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Starry, Starry Night


I had forgotten what a truly dark sky could produce ... the magic, the infinity, the glorious majesty, and the over whelming feeling of being a part of something far greater than everyday life. The abundance of stars crashed over me like a giant wave the instant I walked out of the transient quarters at the McDonald Observatory in west Texas late one July night. I was one of 16 teachers chosen to broaden their astronomical horizons through the American Astronomical Society Teacher Resource Agent program (AASTRA). Dr. Mary Kay Hemenway and her graduate assistant, Pamela Gay, were our guides, instructors and mentors through five nights of observation and work on the 76 centimeter telescope. But all I could think of that first night as I walked with my head held back at a 90 degree angle to my body was, “I forgot.”

I remember the first time I saw a night sky with the dominant summer Milky Way. It was almost a religious experience. I was no longer attached to my grounded hunk of tissues and bone. I became part of the darkness of space. My thoughts blended with the stars and I felt the importance of my planet’s place in our galaxy.

All of my memories of childhood wonderment came rushing back on that warm summer night. With each meteorite that fell, I felt elation and sheer joy. I don’t think I stopped smiling that entire night, even when I had to report back to the telescope for my second run at
3:00 a.m.

For those of us who teach astronomy but do not usually participate in actual astronomical research, the technology that has developed around this science is absolutely fascinating. There was no keyboard button to push, no screen to look at, and no star to locate that we did not find interesting.

On the first night though, we had problems. A summer thunderstorm struck before we arrived and the electrical power running the computers had been zapped with one bolt of lightning. We lost the ability to align the telescope with our guide star, Cygnus B and the telescope needed to be recalibrated. Everyone on all of the shifts that first night worked to accomplish this feat. We centered the telescope on several stars but it wasn’t until about 5:00 a.m. that all of the instruments checked out — just in time to shut down for sunrise.

I am not a night person but I couldn’t wait for my second night of observation. By the third morning, with two runs under our belts, we were feeling confident and started comparing notes, Making astronomical observations reminded me of rock hunting; the more specimens you find, the pickier you get.

A variety of star clusters within the Milky Way were located and imaged using our charged coupling device (CCD) capabilities. We also looked at nebulae, which supply the galaxy with pigmentation. Against the black curtain of space, nebulae colored the imaginations of all who viewed them. The Omega Nebula (M17) was the most spectacular. Looking at the monitor, we all felt the presence of beginnings; all that could be created was in that misty shroud. Fantastic!

One night we found an irregular galaxy (NGC 6027, part of the Seyfert Sextet) that was vaguely shaped like one of the worms in the science fiction novel Dune so we laughingly started referring to it as “Aracus.”

When we completed our stay at the McDonald Observatory, the goals of the AASTRA program had been accomplished. Our science was more firmly grounded. Our abilities to translate that science for students would be formed by personal experience. We had new resources and new networks. As we sat together on that last night, the talk centered not on technology but on the dark sky. We laughed that Jupiter was so bright that it looked like an airplane making an approach to an airport.

One teacher reiterated the story of how the different colored meteors had fallen one after another as if on cue. Another spoke of how brilliant the different constellations were and how extremely bright Cassiopeia was in July. I added my tale about the hypnotic effect the brightly banded Milky Way had on me as a child. We finished our stories, sang some songs, and made a final pledge. We vowed in unison to do one thing first when we returned home. We would take our loved ones and anyone else we could persuade to see a piece of magic that most city dwellers miss - the dark sky.

Thank you McDonald Observatory.

Originally published in The Science Teacher Magazine, April 2000