“Oh My God, it’s full of stars”… These were David Bowman’s last words as he moved toward the monolith orbiting Jupiter at the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic work – “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I loved this work, as well as many written by Mr. Clarke, and I’ve never forgotten that incredulous statement made as Dr. Bowman was being prepared to ‘enter’ the monolith. Flash forward to this past week in south central Alaska and the amazingly clear nights we’ve experienced; living semi-rural I’ve been able to view the only recently returned dark night skies every night for the last six evenings and they have been spectacular!
Initially I was looking to view ‘Nature’s light show’ – the Aurora Borealis – and I was just blown away by the displays from Tuesday late evening right through early Wednesday morning. It was the best display I’ve observed since I moved up here in August of 2013 and second only to an incredible display I viewed with a friend up on The Haul Road (aka ‘The Dalton Highway’ AK 11) in early September of 2000.
Alaskan aurora courtesy Jan Curtis
But the aurora are fickle and despite forecasts from UAF of ‘high+’ (between 6 and 7 on the 0 to 9 scale) across the next four evenings I never saw any additional displays. But every night I was treated to a star filled sky; in the early evenings I could easily see the edge-on view of the Milky Way. As the night progressed I saw many of the now familiar constellations such as Ursa Major – the same depicted on the Alaska state flag – and Ursa Minor along with Cassiopeia, Cygnus and Pisces. By early morning when the air temps hovered around -6.67° C (20.00° F) the night sky was often crystal clear with the stars twinkling like icy diamonds. Although I’ve seen this sight many, many nights now it still never ceases to evoke a sense of awe and wonder to realize as I view the incredible night sky I’m looking back in time and any given point of light could be a star now gone due to novae or supernovae but the light of said destruction has yet to reach Earth. So just by looking up at the clear night sky I could easily utter those now famous words from David Bowman’s encounter with the monolith. But I feel more comfortable with a line from a favored Enya song named, appropriately enough, “Paint The Sky With Stars”:
Place a name upon the night
One to set your heart alight
And to make the darkness bright
Paint the sky with stars.
The amazing view of our spiral galaxy – The Milky Way!
Not at all pleased I missed what my neighbor described as an ‘awesome’ show of the aurora late last night; its significant that she’s lived up here for over fifty years and in that time viewed a number of truly spectacular shows. I’m dialed into the auroral forecasts produced by the UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks) and had heard of Tuesday’s ejection of a lot of stellar matter; because of this I checked their forecast for Wednesday and saw a rating of just ‘1’ – said scale is rated 0 through 9 with the higher numbers indicating a greater likelihood of stronger auroral activity – and in addition said if there was any activity it would only be visible in the low northern sky in Talkeetna. Because I’m surrounded by tall boreal forest I decided it wasn’t worth arising around 23:00 to check for activity. Don’t ask me why but it seems that so much auroral activity, at least in the northern hemisphere, takes place between 22:30 and 01:00. To then learn today while briefly shopping at the local grocery/convenience store that last night’s display had been ‘awesome’ was very disappointing as I love the aurora and intend to try to catch them on my DSLR and my video camera.
This same website is forecasting a ‘3’ – ‘moderate’ level activity – for this evening with the chance to see the activity directly overhead in this area. My alarm clock is already set and my cameras charged; I’ve even cleared an area on the back porch for tripod placement. At least the weather appears to be cooperating with the forecast calling for clear skies; in addition the moon will not rise until 00:41 in this area so we should have the dark skies needed to really enjoy the aurora. I have come to truly enjoy night sky gazing up here on cold, clear nights as with no light pollution and clear skies there are more stars than I ever imagined possible and if I stare at the sky for even just a few minutes I’ll eventually see a meteorite blazing by. With all this said it’s still a real crap shoot as to whether I’ll see anything; often its tough to stay awake for a couple of hours largely watching the sky when it’s around midnight. In addition I see the lows tonight will be dropping into the minus single digits. While this definitely helps one remain awake it also decreases the amount one can spend outdoors; thankfully my place has many large windows from which I have good views of the western and northwestern skies once I clear the local tree tops.
It occurs to me this is yet another example of this amazing location ‘molding’ me to its ways; I’ve always been a sky watcher but much more in daylight as I watch clouds and other conditions for a clue as to the upcoming weather. In addition I love to look for atmospheric anomalies like sun dogs, sun pillars and similar. But Alaska has charmed me with her incredibly dark night skies alive with millions of hard white pin points of light. I’m learning to recognize not just the major constellations – I’ve been able to do that since a child – but now many of the less obvious constellations along with the planets. For the first time I’m beginning to ‘feel’ the lunar rhythms and be aware of where I am with respect to the lunar cycle. All this engenders a true sense of being ‘one’ with this incredible natural world just as does observing the myriad of wildlife that visits my little piece of the huge boreal forest that extends for hundreds of miles. It’s very easy to really become immersed in this ‘natural world’ and as I do so more and more I find I have less and less interest in technology and all ‘artificial’ things. Without question I still favor technically oriented things like electricity, broadband connectivity, a septic field and a well pump but my dependence upon satellite TV and radio is slowly diminishing. And to be honest I’m very much ‘okay’ with this trend..!