Ed.Note: While I was attending the Texas Star Party I chanced to have a conversation with Stephen James O'Meara of Sky & Telescope. One of the off-shoots of the discussion was the following article. He asked if I would mind sending a copy to Sky & Tel in case he might make use of it in the future. I said I would, but noted that I was an engineer, not a professional writer. He said send it anyway. So I did and here it is.
By John Reed
The Texas Star Party finally seemed to shaping up to my past remembrances. The weather had cleared and tonight promised to be the best ever. Through the flap of my old canvas tent I looked out on a landscape that seemed almost alien to my Arkansan eyes. Instead of a light-blue hazy sky there was one of a deep blue sapphire hue. The contrast of this solid color against the sage-brown hummocks of the Davis Mountains was abrupt. The thin air was dry, hot and almost still. An occasional breeze caused the tent to pop, then slowly settle back. It was late afternoon and the sun was quickly descending toward the west.
Mark Habenicht and I were camped near the south end of the ranch near the RV area. The center of this area was left open: fertile ground for a fast growing forest of telescopes. Most of these "trees" were large light buckets waiting to direct a myriad of faint photons to waiting retinas. There were few humans in this odd forest, but there would soon be many, many more.
After supper in the ranch cafeteria the sky began to turn from sapphire to indigo to the gray-black of night. At last there was only a fast fading twilight glow in the west which soon vanished, leaving it's ghost in the form of the zodiacal light. The stars descended upon us much like they did in Asmov's Nightfall, in which the inhabitants only saw them every 2000 years. Upon seeing the stars for the first time they nearly destroyed themselves in the mass hysteria which followed. The amateur astronomers attending the star party had, of course, all seen stars before. But at least some of us had never before seen this many!
As the myriad of pinpoints erupted from the darkening sky, they bore upon us with an uncharacteristic intensity. We were virtually bathed in the cold clear light of the eons. There was a silence which was punctuated only by an occasional snippet of conversation or by a metallic clank of equipment being maneuvered to reach some elusive object. The Prude Ranch's day ended. Ours began.
The first of the evening was occupied by simple tasks, easy objects. Jupiter exhibited a marvelous disk in my newtonian. Its dark belts and bright cloud top's showed detailed contrast. As I studied this disk I noted a dark spot adjacent to a belt. At first I thought this to be a satellite shadow, but soon realized it was something else, something harder to explain. I asked others more knowledgeable than myself and was told this was a deep hole in the ever changing cloud-tops of the giant planet. It was a hole which exposed darker, often hidden layers beneath.
Of course the deep sky called, after all that's why we were here. Uncounted galaxies were for the taking. We were looking perpendicular from the Milky-way's disk toward a void much deeper than the stars, deeper than imagination, almost deeper than time itself. Within this void our telescopes picked out island universes. There were thousands.
We turned our various sized glass parabolids toward these denizens of the intergalactic deep and harvested their feeble, telltale light. M-104, the Sombrero was magnificent, its dust lane a bold dark stroke across the thick edge-on disk. A nearby 20" dobsonian exploded M-51 into a mottled, textured pinwheel, its arms winding in an exquisite pirouette. Centaurus A, usually lost in the southern mists, peeked over the horizon, allowing us a chance to scrutinize its strange round shape, its twisted dark lane.
I grabbed a chance to look through a unique instrument stationed nearby. I had been looking in the area of the globular M-3. I noticed that chart 150 of the Uranometria showed a faint, tightly packed cluster of galaxies near Beta Comaae Berenices: the Coma Cluster. I knew they were quite faint, perhaps beyond even the reach of the 17.5" binoculars my neighbor from New Mexico had built. At first I thought that they were, in fact, too faint. All I could see were one or two galaxies in the field. The chart showed dozens. I shifted the field of view of the huge binocs and gasped -- there they were. There were at least twelve in the field. They were faint, fuzzy ovals of light tilted every which way, almost touching. It was a virtual archipelago of these remote islands in the vast sea of space.
We passed the hours this way, capturing one island universe after another until the night was more than half over.
During this observing session I spent a good amount of time just observing the sky without aid of an instrument. The sky was really a charcoal gray rather than black, even though there is no light pollution. All the horizons looked equally dark. The rounded hills surrounding the Prude Ranch were by contrast an ink black color, making it easy to follow their outline against the starry sky. I noticed that the zodiacal light extended much further than I had ever seen before. I scrutinized it carefully, comparing it to the rest of the sky. I noticed that it really didn't stop, but continued in a thin band that passed through Jupiter's position and on toward the east. Over the eastern horizon the faint, wispy, almost nonexistent glow widened. It was the Gegenschein or counterglow. The realization that I was seeing this phenomenon for the first time left me deeply moved. I had always had it placed on a list with the aurora, the green flash, and a solar eclipse as something I may never see. Earlier this year I saw the Northern Lights from my home near Cabot. Now I was seeing the Gegenschein. The funny thing is all of these things don't require a telescope. Just a good eye that is at the right place at the right time.
Later while looking east I noticed the entire horizon looked brighter, almost as if the tiny town of Ft. Davis had suddenly turned on a blaze of lights, which shown on some approaching cloud bank. But there was no blaze, no clouds. The milky-way was rising. The earth, our own observing platform and island in space had turned toward our mother galaxy.
As it rose it became an opalescent arch of light, irregular and blotchy. It was peppered with stars and it wore these decorations with a dignified confidence that these adornments would never overpower its splendor.
Many telescopes shifted toward this eastern glow, their owners hoping to capture evasive nebulas, clusters and planetaries which populate this region. However many still scoured the now descending realm of the galaxies in search of ever more and increasingly distant galaxies. While I watched this a novel thought occurred to me: here we were trying to use our carefully maintained telescopes to see detail in obscure, distant galaxies when one was beginning to fill the entire sky! Perhaps the reason few were looking was because it didn't require a telescope to see it!
Many have seen the Milkyway from urban locations, but only small portions near the zenith are visible. The rest is usually washed away by light pollution. Still others have seen it from darker sites, but the stunning central bulge is usually hidden by horizon-hugging haze. However few, I feel, have seen it as we did then. Our skies were pure and dark, free of man-made light. The air was dry and transparent, our elevation being close to that of Denver's. We were as close as earth-bound humans get to looking at raw star-filled space itself. The Milkyway was not a pale, white river of light, but instead a tremendous, sky-spanning edge-on galaxy. It looked strikingly like the ones we were trying our hardest to see, straining at the eyepiece, stretching our visual perception to its very limits.
The Milkyway galaxy stood above us in all its intricate splendor. It was thin and elusive in the north near Cassiopeia, widening in Cygnus, ending in the galactic bulge in Sagittarius. This swelling contained several bright star clouds that floated above the Archer. There were mysterious holes that were almost completely devoid of stars. One of these dark areas threaded its way north toward Cygnus in a serpentine rift of gloom. This darkness nearly divided the river that was the Milkyway into two channels.
Once again here was an object that could only be enjoyed with the eye. Surely small binoculars would show a portion in better detail, but one could never get the full effect this way. I realized then that amateur astronomy is not about the equipment and the technological trappings that go along with it. It is about looking and seeing something few people have seen no matter what the method.
The ocean of night was drained by the coming dawn.
Islands both near and far were washed away as another day began.
Our day had ended. I staggered back to my tent, trying to somehow
fit all that I had seen into my head. It would take some time.