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Starry Nights – A Natural Resource

By Jim Pomeroy, Manager, Hidden Pond Nature Center

It’s the 19th century. All alone at night, you’re taking the long journey from the city of Fairfax to the township of Occoquan. It’s a difficult, even dangerous undertaking.

Unless you knew the way well, the trip would be almost impossible in the near total darkness of a moonless night. The road would have been rutted, muddy at least half of the year, and there was always the threat of being robbed. With few if any road signs and houses far apart and all dark, just about the only thing to bring comfort would have been a true nighttime resource -- the sky.

And what a starry sky it must have been! With no competing light from the ground, and no smog, the heavens would have appeared packed with stars and planets. With a glance at the sky, folks used to being outdoors after dark would know the approximate time of night it was and which direction they were facing. Modern studies have shown that night-migrating birds use the stars for navigation. That may seem amazing to us now, but only because we have become so removed from the night sky. Fact is, using stars for navigation is probably easier than using rivers, coastlines or mountain ranges.

We too can gaze upon the stars and ponder our place and our destiny. To watch the heavenly bodies and understand their motions, the phases of the moon, the motion of the earth -- is to truly feel the earth move under your feet. However, to experience this, we do have to actually see the stars.

Becoming Reacquainted with the Sky

Winter is a good time to become reacquainted with the visible universe. It gets dark earlier, the constellations are more striking in winter, and the air is clearer. It is a paradox that even though science has given us a far greater (though still, oh, so incomplete) understanding of what we are looking at, few of us have the opportunity now to really see the stars as our ancestors did. Still, with warm clothes and a blanket, a pair of binoculars, and a chaise lounge, we can once again appreciate at least a part of the wondrous sky overhead.

By mid-December at 9 pm, we find Orion the Hunter, perhaps the most recognized of all the constellations, midway up the southeast sky. Orion’s eastern shoulder is marked by the red supergiant star Betelgeuse. Marking his western knee is the bluish-white giant Rigel. In the northeast, we find the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux . The two normally look like a pair of cold eyes staring down at us but this winter, they are joined by the planet Saturn.

By mid-January Orion is high in the south at 9 pm. A line drawn through the three stars in his belt extended to the east points toward Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, only 8.8 light years away. If we extend that line to the west it points roughly to the reddish star Aldebaran (the brightest star in the Taurus constellation) and further still to the seven sisters of the Pleiades, a well-known faint, but delicately beautiful small cluster of stars. Ancient Mayan lore speaks of the Pleiades as a homeland. The Japanese call the cluster Subaru.

By mid-February these stars will have moved into the southwest. However, if you look straight up (see why you need the lounge chair?), you now find Castor and Pollux and their companion Saturn. Just a short distance to the southeast, you can find with your binoculars the cluster of stars known as the beehive. The beehive is a faint swarm of stars; about 60 of which are just visible to the naked eye under the best conditions, but no longer in our area due to light pollution.

The night sky is still an important resource. Astronomers must build their telescopes on some of the highest, most remote mountains on earth to get away from light pollution. They study the heavens to try to come to an understanding of the very beginnings of the universe, and perhaps its fate. To watch the heavenly bodies and understand their motions, the phases of the moon, the motion of the earth -- is to truly feel the earth move under your feet. However, to experience this, we do have to actually see the stars.

Do you think night skies are a natural resource? Email ResOURces and let us know.

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