Stargazing is Like a Box of Chocolates

Photo of the Northern Lights

Stargazing is Like a Box of Chocolates ~by Curt Nason

A memorable line from the movie Forrest Gump compared life to a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. Although the night sky is full of predictable observing targets and events, it is the unexpected treasures that make stargazing so enjoyable.

I was cat-sitting at my childhood home in McAdam last weekend, where the backyard night sky is much darker than at my home in suburban Saint John. I was struggling with a topic for this monthly column and I put it aside hoping for inspiration overnight. Around midnight I stepped out on the deck with binoculars to view a comet, one of my pet observing projects, and my attention was drawn to a wall of light to the north. My first impression was of light pollution, but then I noticed a few spikes of light with a subtle green tinge and I recalled an email alerting stargazers to the possibility of northern lights. After a quick dash inside for warmer clothes, I was treated to more than an hour of shimmering green lights that at times reached the North Star, halfway to the zenith; the best aurora I have seen in 13 years.

As I watched the northern lights I thought of how fortunate I was. My quick dash outside to see a gray blur in binoculars, which I had seen several times already this spring, had revealed Nature’s fireworks, accompanied by the restful chirping of peepers rather than resonating booms. Several airplanes passed by, all seemingly on the same path, and I envied the view that the pilots and alert passengers must be getting. The Milky Way was like a bright cloud rather than the hint of light I see from my backyard at home; its pearly stream split by clouds of interstellar dust between us and the inner spiral arm of our galaxy. A meteor flashed silently across the sky, the result of a tiny pebble shed from a comet long ago entering our atmosphere, making the thin air glow as it disintegrated from the heat of friction. Then I recalled why I went outside in the first place.

The comet was an easy find with binoculars, beside a fairly bright star in a prominent constellation overhead, looking much better than from my deck at home. Saturn and Jupiter called for my attention, and then I noticed the orange star Antares between two trees. In the same field of view was a globular cluster called M4, the fourth object in Charles Messier’s list of objects that resemble comets. I cannot always see it with a telescope from home because with its low altitude it gets lost in urban skyglow, but here it looked huge with just binoculars from its distance of 7000 light years.

Another comet was near Antares, one I have yet to see, so I set up a telescope. Life is not always a bowl of cherry chocolates, for this comet was too faint for my equipment, but it should brighten soon. The view of Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s cloud belts in the telescope made up for any disappointment. It was now two o’clock, and back on the deck I could still see the aurora teasingly fading away and spiking up again. I herded the cats inside and went to bed, tired but inspired to write.

Stargazing is a wonderful hobby. Every clear night the sky is a familiar friend and yet serendipitously different, and I have never regretted dragging myself outside to look up. I never know what surprise might await me, but I do know it won’t be fattening.

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