As I am writing this, the sun is just coming up. There is a faint light in the Eastern Sky with a bank of clouds silhouetted right near the horizon. It is going to be a beautiful sunrise.
I love watching the sky during the day and especially at night. I consider myself a serious “armchair astronomer”. I can recognize a few of the notable stars and constellations but despite the fact that I have an app on my tablet that tells me what I am looking at, I am usually at a loss to use it properly and prefer just looking at the vastness of the nighttime sky and marveling at the stars as a whole.
I find looking at the nighttime sky to be the best way I can imagine to combine my fascination with science with my spiritual yearnings. I’ve written extensively on this over the years and I continue to be inspired by the beauty of the heavens.
As do many, I follow with great interest and anticipation the news of upcoming astronomical events and prepare myself to witness them in person if at all possible.
But the fact is, as I lamented to a friend last evening, I have a less than positive track record when it comes to actually seeing the “big events”.
Some of this has to do with where I live. Michigan is notorious for cloudy nights and I can’t tell you how many great moments we’ve missed because of clouds. And even when the weather seems like it is going to cooperate, something else might come up: fog, for example.
Back in the 1997, I woke up our four-year-old son in the middle of the night to go to see Comet Haley-Bopp at a special program set up by the University of Michigan astronomy department. It was a beautifully clear night. But shortly after we got into the car, a fog bank rolled in and I couldn’t even see well enough to drive to the site of the program, let alone see the comet. I remember that my comment at the time was: “They saw it from the rooftops of Manhattan, for God’s sake, and we couldn’t see it out here”.
But I can’t blame the weather every time. Sometimes, I go out at the wrong time, look in the wrong place, decide it isn’t worth driving into the countryside where it is really dark or just don’t have the patience to search for what it is that I am supposed to be seeing. I often walk away disappointed.
That brings us to this week.
I know many of you saw the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter and many of you saw it here in Michigan.
On Sunday evening, I noticed a slight break in the clouds, but it didn’t seem sufficient to see the conjunction. So, I stayed home only to find out later that many did see it.
Monday evening, the “big night” for the conjunction, was miserably cloudy. The pictures online were extraordinary and better than I would have seen without a telescope of course, but they were still just pictures.
And then last night, after an overcast day, the sky started to clear and I tried again but couldn’t find a good spot to see the Southwestern horizon and then noticed the clouds coming back and I gave up. An hour later, I got a text from a friend: “Did you see it? Wasn’t it beautiful?”
I went back outside but it was too late.
So, I missed the once in a lifetime (actually once in many lifetimes) conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Just like I’ve missed many in the past.
Each time this happens, waver between being angry at myself and finding comfort in the fact that there will be another chance to see something remarkable sometime in the future and I will just try harder.
But I am also comforted by remembering that I have seen many remarkable celestial events: my first view of Saturn through a telescope, the closest passage of Mars to the Earth, Venus’ transit of the sun in 2012, the Perseid meteor shower from one of the “Dark Sky Parks” in Northern Michigan and the solar eclipse of 2017.
With that final one, I managed to get a great picture by holding my phone up to the sky while looking down at the ground. I’ve included it here to show I have had some successes.
But the “ones that got away” continue to frustrate me. Maybe there is a lesson in that for me: that some of the miracles of our universe should be just beyond our reach.
Meanwhile, the sunrise continues and the sky is a beautiful pink. I made sure to notice it.
Partial Solar Eclipse August 21, 2017
Ann Arbor, MI