Humboldt County, California
As long as stargazing is deemed safe in these uncertain times of the COVID-19 virus, I recommend getting out there and looking long and deeply into space. Maybe it will take some of the troubles off your mind, or perhaps shrink them down a little, for we and our whole planet, our entire solar system — the galaxy itself — merely float in an unimaginable vastness with billions of other solar systems and galaxies, like so many single-celled microorganisms in a drop of pond water. Except those single-celled critters under the microscope are a lot larger relative to our planet than our planet is to the rest of space.
Space is large and all around us, but we only see into a part of it each night. In the spring after dark our nighttime view of the galaxy shows us only a thin stretch of the Milky Way, that milky band of stars spanning the sky which gave our galaxy its name. But the night sky is still magnificent with its many stars and constellations to find, Venus bright in the western sky after sunset, the Moon here or there in her many phases, the odd meteor. Where the stars are in the sky after dark depends upon the season, for Earth’s night side faces a different direction into space with each season as we orbit around the sun. We can well imagine that where the planets appear in the sky depends both upon where Earth is in its orbit and where they are in their orbits around the sun.
On March 19, 2020 I went down to Fields Landing to stargaze and make nighttime images with a couple of friends. My efforts produced the accompanying photograph, a panorama looking west across Humboldt Bay from Fields Landing. It comprises five separate, side-by-side vertical frames, which I then put together into the whole. The resulting view is nearly 180º. Such a wide field of view adds a great deal of distortion to the image, with the most occurring near the edges. This can make it difficult to identify specific stars, particularly when the camera captures so many more stars than our naked eyes can see. You can see some of the distortion in the inward leaning of the posts and the angle of Venus’ reflection in the bay.
I have included an annotated version in which I marked the celestial features I could easily identify. There were a few other objects in the view that I couldn’t confidently identify amidst the profusion of stars and/or the distortion of the panorama: the Big Dipper was visible to our naked eyes near the clouds on the right ; Polaris, the North Star, is somewhere between the clouds and the Milky Way; the planet Uranus, which I labeled tentatively, is in that close vicinity, but I’m not positive which point of light it is; the constellation Cassiopeia, a great “W” shape in the Milky Way, is too hard to find with certainty; the constellation Orion is at the far left, but the only part I can identify with any surety is his “sword” hanging down from his belt line (to which my friend refers as Orion’s “celestial package”).
Spectacular as it all was, the best part of the night sky is yet to come: when the summertime position of Earth’s orbit around the sun brings into our view the richest and most visually detailed part of the Milky Way’s band across the nighttime skies immediately after dark. This is the core of our galaxy, a grand galactic structure we can view with our naked eyes. Were you to get up before dawn in the springtime you could find the Milky Way’s core close to the horizon in the southeast. But if you’re like myself and would rather stay up late to see it than get up early, the summer months will be our friends.