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Stargazing

March 21, 2011

 

I traveled with a group of Boy Scouts to the high mountains on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. Troop leaders had planned the trip to help younger scouts learn camping and cooking skills. One young scout was overjoyed with the prospect of grilling over an open fire and baking in a cast iron Dutch oven. He was so eager to prepare food that he forgot to pack one essential item for the trip.

As darkness settled over the mountains the night air turned cold. The young scout huddled near the campfire and became very quiet.

“I forgot my sleeping bag,” he said sheepishly.

The Scout motto is Be Prepared. As a grizzled old scout leader, I was. I offered the lad my sleeping bag. He accepted gladly. I retired to my pickup truck, a short walk away.

I grabbed a foam pad and a couple of tattered fleece blankets from a stash behind the driver’s seat in the truck cab. I made a comfortable pallet in the bed of the truck and stretched out for the night. There in a clearing on top of a mountain, I had a magnificent view of the night sky. There was no moon. Neither were there any ground lights to dim my view of the heavens. I was perfectly oriented beneath Polaris, the North Star. Throughout the night, I woke occasionally tracking the procession of constellations circling around the pole star.

Stars have always fascinated me. One August, I was at the beach. I had a clear view of the night sky.  I walked to the end of a long boardwalk to gaze into the heavens. There were no clouds. The moon was faint. The stars were bright. I was treated to a spectacular meteor shower.

I remember standing on the tailgate of a truck with a pair of binoculars on a cold February night in 1986, straining to see Halley’s Comet on its last pass of earth. Halley’s Comet will return in July 2061.

Just eleven years after Halley’s Comet zipped by, Comet Hale-Bopp made a grand appearance. I saw the comet clearly from a church parking lot during the daytime in the spring of 1997. If you missed Hale-Bopp, it will be back again in 4385.

The stars fascinated a young man named Edward. After he earned a Ph.D. in astronomy, he moved to Pasadena, California, to work with the world’s largest telescope. Edward made discoveries that revolutionized the field of astronomy.

In 1990, four decades after Edward’s death, NASA launched the Hubble Telescope. It was named for Edward – Edward Hubble. The telescope captures accurate images of distant objects. Photographs taken from the telescope have expanded scientific knowledge of the universe. Even more, the Hubble Telescope has increased our sense of wonder about the stars.

As we enter springtime, I will take a little time to enjoy the stars. It always changes my perspective about where I stand in the grand scheme of things.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2011

 

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