The stars. I think I share a common experience with many people who grew up in an urban or suburban environment. You manage to learn about Orion and his belt, the Big Dipper and its little companion, and of course the North Star. You have a chance to see them on occasion on a perfectly clear night or maybe you remember seeing them from the edge of town. Years and years go by and the stars never have an impact on your daily (or I guess nightly) life, but at some point, if you were anything like me, you ended up out west. Maybe you made it out to a state park in the Hill Country, or you got invited to a friend’s ranch with a few miles between you and the city, but if you were really lucky you found yourself in the Davis Mountains or Big Bend during a new moon. You probably didn’t realize what was about to happen (I definitely didn’t), but you can vividly remember that very distinct moment where you looked up at the night sky and saw it for the first time, the Milky Way Galaxy.
This moment happened for me the first time I traveled to the Davis Mountains State Park in Ft. Davis with my dad and brother when I finished High School. We set up camp, had some dinner, and before we knew it, it was completely dark. I walked out from under a tree and I was overtaken by sky. There was a complete blanket of stars but I could still make out a dense band in the very middle. I didn’t need an astronomer to tell me that I was seeing the Milky Way Galaxy. I just knew it the moment I saw it.
Now, as a Stewardship Director for TLC, I’m fortunate to travel out west at least once a year to monitor the properties we protect out there, and I get to experience that moment over and over again. Over the years I taught myself how to photograph the beautiful darks skies and I’ve learned more about what I am seeing. Another important thing I’ve learned is to always try to plan my trips around the new moon. A full moon will completely wash out everything but the few constellations you know from the city, and it really isn’t ideal for taking photos.
Note: In case you want to plan your own trip out west, here is a moon phase calendar that might help you avoid the wash out.
I also happen to be a birder and I’ve learned that even in the city I can use my bird watching scope to look at the rings of Saturn, moons of Jupiter, and a crescent Venus. After a number of star parties at the McDonald Observatory and sleeping under the stars in the foothills of the Chisos Mountains, I can now point out where to find Orion’s Nebula and a number of fun constellations.
Note: If you want to know where to find some of the cool constellations when you look up at the night sky, check out this free constellation finder app.
Dark skies are a diminishing and invaluable resource that are impacted by light pollution from cities and major oil and gas operations. All kinds of wildlife and even humans naturally depend on a normal day-night cycle that can be disrupted by continuous illumination. Light pollution even affects migration patterns of animals like birds and butterflies. Dark skies are also culturally important and played a significant role in the lives of Native Americans. Fortunately there are many initiatives to help protect our dark skies and land conservation is a big part of preventing sprawling development that introduces light pollution.
I encourage everyone to seek opportunities to learn more about the dark skies, see the Milky Way, observe the planets in our solar system, and enjoy the endless offerings of the cosmos.