I was attending Boise State University, I decided to take "Introduction to Descriptive Astronomy." I soon learned that the night of "shooting stars" I'd witnessed years ago was actually the Perseids meteor shower, which happens every year in the middle of August. Throughout the years I have slept out under the stars with my family during the annual Perseids meteor shower. We laid in sleeping bags and I talked about the stars, answered a few questions and then quietly lay there hoping to see every meteor I could as my family drifted off to sleep. This past summer during the Perseids meteor shower, only my husband and I were around so we stretched out on our backyard benches to watch for a little while.  As we talked and watched, a brilliant fireball shot across the sky from northeast to southwest. Its brightness lingered in the sky for a long time; the best of show for the evening.

A fortunate coincidence happened while I was taking the astronomy class at Boise State. NASA had launched the Voyager I and Voyager II spacecrafts years before, into our solar system; it was during the beginning of that semester that they reached Jupiter and Saturn. The historic part of the event was the fact that there had never been a space mission like it, and the pictures and information being sent back were all new to the world. We were observing things and learning facts that had never even been supposed.

Last year when I was teaching a unit on European Explorers, I explained how the explorers found their way using the stars in the night sky, and recently I was able to experience a bit of this for myself. My husband and I went on a hike into a wildness area in Oregon. It was not a trail we had been on and we started at the trailhead later than planned. Darkness came quickly and there was no moon out to light our way or help to orient us. The trail wound in all directions along and on top of a range of mountains. Before long, my internal compass was confused from all the direction changes in the dark and I could not distinguish which way we were going. Unlike the early explorers on the ocean, I had a path I could follow and my desire to know which direction I was going was simply for my own peace of mind. As we continued uphill I could tell that we were approaching the top of a ridge because I began to see stars beside me as well as above. When we got to a clearing, we turned off our headlamps and I could identify the constellations with their main stars, as well as the Milky Way. Those stars that I had looked up at for years instantly told me which direction I was headed. Seeing these familiar patterns in the sky fixed my internal compass and soothed my feelings of anxiety. As I gazed at my stellar companions that dark night, I got a very brief glimpse of how those early explorers must have felt as they sailed in the darkness; hoping to avoid sea monsters or even the edge of the world.

Since my days in college taking that astronomy course, I have continued to look up at the night sky. It is a frontier that continues to deliver new and amazing information that helps us understand our universe and leads us to ask more questions. A few weeks ago, my old teachers, Voyager I and II showed up in the news again. This time is was to say goodbye. These spacecraft are expected to leave our solar system sometime during the next few months. They will drift past the edge, where no known earthly object has yet been. They are no longer able to take pictures but are still recording and sending data to Earth.

So remember that the nightly show is available to anyone who wants to step outside and look up. People have been looking up for longer then we can imagine, trying to find their way on a long, bleak night through unknown territory. Others have found comfort in the consistency of the night sky. So whether you are taking out the garbage or bringing groceries into your house, take a few minutes to look up and wonder about the light that left the stars thousands of light years before.