September 7, 2021 by Jean
I recently returned from a five-day vacation on the Downeast Maine coast. I stayed in a cottage with a big window overlooking the water, and I spent lots of time outdoors – relaxing, hiking, and walking the beach. But the primary impetus for my vacation and the highlight of the trip was an invitation to go stargazing with a Maine astronomer and his wife.
We lucked out with one evening of clear skies during my stay. I met these generous strangers who had offered to take me stargazing for the first time when they picked me up at my cottage a little before sunset. We then drove about thirty miles to a dark and secluded parking area looking south over the ocean on Acadia National Park’s Schoodic Peninsula where the astronomer set up a set of high-powered binoculars on a tripod and we watched the stars come out – many, many stars and some planets, too.
The astronomer happily showed me around the sights of the night sky. These weren’t the darkest, most star-filled skies that I have ever seen, but having an expert guide made all the difference. Through the binoculars, I saw the rings of Saturn and two of the four moons of Jupiter. Mostly, I enjoyed what I could see with the naked eye. The Milky Way was a bright swath, arcing over our heads and down to meet the water at the horizon. Several meteors streaked across the sky to the south, and Jupiter shone so brightly that it cast its own path of light on the water. The whole evening was magical, and I could have happily stayed out there for many more hours.
My stargazing adventure has inspired me to be more intentional about looking at the stars from my big southwest-facing bedroom window. Two nights ago, I got out a night sky “Planisphere” that I bought years ago, but have never used. You set the date and the time of night, and it shows you a map of what is visible in the night sky. I’m now using it to try to identify what I’m looking at. I’ve also discovered that the Sky and Telescope website has wonderful resources, including interactive sky charts specific to my location. I’ve found some beginning guides to the night sky for amateur stargazers available at the public library, and I’ve discovered a wealth of videos and whole courses on stargazing available on YouTube. Today I spent some time browsing online for vacation rental cabins close to the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which has the darkest skies in the United States east of the Mississippi River. My plan is to spend the next year learning to identify what I’m seeing from my own house, then rent a cabin in the Katahdin area for a stargazing adventure.