In the middle of a night almost two weeks ago, deep in southern Utah, I was working on astrophotography when I heard Tyler Allred and some other friends talk about taking photos. I didn’t see them because it was dark and I was paying attention to my own project. Tyler called to me, asking if I would hold my position because he was making a 30-second exposure.
The photograph is spectacular, showing the way an amateur astrophotographer works outdoors — in this case, seated at my folding table with flashlight in hand, laptop screen beaming light onto my face, telescope tracking with red lights blinking from CCD camera and hand controller. But the best is the rest of the view, the clear night sky bisected by the edge-on Milky Way Galaxy. There are star clusters, dark nebular masses, hundreds of pointlike stars, filmy clouds that represent thousands more; in the background, a few small actual clouds that will not pose a problem; rugged cliffs, trees in silhouette, a streak of headlights on a road too distant to contribute light pollution; and above, lines representing moving “satellites, meteors, and airplanes,” as Tyler noted.
[Photo of the Milky Way and its admirer, Joe Bauman, taken by Tyler Allred of Tremonton, Box Elder County. For a larger view CLICK HERE. With a couple more clicks the scene is even more detailed. Don’t forget to look around at some of Tyler’s amazing astrophotos.]
Of course I emailed copies of the picture and posted it on my Facebook site. One friend said Tyler’s photo should be in National Geographic Magazine. Both of my dear sisters said they would like prints. Others called it “a really cool pic” and “awesome,” while another friend said, “Wow! I’d forgotten what the sky is supposed to look like.”
The night sky comment hits home.
If you think of our history as a species, the glorious Milky Way and the rest of the night sky are our birthright. From the dawn of time until the past hundred years, when light pollution began to set in viciously, our ancestors spun stories about the walkway to the stars and other nighttime mysteries.
Legends grew up about the constellations: there’s Andromeda, chained to a rock; here’s Perseus, come to rescue her. Look over there at Mars (in Greek, Ares), the god of war, its ruddy color perceived as being as red as blood; and now we can see Antares (Anti-Ares), the bright orange star that is the heart of the constellation named Scorpius (Scorpion); Antares is a competitor of Mars in color and brightness. Orion the giant hunter stands ready to strike with his club but he can never get at the Scorpion, which stung him to death before he was immortalized in the sky, because they were made to rotate across the heavens at opposite times of the year.
For all those generations, wherever humans lived they could stare at the beautiful views above their heads at night and wonder. Only with the world’s industrialization has light pollution stolen this from us. Every person ought to see these things but now they delight only the few living far from city lights and we who drive hundred miles to dark skies. We have lost a memorable kind of wonder.
Enough ranting. I am thinking back to that moment when Tyler tripped the shutter, when the air was clear and friends were near. I’m remembering the joy of making astrophotos of galaxies, billions of stars in their own island universes, places where I am convinced civilizations exist. Later I took a walk away from the dim light of my laptop. The sky was so lovely it radiated a holy feeling. I heard a coyote yip.