Here’s one thing covid has not stolen from us—the night sky. Stars and planets, the moon in all its phases, meteor showers, constellations.
In my last home in San Francisco we had a good view of the southern sky from the deck, high in the air from the fourth story, so we could see the moon and planets rise and set. But a view of the north sky was blocked by the building and Bernal Hill.
Now in Santa Rosa we have a better view of the north sky. In the summer we sat back in outdoor zero gravity chairs to star watch. I relearned the summer constellations—Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), the giant square of Pegasus, the cross of Cygnus. We keep close track of the moon’s progress. We do love moongazing but stargazing is best with a dark cloudless sky.
Waiting for the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn we watched nightly as they came closer and closer together. They converged into one giant star for the first time in 800 years, on the solstice, December 21. It was a great way to celebrate the winter solstice but clouds blocked our view on that night.
This winter I’ve discovered a new pastime—hot tub stargazing. From the hot tub we get a window on the north sky. I find Polaris by fixing my gaze on the gas grill, then looking up. The North Star doesn’t change location (even though the gas grill might); all the other stars appear to rotate around it because right now it lies nearly in a direct line with the Earth’s rotational axis. But that will change in a cycle that takes 26,000 years! The Big Dipper and W-shaped Cassiopeia travel around the North Star taking up opposite positions in evening and morning.
Winter mornings are a great time to star gaze. It doesn’t start to get light here till after 6:30 at solstice. The sun doesn’t rise till almost 7:30. Of course it’s colder than at night. Often it’s around freezing when I go out at 5:30 or 6 am, but the hot tub, set at 104 degrees, is a perfect antidote.
In the morning even with low clouds or some fog, two bright stars greet me. In the east is Vega. In the west is Capella with the north star, Polaris, in between. Capella, the third brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere after Arcturus and Vega, is part of the constellation Auriga, which I just learned about. Its name means little goat in Latin, depicting the goat Amalthea that suckled Zeus in classical mythology. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra. You have to look straight up in the summer, and then you can see Vega is one of the stars of the Summer Triangle along with Altair and Deneb. But in winter it twinkles near the northeastern horizon.
There are some impediments to hot tub stargazing: our private moon—the street light just above the roof; glasses that fog up in the tub; city lights, or any lights. I had to turn off our Solstice tree lights before going out to the tub.
Of course you don’t need a hot tub to stargaze. In San Francisco to watch a winter meteor shower we would dress warmly and lie on a camp mattress on the deck. Maybe not so much fun in a colder winter climate. But you can watch from indoors too.
From the hot tub I watched the Geminid meteor shower at its height in mid-December. Then in the morning back in the house with coffee in hand I set up a stargazing station in the living room looking south through the picture window. One bright star greeted me—Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. I saw a shooting star at 6:30 am just as the sky started to lighten.
Watching for shooting stars is not always calming. During the meteor shower I discovered stargazing anxiety. If you close your eyes for a moment you might miss a shooting star. They are quick and unpredictable! I got a case of FOMO. How many meteors did I miss? Since then I’ve made an effort to more calmly appreciate the capriciousness of the universe.
You can’t look at your phone and stargaze at the same time, though I do use the phone to identify heavenly bodies. A decade ago on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Holly and I made good use of a phone app we’d just discovered called Star Walk. You point your phone in the direction of the star or planet or satellite you want to ID and as you move the phone it shows the whole night sky with the planets’ orbits and all the constellations.
In old age my sleep habits vary. I often wake up wide awake in the middle of the night. One night at 1:30 I could see, even without glasses, one bright star outside my window. So of course I used the Star Walk app and learned it is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
I know we are all happy that the light is returning now since the winter solstice. But I’m just a little sad that there will be less dark sky. I still hope to catch a falling star.