Sunday, January 22, 2012

Starry Starry Night in Loreto Bay

One of the quiet pleasures of Living Loreto is the night sky.  For several reasons including our latitude near the Tropic of Cancer, the clear desert air and relatively low light pollution, the stars and other heavenly bodies are particularly bright and apparently close, when viewed from here.  In fact, I remember one of my visitors, from my previous home in western Canada, saying that she had never seen so many stars appear to be so close, “it was almost alarming” – if it wasn’t so spectacularly beautiful!

However, like so many things that we see on a regular basis in our day to day routines, we tend to become complacent about this nightly light show, except for the occasional situation, walking home in the evening or taking a moment to look up at a full moon – at times like that we experience again the awe inspiring display that hangs overhead every night.

Speaking of full moons, more than once, as I pass through the inner courtyard of my home on a night with such a moon, I have caught myself checking to see which light I have left on, due to the almost unnaturally bright moonlight that bathes what normally should be in darkness.  Here “moon shadows” is more than a lyric in a song - you can literally read in the light of the full moon!       

So when a Homeowner recently suggested, on our community website, getting together with others who shared an interest in observing the night skies, I responded enthusiastically.  To be clear, I am a novice when it comes to navigating the celestial bodies, I can barely make out the difference between a star and planet, let alone know their names or be able to find them beyond the obvious like the Big Dipper, and Orion’s iconic “skymarks”.  But I did know enough to know what I didn’t know, and I was glad to have the opportunity to observe and learn a little more from anyone who did have that knowledge.

About half a dozen of us got together for an informal meeting one afternoon about a week ago and discussed possible sites for our first “Star Party”.  Ray, who had initiated the idea behind the group, had done some scouting of the surrounding area and suggested a couple of locations within a short drive of Loreto Bay with “near dark” conditions.  But it was decided that our first venture would be closer to home.  The adjacent golf course has several “dark spots” where we would be shielded from the modest amount of light pollution surrounding our development, and we could access them easily without having to drive – a cautious consideration given the possible hazard of meeting stray animals on the roads at night.     

And so, with the location decided, it was agreed that we would meet at the south end of the Paseo main road around 6:00 pm so we could make our way to the viewing site on the golf course in the twilight and get whatever equipment we had, set up before it became too dark.  I offered to borrow one of the golf cart “trucks” from our Office to help transport any bigger telescopes, although I was only going to be bringing a pair of nautical binoculars and a tripod myself.

Earlier on the appointed day, I watched a few wisps of high cloud pass and saw that things were shaping up for an almost perfectly clear night sky.  After I closed the Office I hurried home to change into “warm” clothes (I can hear the scornful sounds of my northern readers now, as they struggle through late January weather, but it’s “winter” here too, and it does cool off at night when the heat goes down with the sun – albeit to 15 degrees Celsius or 60 Fahrenheit) and grabbed a folding chair along with the binocs, tripod and of course my camera, and headed off to pick up the cart truck.

At the Office I met two fellow star-gazers carrying their reflector telescope with its stand, soon the three of us had loaded everything onto the cart and were headed for the meeting place.  When we arrived there were already half a dozen others setting up equipment on a sheltered tee box surrounded on three sides by rocky hills, which gave us a convenient place to view the darkening night sky. 

In addition to two bigger telescopes, among us we had a spotting scope and a pair of celestial binoculars, both on tripods, as well as my own binoculars and several people had brought star charts.  But I was particularly taken by the I-pad that one person had brought that had a “star ap”.  Using the internal GPS, this tablet had the amazing ability of showing a graphic of the star formations in view and identifying them by name, just by pointing it to the heavens, dare I say – star gazing for Dummies!

While the more expert among us identified Jupiter’s three moons and the Andromeda Cluster (a fuzzy glow in the middle of Orion’s sword) and shared their views with the other “beginners”, soon we were all enjoying the magical experience of focusing on that which we take for granted most nights – the celestial light show that has attracted us as a species since the beginning of time.  Pardon me if that sounds pretentious, but it really was exciting to take the time to LOOK, and more to the point, SEE the awesome beauty that is the night sky under circumstances that were close to ideal!

Even with my own modest equipment (a decent pair of 7x50 binoculars but more importantly, mounted on the tripod so they were stable) I was able to focus on a constellation and appreciate the myriad of stars surrounding it, otherwise invisible to the naked eye.  And then I saw a streaking star – no, it must be a satellite, moving at a steady, but leisurely pace across my field of vision – and then, a few minutes later another, and another!  I had no idea that there were so many man-made celestial bodies orbiting above us, in such a tiny keyhole view, and over the span of just a few minutes, it boggled my mind as to what the total population of these artificial “stars” must be globally!

After an hour or so of such heavenly distraction, the couple whose equipment I had ferried to the site earlier were packing it up and I offered to give them a lift back to the main road again, leaving my equipment behind for others to use.  The three of us piled everything back into the cart and began the ride back across the golf course, until we reached the first hill, where the cart slowed to a crawl and one passenger had to jump out so I could make it to the top.  Obviously my cart batteries were now precariously low and I quickly decided that if I was lucky enough to make it back to the Office under power, I would have to park it there and leave it recharging. 

Which is what I did, walking back to the Star Party with my flashlight to pick up and pack up my stuff and then return on foot – glad that I hadn’t stranded the cart in the middle of a fairway overnight, and relieved that I wouldn’t have to find a way to retrieve it somehow the next day.  But this minor inconvenience became another moment of appreciation, as I made my way through the now very dark night, guided by my trusty light, my was focus shifted to how the familiar golf course terrain around me was transformed, and now it was, in its own way, as unfamiliar as the skies above that I had just been observing.     

So ended my first “star trek”, and with thanks to Ray and my other cosmic guides, I look forward to future adventures in the night skies.  I don’t know if I will ever be familiar enough with the heavens at night to find my own way around, but even after this first modest venture, I believe that I appreciate more than ever before what a fantastic show is performed every night right over my head – and I hope I will never take it for granted in the way I have before.  Appreciating the realization that the commonplace can become the spectacular if you take the time to really see what is around you – that is another lesson I will remember about “Living Loreto”!