Seeking the stars
Montana is the perfect state for stargazing
All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.— epigraph from “Lonesome Dove” from T. K. Whipple’s, Study Out the Land
Light, like a criminal in the night, trespasses and steals the stars – the constellations that guided our ancestors upon oceans and across wilderness, making nebulous the visible rhythms of nature that told them when to plant and when to harvest. The ancient orbs composed of hydrogen and helium, ripe with mythology, mystery and meaning are disappearing around the world.
Montana’s state population is equal to the number of people who attend a single parade in Boston – the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. To many Montanans, the lack of distraction equals peace. What they may not consider is that the lack of light equals opportunity. People in more urban areas rarely get the chance to see the night sky in all its glory. Big Sky residents can walk outside in the crisp air and look up to the heavens. Monthly meteor showers, a moon nearly 4.5 billion years old, star hopping – now is the perfect time to embrace the night and share the stars with each other.
Cling to the wonder of space
Lynn Powers, an amateur astronomer and International Astronomical Dark Sky Union Ambassador feels sorry for times – where kids are too distracted by technology to notice the wonder above them. “We have gone from looking up to know our place in space – where the stars are, where the constellations are – to know what season it is – to looking down at our devices,” she said. “We aren’t as familiar with the sky as we used to be.”
Protect your mind against the light
For generations, the human body existed with a natural rhythm – work, harvest and hunt with the light, sleep in the night. It was a law of nature, obeyed without question and then fire, lamps made of animal fat, candles, the light bulb – street lights – humans began to battle the night in increasing levels of intensity. According to Dr. Carlye Luft, humans gained the night at great cost to their bodies. There is now a condition called shift work syndrome – which applies to people who are awake when they should be sleeping, she said.
“So, that affects their production of melatonin and there is a lot of research out there that these people have 3-10 times more risk for cancer and autoimmune disease because it affects their immune response – melatonin is actually really supportive of the immune system,” she said.
The mountain west is the best for stargazing
"[Stargazing is] slowing down, how often do we slow down and quiet our minds? Haven’t you ever sat outside and just looked up? You can talk for hours. You don't have to be entertained and we don’t have to look at our devices,” Powers said.
There is a wide swath of darkness in Montana, she noted.
Stars visible to the naked eye are present in this galaxy.
“The star party I did in Yellowstone, it was so dark we could see the Andromeda Galaxy,” she said. During an All-Sky survey in Little Big Horn, Powers and her cohorts saw a cluster of stars called m13 located 25,000 light-years from earth.
“Glacier/Waterton is Dark Sky certified. Yellowstone is not yet certified, but they are working on it,” she said. “They are really working hard to preserve the dark sky in the national parks.”
Welcome to the star party
There is certain etiquette that must be followed at star parties for optimal enjoyment. Here are things to avoid and things to find to enjoy the night sky:
1. When a car drives by, children have flashing lights on their shoes, or someone turns-on a flashlight without a red covering, it takes the human eye approximately 20 minutes to adjust and let the light back in so that observers can see the most stars with the naked eye. Powers said a red balloon with the neck cut off can be placed over most flashlights to protect night vision and to see as many stars as possible.
2. Watch the moon go through different phases – and a telescope is not needed. You can look at the moon with a spotting scope or binoculars, Powers explained. “It’s not just getting out and contemplating the stars. It’s looking at the moon – because the moon is really cool. The moon has been around for 4.5 billion years and it preserves its history,” she said.
3. “You can see there is at least a meteor shower once a month. Granted the weather isn’t always great, but going out and making a wish on a falling star is a lot of fun,” Powers said.
4. You don’t have to know anything when you go out, but each time try to learn something new. There’s a practice called star-hopping. From the Big Dipper we star hop and we can find the Little Dipper and we can find Casiopea from Orion’s Belt…
5. Become a citizen scientist and help collect data for the Globe at Night campaign – an international “campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure and submit their night sky brightness observations,” according to the globeatnight.org website.
6. See evidence of light pollution and how Montana areas stand at lightpollutionmap.info
Summer skywatching events worthy of your calendar: June 21: The first of two solar eclipses of 2020 Aug. 12: The Perseid meteor shower. According to Space.com Perseids are described as the “old Faithful” of meteor showers. There is the potential to see more than one meteor per minute.
For more information on Montana skies visit https://smasweb.org