Wandering

Join the author for a meandering walk through a night's observing. Sometimes it's best to leave your plans behind.

From our gallery: Vega, alpha of Lyrae
Francisco José Sevilla Lobato

Only ten items made up my observing list, but it had taken me all afternoon to compile. I had selected each object based on its placement in the sky and on what I knew, or didn’t know, about it. Each fit within a theme I planned for the night.

The list now finished, I selected a spot to spend the night. I trampled weeds, set up my tripod, and attached a mount. Lovingly, I brought out the telescope, a small refractor. “She’s not very big,” I’d brag to those who would listen — and quite often to those who would not — “But she’s a big performer. Stop by when it’s darker and have a look.”

The first stars popped into sight. “Where to start?” I murmured to myself. I studied my list, the details of each object fresh in my mind. Tonight would be special. I would collect ten cosmic treasures, each a difficult challenge, and brand new to me.

I looked up at the slowly dimming sky, the last remnants of daylight still casting a faint glow. “It’s not really dark enough to start the list yet,” I decided. “Maybe I’ll just peek at an old favorite.” I pointed the telescope toward Vega. It blazed like a blue sapphire. An instant later, its color changed. It flashed red. Then white. Blue. Yellow. Green, maybe? Blue again. All this happened in a single moment. The next brought more of the same.

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” the children’s song danced through my mind. But then, there’s nothing little about Vega. It’s more massive than our Sun, and it burns with a much greater heat. Though Vega appears stationary, it spins on its axis so quickly that it nearly tears itself apart.

This thought and more in mind, I stared into the eyepiece at the sapphire star. Minutes turned to hours and hours gave way to sleepy eyes. I saw the sky brighten in the east with the first rays of sunrise. My observing list lay untouched. I vowed to get to it next time.

Only, I probably won’t. Most nights, I arrive at the observing field with a list, an agenda to keep me on track. Then something catches my eye, and I soar off to destinations unplanned. I keep lots of observing lists. I finish very few.

When I look skyward, I see familiar stars. Then, I gaze somewhere else and new sights capture my imagination — a smudge of light I never quite noticed before or a star shining where before I remembered only darkness. In that instant, it’s as if I am a celestial traveler setting out for the very first time.

Some nights I make scheduled visits only. On others, I improvise. Both are wonderful ways to experience the universe. It’s good to have an agenda, to know where you are going and to go there. But it’s also good to enjoy the freedom of following a whim. On such nights, I look into the starry sky and wander.

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