Gazing up from Idaho

Last week, I volunteered at the summer camp I grew up attending outside Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It’s in a dark enough spot that you can easily see the Milky Way on a moonless night. I tend to spend a week there around the same time each summer, so whenever I visualize the night sky, 47 degrees north latitude on a lake in early August is my reference.

Ten years ago, as a high school student, I raised money to install special shields on the light fixtures at camp to reduce light pollution. The idea is simple: instead of shining light up into the sky where it is wasted and obliterates our view of the stars, redirect the light down onto the ground where it is needed.

Is this how the light shields are supposed to work?
Top: Before and After
Bottom: Is this how the light shields are supposed to work?

Light pollution is an ever-increasing problem, unfortunately. Surprisingly few people have ever seen the Milky Way. Believe it or not, this is what the night sky is supposed to look like:

Milky Way from Ghost Ranch, New Mexico in July 2012.
Milky Way from Ghost Ranch, New Mexico in July 2012.

Pitch black with innumerable stars, a clumpy band of even MORE stars stretching across, with perhaps a satellite or two moving steadily along.

Globular cluster M13 (image credit: APOD).
Globular cluster M13 (image credit: APOD).

This past week in Idaho, I was able to see three noteworthy things in the night sky. First, I pointed a little 6-inch telescope at M13, the globular cluster in Hercules. It took a while to find, because the telescope has no electronic controls and you have to point and track manually.

Second, we were treated to an early sprinkling of Perseid meteors from the meteor shower that peaks on August 12 each year. If you’re curious about this and want to see some meteors too, read all about it here.

Finally, I spotted the International Space Station three times. I get email alerts whenever the ISS passes over my home in Las Cruces, but I didn’t think to check Coeur d’Alene. The station is pretty bright, though, moves across the sky more slowly than an airplane, and doesn’t blink or twinkle. Plus, if it will be visible in southern New Mexico one night, it’s likely to be visible in northern Idaho not too long before or after. You can see when the ISS will be visible from your location by heading over to Spot The Station. I glimpsed the station once on Sunday night, August 4, and announced its appearance during a lovely campfire another night.

A night or two later, I saw something awfully similar… with a fainter light closely trailing it across the sky. What? Was I just tired, and this was two strange looking airplanes? No! After a twitter query and some googling, it turns out the fainter light was almost certainly the HTV-4 Japanese Cargo Ship. It was captured by the station hours later.

What I learned at summer camp: turn off the lights (or go somewhere properly dark), keep looking up, and who knows what wonders you might see.

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