Stargazing starts by seeking the dark

09 Nov

Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, was the first constellation in focus.  Then there were Sirius, Ursa Minor and the North Star, and a few planets I couldn’t identify.  Blinking earth-orbiting satellites zoomed across the celestial sphere.  As the minutes passed, the visible star field multiplied until the sky was filled with points of light.


La Luna (photo by Scott Crosby, Salt Lake Astronomical Society)

The following is a blog-friendly adaptation of my piece that appeared in the November 5, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light,” wrote naturalist Edward Abbey on the folly of using a flashlight while exploring the wilderness at night.  It’s one of my favorite outdoor quotes.  Unfortunately, the concept’s profundity sometimes outweighs its practicality.  Take, for instance, my bumbling pre-dawn trek at Timpie Point last weekend.

I could chalk it up to the darkness or the abnormal terrain or the fact that I didn’t bother looking for a trail up to the large limestone outcropping.  Yes, I should have brought a light– or at least waited until my eyes adjusted.  Then I might have noticed that huge mud puddle just outside my car door.  I also might have caught on sooner that those two out-of-place looking boulders I was heading over to check out were really two nervous cows.

But there I was—my ankle twisted, my ears frozen, and my agitated bovine companions looking on—under an extraordinarily clear sky.  “Well, whaddya know,” I told told myself, “those Internet sky charts were right.”  Now to find a rock flat enough to lie on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about space lately.  It started with a visit to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. last summer.  I love aviation history, but whenever I visit that museum I tend to spend most of my time in the space wings.  Nothing’s quite as exciting as seeing Buzz Aldrin’s space suit or studying the exterior of the actual Apollo 11 Command Module.  And my inner nerd doesn’t miss a chance to gawk at the original Star Trek production model of the USS Enterprise.

I tend to look up at the night sky with a little more contemplation after visiting that museum.  The fascination sparked by last summer’s trip has yet to wear off.  Perhaps it’s sheer curiosity about what’s beyond our world or the mysterious appeal of that cold, dark void.  Somehow in its mind-blowing infinity, the view of space from Earth always puts things into perspective.  Nothing’s quite as peaceful as looking up at the stars for a good, long time.


USS Enterprise original production model at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (photo by Clint Thomsen)

“You’re a little late for stargazing season,” local pros told me a few days prior when I contacted them to ask for tips.  An entire astronomical viewing community is centered on the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex (affectionately referred to as “SPOC”) where scores of pros and amateurs spend the warmer months examining the heavens through a collection of high powered telescopes.

My sons and I attended the last star party of the season there in October.  The boys thrilled at the opportunity to view nebulae and planets through the telescopes.  Equally captivating to me was watching the hushed crowd of stargazers politely line up to peek into deep space.

The area surrounding the complex is intentionally kept as dark as possible.  “Things that are interesting in the sky are very faint,” Salt Lake Astronomical Society (SLAS) member Scott Crosby told me.  “In order to see any detail [in an astronomical object], you have to intensify it using a telescope.  But the problem is when you do that, you also intensify sky glow.”

“Sky glow” is a type of light pollution.  Usually seen as a dome of light over population centers, it’s the brightening of the sky caused by excess artificial lighting.  Crosby chairs SLAS’s Dark Site Committee, a group that seeks out locations with low light pollution for optimal astronomical viewing.

The term “dark site” is more of a description than an official designation, though the International Dark Sky Association has established several International Dark Sky Parks throughout the world.  The first place to receive the designation was Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument in the Four Corners area.  Light pollution prevents most places in our part of the state from competing for the label, but Crosby said there are several decent dark sky locations in Tooele County.  They include the mountain ranges and spots along the Pony Express Trail and in the Great Salt Lake Desert.

When online clear sky charts predicted excellent viewing conditions on Halloween Night, I couldn’t miss the opportunity for stargazing.  Since five kids plus five costumes plus five plastic pumpkins full of candy made for a rather exhausting Halloween night, early the next morning was the best I could do.

The goal was to isolate myself from Tooele Valley’s sky glow behind the Stansbury Mountains, so I drove to Big Springs at the north end of Skull Valley during what the kids call “early dark time.”  Eager to test out the night vision maximization tips I had read, I parked next to the spring and immediately started hiking, sans flashlight, toward the large rock outcroppings at Timpie Point.

SPOC sky chart

Clear sky chart for the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex (SPOC) (screen cap from

Dark vision adaptation involves a complex anatomical process wherein the rod and cone cells in the retina become more and more light sensitive.  It takes between 20 and 30 minutes for the eyes to completely adapt to dark surroundings.  With practice, dark acuity can become quite developed.

In hindsight, I would have been wise to stay by my car until my vision had fully adapted.  Instead, I adapted while boulder hopping (I’ve always been a multitasker).  I didn’t see the cows for what they were until I was almost face-to-face with them.  If I wasn’t fully awake before, I was now, and I perched on a cold slab nearby.

Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, was the first constellation in focus.  Then there were Sirius, Ursa Minor and the North Star, and a few planets I couldn’t identify.  Blinking earth-orbiting satellites zoomed across the celestial sphere.  As the minutes passed, the visible star field multiplied until the sky was filled with points of light.

I watched the sky until the sunrise upstaged the stars and cast a soft glow across the Great Salt Lake.  I hiked around for a while before driving back home, my space fix satisfied.  Satisfied enough to stop collecting Cheez-It proofs of purchase for that free Captain Kirk t-shirt?  I’m not making any promises.


2 responses to “Stargazing starts by seeking the dark

  1. Blessed

    November 10, 2009 at 4:15 am

    I love stargazing… but they just put streetlights up at my favorite place to stargaze. Sigh.

    • bonnevillemariner

      November 10, 2009 at 3:07 pm

      Dang those lights! We don’t have any in the neighborhood yet, but I think it’s an inevitability.


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