Through a Glass, Brightly
Exploring the Wilderness Above
One afternoon in October, a large cardboard box appeared on our doorstep in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was roughly the size of a vacuum cleaner, four feet high by two feet wide. Inside was a telescope – a cannon-like optical instrument known as a Schmidt-Cassegrain. The “SCT,” as it’s known to astronomy aficionados, is a compound telescope that uses a set of mirrors and lenses to achieve high magnification in a compact body: the perfect setup for a small house in the middle of a densely populated city.
When it was put together, we did what I assume most novices do when trying to get a feel for their new scope. We pointed it at the moon. The sky was too washed out and distorted with atmospheric haze to give us a good look at much else. No matter. The moon was enough for our first evening. I centered the scope on the pale sphere and zoomed in. The sight was remarkable. It was as if we were floating in orbit just above the moon’s crinkled, cratered surface.
“Take a look,” I said to my nine-year-old son, Owen.
“There are actual mountains up there, Dad!” he exclaimed. Afterward, he asked to watch an episode of the Neil deGrasse Tyson reprise of Carl Sagan’s famed Cosmos series. We cued up an episode about the great British astronomer Edmund Halley and his eponymous comet. I related the story of going out with my dad in 1986 (when I was just about his age) on the snow-encrusted eastern plains of Colorado to view it. I still remember it hanging there, tail pointed aloft, a celestial shuttlecock slapped up over the horizon.
He asked if we could see it together someday. “Sure,” I replied, “Just as long as you don’t mind pushing me in a wheelchair, since it won’t come around again until 2062.” The thought was a poignant reminder that human lives are poor measuring sticks for the overwhelming time scales of the cosmos.
Nonetheless, I was eager to teach my son the basics of astronomy, a pursuit that kept me up well past my bedtime on many a clear night as a child. However, the night sky has changed substantially in recent decades. It’s not the stars themselves that have been altered in any appreciable way, of course; it’s our ability to actually see them from within the bright cores of our cities.
For the majority of Americans and urban dwellers worldwide, the sky has lost its structure, its context and, to a degree, its meaning. An estimated 80 percent of the US population can no longer see the Milky Way. The amount of artificial light seeping into the sky from streetlights, houses, buildings, and car headlights has increased with each passing year. Many of the stars that once burned brightly over the skies of my childhood are now invisible to my son. As a consequence, the familiar patterns of many constellations have receded almost completely into the urban glow. At this rate, I often ask myself, what of the night will remain for the next generation?
photo by Mike Knell / Flickr
A good telescope can help overcome some of the worst effects of light pollution. But like so many parts of the public domain, a dark sky is becoming accessible only to a select group of people. In the case of city dwellers, only those who can afford the necessary telescopes and cameras can recapture it. (I’m fortunate enough to belong to that small group.)
I was hoping our new Schmidt-Cassegrain would capture my son’s imagination for the act of looking up, and that the beauty and vastness of the night sky would inspire him, as it has philosophers and thinkers over the ages, to ponder more deeply our humanity and place in the universe.
I grew up something of a space geek – star charts on my bedroom walls, telescopes on the deck. The Denver suburbs of the 1980s were a decent place for a budding astronomer. The viewing conditions were good considering that we were only ten or so miles from the glow of downtown. In the summertime, my dad and I would camp out in the backyard. I remember one summer night falling asleep with the bright wisps of the Perseids meteor shower overhead. I awoke a several hours later to see the winter constellations Orion and Canis Major arrayed above. To my nine-year-old mind, the seasonal shift of the sky was a small miracle – a kind of low-key time travel.
With my dad’s guidance, I quickly learned the names of the brightest stars of the Northern Hemisphere – Sirius, Arcturus, Vega, Altair, Deneb, Sirius, Betelgeuse, Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel – and the constellations to which they belong. But I was most intrigued with the faintest objects, the so-called “deep sky” objects – nebulae and galaxies that hid in the blackness amid the stars. These galaxies and nebulae, which are thousands-to-millions of light years distant, stirred a sense of primal wonder.
The Star Wars movies, which featured hyper-speed space travel, also loomed large in my imagination and had doubtlessly colored my thinking. Even though I had a basic understanding of the immense distances of space, it never occurred to me that even the closest of celestial objects were well beyond reach. I doubt I was the only child of the 1980s who pictured himself in some tricked out star-ship, threading the eye of the Ring Nebula, or slaloming through the stars in the outer arms of the Pinwheel Galaxy.
In my teenage years, my interest in astronomy waned. The telescopes were put away – mothballed in attics and sold at garage sales. I continued to be interested in science but of the terrestrial variety. At the same time, Denver’s sprawl continued to expand and the stars became fainter and more remote from my day-to-day perception. For a decade, I lived in and around New York City, one of the brightest white smears on the planet, and the stars faded almost entirely, coming back into my field of view only occasionally.
One place I have consistently communed with the night sky, however, is in the backcountry of the American West. There, the nights have retained much of their ancient grandeur. I remember camping a few years ago on the Esplanade, one of the stair-step layers along the Grand Canyon’s northern rim, and seeing the Milky Way arcing like a great bridge over the chasm. However, even in that deep, remote place, modernity invades. To the west, a bright dome of light chewed into the night sky. I had an inkling of what it might be, but its brightness caught me off guard. “Could that be what I think it is?” I asked my backpacking companion, the writer Christopher Ketcham.
“Yep,” he replied. “Las fucking Vegas.”
Darkness is a prized quantity to astronomers because it is an enhancer of brightness. The darker the sky, the more vivid celestial objects will appear through the lens of the telescope. An online tool called New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness color-codes the globe based on the extent of light pollution to help us reckon with the growing reach of our light footprint. It shows clearly how our cities have become great night-eating entities swirling outward into the dark periphery.
East of the Mississippi River, our country is almost entirely colored in shades of green through red, with the myriad core cities colored in white, bleeding together into a single, massive light-emitting organism. The largest light-polluted area west of the Mississippi, however, isn’t a city at all but an industrial zone – the oil fields of the Bakken Formation, in North Dakota. Over the past decade this area has been transformed from a remote and dark parcel of prairie to a city-sized swath of ceaseless industrial activity. The light pollution on the Bakken is not the result of urbanization but a product of fire, as thousands of gas flares burn away the darkness.
The impacts of our brightening skies go far beyond hampering astronomical pursuits. Scientists have documented connections between the loss of darkness and numerous health issues including obesity, heart disease – and even cancer. A 2001 study by researchers from Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital surveyed more than 120,000 nurses working various shifts around the country and found that nurses working alternating day and night shifts had a higher risk of breast cancer. Artificial light causes disruptions to our internal clock, or circadian rhythms, which are coordinated by the release of chemicals intimately timed to the rising and setting of the sun.
Our growing effluent of photons from artificial light is also impacting ecosystems, throwing off the behavior and migratory routes of numerous animals, including birds, insects, and sea turtles. It also impacts the growth cycles of trees, which use variations in the length of sunlight as cues to adjust to seasonal changes.
Which is to say, the stray light we are pouring in vast quantities into the night sky is not benign. It is of a piece with the chemical toxins we are discharging into our oceans and atmosphere. And we are only beginning to learn the full scale of the universe of consequences.
In the weeks following our first glimpses of the moon my son and I continued to look up, exploring the heavens with nothing but our eyepieces, the rod and cone cells in our eyes, and our imaginations.
One of the best nights we had in those first days came in the second week of October. As the dry winds scoured the air, humidity levels plummeted and the stars snapped into razor sharp focus. I have never seen a Bay Area night sky so black or free of haze. We sat out on the deck in T-shirts late into the night. At around midnight, we detected faint whiffs of smoke, first hints of the fires that would eventually ravage a New York City-sized swath of Napa and Sonoma Counties.
Before long, we were all but sleeping on the deck, taking our dinner under the stars. Each night I got a little better at fine-tuning the telescope’s polar alignment (telescopes, too, need to know where the North Star is in order to find their way around the sky). These incremental improvements allowed the telescope to more precisely track objects.
Then a piece of equipment called a t-ring adapter arrived in the mail, allowing me to attach my camera and take pictures through the scope. Admittedly, these first images were mere finger paintings in the fine-art world of astrophotography. But we were proud nonetheless.
Around the same time, another sight came across my field of view like the fiery streak of a meteor across a moonless sky: Mark Bailey’s stunning photographs of the cosmos. Bailey lives in Torrey, Utah, at the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, an otherworldly region of sandstone monoliths and canyons wedged between the Great Basin and the Rocky Mountains. It’s also one of the last refuges of darkness in the US. For millennia, people on the Colorado Plateau have been looking to the heavens. At Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, a pictograph panel in red paint depicts a large sun-like figure. Known as the Supernova Panel, some believe it may depict the death of a star in 1054 CE, which lit up night skies across the Northern Hemisphere. (Others suggest, however, that there is little direct evidence that the panel represents the 1054 supernova, but that it could depict some type of celestial event.) The remnants of that massive explosion can be seen to this day near the constellation of Taurus, in a tattered cloud of stellar debris known as M1, or the Crab Nebula. (M1 is 6,500 light years away, meaning that the actual explosive death of the star took place sometime around 4,500 BCE.)
I’d met Bailey, who is a board member of the Wild Utah Project, earlier in the year to discuss his work to protect the Colorado Plateau’s ecosystems. That’s when I also learned that he was also working to protect its dark skies. After I saw his photographs, I emailed to tell him I’d recently bought a telescope and was fumbling about the night sky trying to take photos. He invited us out for a gathering of local stargazers. Bailey also explained that his hometown of Torrey, along the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, was pushing for international “Dark Sky” designation.
The designation is awarded by The International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit that encourages communities around the world to preserve and protect places where one can still view the stars unimpeded by artificial light. The US has several “Dark Sky Parks” including Natural Bridges National Monument and the Big Bend, Death Valley, and Capitol Reef National Parks.
“If you have an extra day or two, and the skies are clear, I can show you some things about getting good pictures with your telescope,” Bailey told me.
I enthusiastically accepted and a week later Owen loaded our telescopes and camping gear into my small pickup and we set out from the Bay Area in the early afternoon. As we passed through Reno, the sun had gone down and the skies darkened almost immediately. Then we merged onto Highway 50, America’s “Loneliest Road” and arguably its darkest. Soon we were under the full blackness of the Great Basin’s moonless night sky. We stopped the car and stepped out onto the shoulder, with the full sweep of the Milky Way splayed out overhead. Owen marveled at the sight, counting three or four meteors in the span of a few minutes as we stood at road’s edge. “It’s like a painting,” he said.
The next day we joined Bailey and his wife, Kirsten, at their home. Over dinner he told us about his father’s time in the Air Force as a navigator in the 1940s and 50s, flying missions over the Pacific. “They would use the stars to navigate,” said Bailey. “You can imagine the ultimate dark sky would be flying up at 10,000 or 15,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean on a moonless night.”
In the 1980s, Bailey’s father began building an observatory at their home in Little Cottonwood Canyon, on the eastern edge of Salt Lake City. “The observatory is his magnum opus,” Bailey said.
By then, Salt Lake City was growing rapidly. Communities on the periphery saw the night sky recede under the advancing orange glow of highways, housing developments, and office parks. This, in turn, steadily degraded the telescope’s ability to detect very faint deep sky objects. Age, too, was closing in on his father. His dad’s once keen eyesight had diminished as well as his memory and, with it, detailed knowledge of how the equipment in the observatory worked. Last year, his father unexpectedly offered Bailey his observatory. “It was a great honor,” Bailey said.
The observatory, known as the Alpenglow – which is now perched picturesquely on a sandstone outcrop overlooking the Fremont River – is a feat of DIY technical ingenuity. For about a year now, Bailey has been scanning the Colorado Plateau’s dark skies and capturing stunning deep space images – the same ones that had brought me here.
The telescope, however, is not merely a high-tech tool that Bailey uses to make beautiful images; it’s also a portal through which he allows the strangeness of existence to seep in. In darkness, the mind is best adapted to wander through the “quantum wilderness” of the universe, as he calls it. “When I’m out there on a starry night I think about the role of consciousness in all of this,” he said. “Consciousness has been an almost taboo subject for physical scientists to deal with.” He notes that although it defines us, “we have almost no idea about what it is.”
Echoing the astronomer Carl Sagan – who famously mused, “We are made of star stuff” – Bailey relishes the idea that our bodies are comprised of heavy elements forged in the centers of stars. “Through these iterations of stars and novas and supernovas all of the elements were formed that make up you and me,” he said. “And here we are standing on this rock in the middle of the Milky Way galaxy and we’ve become fucking conscious.”
Bailey isn’t content with merely making beautiful images and waxing philosophical from the comfort of his private observatory. “There’s just too much at stake, particularly here in Utah,” he said. Even in a remote place like Torrey, the threats to the night are myriad and tied to a larger effort to erode the West’s public lands. He points to the Aquarius Plateau, a pine- and aspen-stippled escarpment rising some 2,000 feet over Torrey, noting that just on the other side of it the Trump administration is mounting a full-scale assault on Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, seeking to reduce its size and open up large parcels to extractive industry. “I’m hoping the telescope can become a focal point in the effort to protect Utah’s night skies and its land.”
When we arrived back at Bailey’s house the next day, the sun was almost touching the horizon and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Bailey gestured to a dark band massing on the eastern horizon. “Do you know what that is?” he asked Owen.
“Not storm clouds again, I hope,” he replied.
In darkness, the mind is best adapted to wander through the “quantum wilderness” of the universe.
“No. That is the Earth’s shadow being cast against the atmosphere. It’s the spreading line of darkness. If you watch it carefully you’ll see that it will grow until we are also in the dark.” As with true, profound darkness, the sight of the Earth’s shadow projected against the backdrop of the dusk sky is a phenomenon we’ve all but lost in the city.
Soon we would be enfolded in that darkness – and so we hurried to get our equipment set up.
Bailey watched as I assembled our telescope, fine-tuning the finder scope and connecting the mount to our computer. I was rapidly approaching the edge of my own universe of knowledge. Nonetheless, my mentor seemed impressed with what I’d learned in just a few weeks. “You’ve gone in head first,” he said with a smile. Then we pointed the telescope at an object 2.2 million light years away—one of the biggest, brightest and, as Bailey called it, “forgiving” deep space objects in the night sky: the Andromeda Galaxy.
When we got back to our hotel room it was well past midnight. The stars were still glimmering and Betelgeuse was just peeking out over the eastern horizon. But I was most interested in the starlight captured on my camera’s SD card. Owen, exhausted, said he was going to sleep but asked me to wake him if we happened to get anything good.
I sat down at the desk without removing my coat, plugged in the camera and loaded the files into the computer. From there I shuttled them into the digital stacking program. The computer whirred for several minutes and eventually spat out a large composite file. There was a bright smudge on the screen but it appeared more or less similar to one I’d taken back at home. Slightly frustrated, I zoomed in and out but could not make out much more detail.
Groping in the dark, I clicked an icon, which revealed a menu of slider bars. These controlled various aspects of the image’s color levels. I dragged one of them to the right. The image brightened and suddenly the outline of the galaxy emerged in full relief.
“Whoa,” I said aloud. I did it again, watching the galaxy fade in and out of the digitally rendered sky, filled with stars. I continued to move various sliders and curved lines until the timeless image of the Andromeda Galaxy stood out on the monitor.
Satisfied, I turned to my sleeping son. “Owen,” I said. “Come look.”
Tiredly, he rolled from the bed but his eyes quickly grew wide, filling with two-million-year-old light rendered in digital pixels. The corners of his mouth turned upward into a crescent moon.
“Dad, we did it,” he said, already thinking ahead to our next deep space viewing excursion. “But I think we can do better. When is our trip to Death Valley?”
Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor of Earth Island Journal.