This week, Zet & I had the good fortune to attend Astronomy In the Park, a sky watch gathering hosted every Wednesday night by the San Antonio Astronomical Association, weather permitting. This free event takes place in the darkened parking lot of Rimkus Park in Leon Valley, which offers a relatively unobstructed view of the night sky, thanks to an extensive greenbelt with minimal lighting. There was a particularly large and enthusiastic crowd, due to the fact that Mars was closer to the Earth (and therefore, bigger and brighter) than it had been in 15 years. I've been to a couple of such stargazing parties over the years, as well as the McDonald Observatory in West Texas, but this was by far my best experience ever, thanks to an astronomer named Steve, who was extremely patient, kind and generous with his extensive knowledge of astronomy, as well as his very powerful scope, mounted on a computer-controlled, motorized stand that made it relatively easy to shift focus from one point in the sky to another.
That telescope afforded us a really good look at the swirling blanket of red dust that's been covering the surface of Mars this week, as well as showing the rings of Saturn and the bands of Jupiter in spectacular detail. But, even more thrilling for me was when Steve directed our attention to M13, a globular star cluster in the constellation of Hercules I'd never noticed or heard of before. Although I've long loved looking up at the stars and feeling entranced by the sheer immensity of it all, this was my first opportunity to view one of those distant points of light with sufficient time, technology and visual resolution to get a hint of the true enormity, complexity and mystery of what I'm seeing - and not seeing.
HOW I WONDER
To the untrained, naked eye, M13 looks like just another one of the many bright spots of light in the Milky Way, albeit one with slightly fuzzy edges. But thanks to Steve's generosity, I was able to get a glimpse of its true vastness, as that "little spot of light" resolved into a sprawling, multi-layered cloud measuring 125 light years in diameter, containing 200,000 individual stars, with countless planets and comets orbiting them, collective sending light that has travelled 130,000 trillion miles across space to reach my eyes 8,000,000 Earth years later as a mere twinkle!
I had to stop and catch my breath. What an exhilarating, but humbling experience! What a stark reminder of how much there is to see beyond what I think I see; how much more there is to know than what I think I know.
WHAT WE ARE
I would gladly have stayed a lot longer and learned more, but the host of the event announced that the park's entrance gate would soon be closing. As the loose-knit group of friendly strangers began to disperse and wander off in different directions across the dark parking lot, I couldn't help but see each one of us as being like M13, infinitely more complex, dynamic and mysterious than can be readily observed with the casual, judgmental eye I usually employ. How easy it is to forget that fact; how important it is to remember. May I be reminded of this lesson each time I look up at the night sky in the years to come.