Persieds photograph by Carl Heilman II
Some night this summer when the sky is clear, pick up a pair of binoculars, step away from the fire pit and open your mind to celestial high-drama echoing down to us from the Babylonians, the Greeks, and from the phantasmic beginning of life and time itself.
After your eyes adjust to the dark, look to the south and follow the gauzy light of the Milky Way as it rises from the horizon to a bright yellow star, Antares.
This is the pulsating heart of the mighty scorpion, Scorpio, who at the behest of the goddess Gaia stung Orion, who had vowed to hunt down and slaughter every animal on Earth. Each spring, as the weather warms and the animals wake, Scorpio appears, chasing the winter constellation Orion from the nighttime sky.
Look down and to the left of Scorpio and see the tip of Sagittarius, the centaur’s arrow pointed directly at Antares. One wrong move out of Scorpio, and it’s curtains. Even by the modern standards of flexible identities, Sagittarius is complex, born of many myths—maybe the best being that, rather than face the fury of a jealous wife, he turned himself into a horse.
The core stars in Sagittarius more closely resemble a teapot with a cloud of steam escaping from the spout. This cloud is the heart and soul of the Milky Way, a treasure chest of celestial jewels obscuring the monster within: the black hole at the center of our galaxy, howling through time with the cosmic violence and gravitational pull of 400 million suns, crammed into a figurative shoebox. Stars race around it at fantastic speeds, like bunnies trying to escape a hound. From the fringe of its great maw glows the only visible sign of its existence, a roiling gaseous froth, like cosmic blood dripping from its ravenous jaws.
More glorious pandemonium is all around the galaxy, the great clouds of nebulae, exploding clusters of new stars, death throes of swollen stars exhausting their fuel, fireballs screaming across the firmament—all this in a universe so vast that our galaxy is but a blip, a honky tonk on a universal back road. Yet here we sit on Earth worried that our printer is about to run out of magenta.
“We have all these postage-stamp-sized problems on this dust ball at the edge of the galaxy,” said Aileen O’Donoghue, a professor of physics at St. Lawrence University. “But for all the troubles on the surface of the Earth, the future of space exploration is very bright.”
The Adirondacks provides a front row seat to a story with infinite chapters. Its dark skies make for some of the best stargazing in the East, in an age that seems to be rediscovering its connection to the cosmos after a half-century drought.
When we walked on the moon back before the younger generation of Adirondack adventurers was even born, “We thought it was the beginning, but lo and behold it was the end, for 50 years,” O’Donoghue said.
Space shuttles exploded; the Hubble telescope stumbled out of the blocks; people with imaginations that did not exceed their own lifespans questioned why we would spend money seeking information about unreachable worlds.
Today that momentum has shifted. In the past year alone, we played billiards with asteroids, revived lunar missions, sent a helicopter scudding through the Martian atmosphere, and gasped at mind-bending images sent back to Earth by the new James Webb telescope.
Elon Musk may have saved Ukraine with his network of Internet-beaming satellites. The mercurial billionaire himself rocketed into space and expressed his desire to die on Mars, a wish his critics expressed interest in accommodating.
A 91-year-old Captain Kirk from the starship Enterprise (occasionally known as William Shatner) went into space too, an event that was particularly poignant among the American public, said Seth McGowan, vice president of the Adirondack Sky Center in Tupper Lake.
The center is the heart of Adirondack astrotourism, where 100 people or so would gather every other Friday night to view celestial events through a battery of powerful telescopes. Now, due to demand and the unpredictability of cloud cover, the observatory opens more frequently, on evenings that will be optimal for viewing. Stargazers can check the Sky Center’s Facebook page to see if it’s going to be open, or subscribe to email notifications at adirondackskycenter.org.
Increasing public interest in the skies can be gauged by space-related references in pop culture, and today even a commercial for cereal is likely as not to feature a child in a space helmet. “People are coming from all over to stargaze—Montreal, Syracuse, New York City, Boston,” McGowan said. “It’s absolutely made Tupper Lake into a destination.”
At the other end of the spectrum from space-traveling celebrities, the pandemic sent urban dwellers to rural locales where they looked up and saw the wonders of the heavens, maybe for the first time. And everyone, regardless of station, is privy to the same connection: the very elements that are Up There are in us. “We came from the cosmos,” O’Donoghue said. “I look up at the stars and I see my friends.”
It doesn’t take a telescope to make new friends; in fact, binoculars are preferable, at least at first, because their wide field of view makes it easier to navigate the night sky. And even this modest magnification pulls back the curtain on incredible new worlds.
O’Donoghue recommends treating the sky as you would a new city. First you locate the hotel, or in this case, the easily recognizable Big Dipper in the northern skies. “The Big Dipper is our anchor,” she said. “Then you can start finding your way around, the way in a new city you would start looking for a restaurant.” A sky chart or app serves as a tour guide.
O’Donoghue said that the heavens hold promise for our ability to understand how we came into being and what the future might hold. For the Babylonians, the constellations “were their story books,” she said, and they were able to figure out their location even in daytime.
For us, as our instruments detect exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system) with an atmosphere similar to Earth, the future is staggering. “We are brand new in the universe, and look what we have figured out,” she said. “We know what the stars are, we know why they shine. James Webb is going to teach us new things and new physics we can’t even imagine. It’s so exciting.”
On May 15–16 the crescent moon will hang low in the west and provide a particularly good example of the phenomenon of “earthshine.” While the crescent is aglow, the entire moon will be visible as well, the result of sunshine bouncing off the Earth and illuminating the moon. For centuries, this baffled stargazers. The man who finally noodled it through was none other than Leonardo da Vinci, and today the dim lighting illuminating the entirety of the moon is known as Da Vinci’s Glow.
Mars will visit the “Beehive” on June 1–2, a cluster of a thousand gravity-bound stars whose collective glow can be seen with the naked eye, but whose presence will be enhanced with binoculars. The dalliance occurs in the western sky that Mars will share with the brighter planet Venus. Venus itself will pass into the Beehive June 12–13.
The summer solstice of June 21 sees a crescent moon in the west putting on a show with Venus. Higher and dimmer is the planet Mars and beyond that the star Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. Regulus is 79 light-years from the sun, meaning the photons we see have been traveling through space since the beginning of World War II.
From July 19 to July 21 the planet Mercury makes a rare cameo appearance along with Venus, Mars and Regulus. It will be dim, low on the western horizon, but if you can catch it, the four closest planets will be visible at once, assuming you are counting Earth.
Sci-Fi movies love to show daring starship pilots dodging their way through fields of meteors or asteroids. It is a testament to the great scope of empty space, McGowan said, that even in their thickest concentrations, the need to dodge just one—much less a hailstorm—would be slim to none. Still, from late July to mid-August, the Perseid meteor shower—sparks created by leftover comet debris—can make it seem as if flying objects are all around. The Perseid peaks this summer on August 13, when under perfect conditions it can be possible to see as many as 150 meteors an hour. They’re visible all night, but are most prevalent in the early, predawn hours.