By 3:15 a.m., I was exhausted from battling the telescope. It wouldn’t focus, with the experimental setup I was using (later I found I had spaced some elements incorrectly). Maybe, I thought, I could make substantial rearrangements and get it working — but by then dawn would be lightening the desert, ruining any chance of photography — or maybe I could do it fast enough. But I was too tired. For the first time that I could remember, I just gave up: I quit trying, on a dark, still, moonless night that was perfect for astronomy.
The site, in Tooele County, Utah, is a favorite of mine. This night brought no disruption from nearby campers. To the east, cattle groaned loudly and a calf bawled, part of a small herd. The orange half-moon, closely accompanied by Jupiter, set around 12:30 a.m.. Coyotes put on two enjoyable but brief howl concerts, first as the moon was disappearing, and then at 2 or thereabouts they erupted with a surprising orchestration of yips, yodels, barks and quarreling sounds, lasting two or three minutes.
While the afternoon air was gunky with smoke from California and local wildfires, it was far clearer than in Salt Lake Valley. As evening fell, vivid stars popped out. However, when the moon sank, its light sliced horizontally through the atmosphere, lighting up smoke particles to the extent that the stars became faint. Or perhaps a thin cloud layer obscured them temporarily. I had no way of differentiating. But after moonset, the stars reappeared.
I had set up a folding cot and now, discouraged, I arranged a thick foam pad on it — the pad used to cushion the telescope while traveling. I spread two blankets and unrolled a sleeping bag onto them, then climbed in and pulled the covers over myself. I lay in the cool air with my glasses on.
And suddenly, unexpectedly, quiet beauty overwhelmed me.
Brilliant stars and the Milky Way arched above. A small version of the Summer Triangle — call it the Autumn Triangle — made up of the stars, presided serenely over all. (With the help of a star atlas, I have decided they were Hamal, Mirach and Apheratz.) A little lower burned Mars, which was redder and brighter than usual. I stared a long time, just soaking it all in.
I remembered an idea — not original with me, perhaps by Galileo — along the lines that he said in his old age a common object, maybe a pear tree, was as vibrant and young as one he would have seen in his youth. The view overhead reminded me that the spectacular, beautiful and frequently unknowable universe will continue after I depart. That was a nice realization, bringing a feeling of peace.
In the morning a man drove an old pickup into the large clearing where I was working to disassemble the telescope. A friendly person, he was middle-aged and wore work clothes. He asked whether that was a telescope. Yes, I said. He wanted to know what I was watching. I told him that I had intended to do some photography but it didn’t work. I asked what he was doing. Looking for cows, he said; he was about to market his calves. I told him how noisy the cows were and he agreed.
He asked what I wanted to see. I had hoped to photograph a galaxy. “Not this one?” he asked, then chuckled at the idea. No, it’s one called NGC 891, I said. Is it to the north? (My telescope happened to be pointing north.) No, it was almost straight above I said, pointing. I explaining I had moved the telescope around while trying to fix its problems and now I was packing my gear to go home
“Oh, you were up all night.”
“Well, I had a nap,” I said.
He wished me good luck with my telescope and I said good luck with your calves, and he drove off.
Joe Bauman, a former Deseret News science reporter, writes an astronomy blog at the-nightly-news.com and is an avid amateur astronomer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.