All-nighter Under The Summer Sky

Seeing the morning crescent moon rise was a fine way to call it a night. Only the top horn showed at first — a claw dug into the sky holding on for the ride. Two minutes later the moon cleared a line of distant trees all orange and gorgeous. You always expect a rising moon to appear larger than one overhead — a familiar optical illusion — but this one looked faraway and small.

I don’t know about you, but I rarely stay up all night. OK, I didn’t this time either. There was that little nap between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. But after that I was ready to meet dawn face to face. Summer is the easiest time for an all-night observing session under the stars. The nights are so brief even a wimp like me can do it. From 1 till 4 a.m. I stood on this rotating Earth and watched the sky transform itself from summer to fall. Scorpius bit the dust as the Great Square of Pegasus took center stage high in the east. Mosquitos bit my hands despite a temperature of 48 degrees and plenty of frogs around looking for a snack.

Is there anything more pleasant to listen to than the rattle and flap of leaves as the winds sigh their way through the treetops? When you drive to a dark place in the middle of the night to set up a telescope, it feels a little scary at first. What if I’m attacked by a bear, a cougar or sprayed by a skunk? I’m still learning that most of the frightening things our imagination serves up never happen. They pop into our head by instinct. “We must be prepared for danger.”

The night eased by peacefully. Experience has taught me that once I arrive and find yourself under familiar faces like Vega and Altair, fear recedes. Now and again a meteor flashed as I pointed the telescope toward one of several comets and distant supernovae. Once, a white-throated sparrow belted out his call in full ‘daytime voice’ and startled me from my chair. Then there was the firefly that had somehow managed to find its way into my pocket. For a few minutes it pulsed like a green, alien heart through my clothing.

A little before the stroke of 3, I noticed the first hints of dawn. That’s when Jupiter came up from its hiding place behind the trees. How wonderful it is to see a planet that’s been gone for months. Pump your fist and holler huzzah! A peek through the scope revealed two dark equatorial cloud belts and four moons. Sure, it’s a sight I’ve seen two hundred and fifty-seven times, but after Jupiter’s long absence, the view was refreshing.

A few cirrus clouds in the north now. The Milky Way crossed directly overhead, its light diluted by dawn. With the ebbing of darkness, the show was starting to wrap up. One last thing. Deep in the east, I strained to see the Pleiades star cluster, that harbinger of winter. Yes, there it was, a tiny dipper of stars barely visible against the blue.

The ride home included the usual end-of-night ritual of rolling down all the windows to blast out the mosquitos out of the car. As the moon showed her face, the robins, chipping sparrows and phoebes woke up for their daily song and dance. That was my cue to consider the benefits of sleep. Pale, white light squeezed around the edges of the window shades and faintly lit the walls as I finally pulled the covers up over my shoulders.

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