During the new moon, I usually drive to the West Desert or the San Rafael Swell looking for things in the night sky that are invisible from Salt Lake City.
They are globular clusters, compact groups of hundreds of thousands of stars; nebulae, the glowing gasses where stars are condensing; and best of all, galaxies, island universes inconceivably remote from our own.The reason most people will never see these amazing views from their front yards - at least, not well - is that light pollution and air pollution combine to wash out our night skies. We live inside a scummy dome.
But for someone who breaks out of it, heading to a dark site with a telescope, the richness of creation is overwhelming. Some notes of recent views with our family's 8-inch telescope:
June 23-24, trip to the San Rafael Swell: But the great treat of the night was dredging through the Virgo-Coma Berenices cluster of galaxies . . .
With M82 (irregular galaxy), using my more powerful lenses, I could see the frilly, jagged sides of the galaxy and the dark splotches or rifts within it.
Cory Maylett, Deseret News artist, found the Sombrero Galaxy, M104, with his 10-inch Meade, and it was quite bright. Using his telescope, I could see the bulge of light clearly, its straight-up orientation, and most impressive, its sharply delineated dust lane. The bisecting dust lane was quite dark. That was a rare treat.
He was seeing galaxies right and left. I found a couple just by swinging through the region. What's amazing is seeing one of those big elliptical things like a dim gray ghost ship in the black of night.
July 20-21, trip to the West Desert, notes made with a tape recorder: My telescope drive is grinding away, and I'm looking at M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, a spiral.
I see the double concentrations of light, the larger one from the galaxy itself and then the smaller one from the little galaxy that has come along and sprung the arm. And it is such a clear, dark, beautiful night that I can see the swirls of the arms of M51. Even when I don't use too much averted vision I can make out the way the arms circle around, and I can see dark rifts between the arms, and it's a really beautiful and exciting sight . . .
I'm looking at M13 (a globular cluster), which is always incomparable, but tonight the bright stars just seem to stand out from this great spangle, a glittering broach of diamond-like stars that stretch across my eyepiece. It's got these tendrils that stick out, and fainter stars and brighter stars. It's a glorious sight . . .
I've got M101 (galaxy) now, in Ursa Major. This is the first time I've found it. And I could really see its spiral structure, even though it was quite faint. It seems flat-on to us. Somehow it reminds me of a swirly lemon meringue pie.
A view from the sleeping bag, night of Aug. 24-25, at the Wedge Overlook, San Rafael Swell: I watched Mars and the Pleiades rise and the Milky Way rotate, and kept seeing a blur below Cassiopeia that I thought was Andromeda, but which I found out a couple of days later was really a double cluster. Toward morning the sky was perfectly still, and Mars was blazing so brightly that when I squinted at it I seemed to see a disk.
Sept. 21-22, a visit to the West Desert: My first surprise was the size of the galaxy (Andromeda). I don't think I ever saw it so large before; I must have been looking at the nucleus before, because I couldn't get it all in the same field even using the lowest power eyepiece. At one time I thought I was looking at the upper edge, which was sharp, and then I saw nebulosity beyond it. So that was a dust lane. I could move the telescope around and see how immense the galaxy was.
I also had a fine view of M33, the Pinwheel (Galaxy) . . . There was a great thick tentacle of the lower arm curving off. Then above that was a mottled effect. This was another huge galaxy, although not as big as Andromeda. The spiral arm on the bottom that curved around was creepy. I am determined to photograph that amazing galaxy someday.
The big treat this session was the Orion Nebula. Like Andromeda, I never really saw all of it before. It was so huge I couldn't see it all at one time. The lower frilled edge in particular was a beautiful sight, folding over itself. The nebula had filmy places or denser sections. It gives me a sense of mystery . . . I was awed when I looked at it.
Photons from the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest big spiral, have been traveling together through space for more than 2 million years at 186,000 miles a second. The glow we see is the fossil light of billions of suns that blazed upon worlds literally beyond our imagining.
With civilization's relentless advance, true darkness is rare. The night may come when our grandchildren can't catch a glimpse of the majestic deep-space objects. That would be a kind of blindness.