On Planets and Fireflies

One evening this past summer I discovered an occasion to surprise my family with the announcement an immediate departure for a little adventure at a time when preparations for journeys into dreamland are normally commenced. Our city of residence sponsors a regular program of skywatching, generously setting up telescopes in a small cove surrounded by rolling hills just lofty enough to block the nearby glow of nearby lights. There the night sky is pleasantly dark and revealing of all those shimmering little details mostly hidden in areas of modern habitation. After a short trip, my daughter grew more and more excited as we ambled down a narrow footpath lit only by moonlight (in a place, it should be mentioned, that is frequented by rather large, furry mammals who are best left at a distance). When we joined a small crowd huddled around four large telescopes, the anticipation was almost too great for her to bear (no pun intended), and she skipped and hopped about with excitement.

The sky was exceptionally clear and dark. After a brief introduction by the hosts, we were left to wander and gaze through the lenses to see in larger size those things normally appearing only as small points of light. Drawn across the firmament as if dangling from an invisible thread were the crescent Moon with its darker side lit by faint earthshine and the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. My daughter had seen these celestial objects through a telescope perhaps once before, but being quite young she could not remember the event. We took in the views granted by the telescopes and were delighted to see the planets in more detail, especially Saturn. It is always a pleasure to see the reactions of those viewing Saturn for the first time. The tingling of wonder is contagious. That night through the telescope Saturn’s rings appeared particularly large and distinct. Three of Jupiter’s moons were also easy to spot. For my daughter these planets and moons were no longer merely abstract objects of mention in school books and planetarium shows. They were real, identifiable things present in the night sky.

While taking turns at the telescope, we both noticed some mysterious flashes of light in the sky nearby but they passed too quickly to catch the source. Finally my daughter saw one of the fleeting lights close by and just above the ground, and we realized the source was quite terrestrial in nature: fireflies. Accompanied by these earth-bound shooting stars, we peered again through the lenses, and I mentioned to my daughter how it reminded me of looking through a microscope. Indeed, for all its great size Jupiter appeared only a bland circle with a pair of muted stripes and massive Saturn a white dot uninteresting in appearance if not for being embraced by those surreal rings. Relatively nearby Mars looked to be only a faintly reddish star. At the size they appeared I could have easily held them all on the end of my finger. How incredibly small and insignificant must Earth appear from Saturn.

We asked the host if he could identify which of Saturn’s moons were in view, as there were small points of light appearing close to the planet. He looked through the lens, consulted his guidebook, and concluded it was difficult to discern the moons from the background stars. For tiny little Saturn, we were told, a ball of gas so large and vast beside it Earth would be of little consequence, was just then floating languidly before the much more distant center of the Milky Way. I took my eye off the telescope and peered toward Saturn with my unaided eyes. Saturn was indeed there, hovering unattached before the backdrop of night, appearing quite ringless without the telescope. But where was this place with the grand sounding title of Galactic Center? We had seen before the starlit mists of the Milky Way when traveling through high terrain far from lights and habitation. At the time we felt compelled to stop just to look and wonder at the sheer immensity of it all. It is a shame such views are often obscured or hidden altogether due to the modern predilection for washing away the wonders of the night sky. Some part of us needs the sky. For such views give one reason to ponder the utter strangeness and undeniable beauty of the world we inhabit. And beyond the reminder of how strangely small our home called Earth really is, just seeing the joy and excitement on the faces of our neighbors both young and old as they looked through the telescopes and caught a glimpse of the profound mystery surrounding us made for a memorable evening.

Leave a Comment