Tom Burns: Blinded by the starlight

Tom Burns - Stargazing

Recall from last week that my first real views through my own telescope came one summer night 40 years ago.

I stood with a group of about a dozen members of the local astronomy club as they showed me how to use my crude, homemade telescope. Of course, they had telescopes of their own. Among them was a gleaming Criterion Dynascope, the telescope I had dreamed of owning since the days of my first astronomical longings when I was 12 years old.

They began in Sagittarius. The constellation lies in the direction of the center of the galaxy where the Milky Way is densest with stars and the clouds of glowing hydrogen gas they are formed out of.

They started with the globular cluster M22, just to the left of the top of the “teapot.” In binoculars it is a small, round fuzzy spot. In my telescope, it exploded into a ball of countless small stars.

Next they showed me M28, which is just above the tip of the lid of the teapot.

It is a smaller, fainter version of M22.

After that we looked at M8, the Lagoon Nebula, which is right above the spout of the teapot. In binoculars it looks like an oval hazy patch. In the telescope, it looked like a large milk spill with a long, dark, “lagoon-like” indentation at its center.

The Lagoon is an “emission nebula,” a stellar nursery where new stars are forming out of the raw hydrogen of the galaxy. Slowly, parts of the hydrogen gas in the Lagoon are collapsing by gravity into balls of hydrogen. When the pressure is great enough, the hydrogen begins to form helium in a giant thermonuclear reaction that will last perhaps 10 billion years.

Just above the Lagoon is M20, the Trifid Nebula. It is another stellar nursery. It gets its name from the dark lines that split it into three parts, like a cosmic peace symbol.

Nebulae are the reasons that stars tend to be found in clusters. Many stars are created out of a single, gigantic cloud of hydrogen. When the stars have formed and the remaining gas has dissipated into space, we are left with many stars close together. Those so-called galactic clusters are found in great abundance in Sagittarius.

They showed me M21, dozens of stars that are visible in the same telescope or binocular field as the Trifid Nebula.

They also showed me M25, a cluster of about four dozen stars. It’s up and to the left from the lid of the teapot and is bright enough to be seen in a small scope or binoculars.

Up and to the right from M25 was M24, which was much larger than the other objects. It is a “star cloud” of the Milky Way, a dense aggregation of stars, star clusters and hydrogen clouds. We swept slowly across its length in binoculars.

Directly above M24 was M18, a small cluster of about a dozen stars. Above M18 was another glowing emission nebula called M17. It looks like a ghostly checkmark floating in space.

The tour of the area ended with a glimpse of another nebula, M16, right above M17. It is called the Eagle Nebula because it has a small dark patch in it that resembles a flying eagle.

After the Sagittarius tour, they showed me perhaps 50 more objects in my scope – remnants of exploded stars and distant galaxies. I honestly can’t remember how many. My mind and heart were – and still are – gloriously blinded by the starlight.

Driving home, I felt myself a part of a universe so grand and complex that my mind was incapable of grasping it. But my heart understood.

As you might have guessed, the place was Perkins Observatory, and the people were the members of the Columbus Astronomical Society. Most of the stargazers I met that night have moved away or died. But I remember them with gratitude every time I sweep through the objects in Sagittarius.

Most importantly, despite the challenges of funding and the constant spread of city streetlights, Perkins abides. In a strange twist of fate for an English teacher, I stayed on at Perkins, first as a volunteer telescopist and tour guide, and then as its “director.” As a result, I am still standing among those blessed souls who show newcomers the stars.

I do for new stargazers what humans have done since they first looked up at the sky. I pass the knowledge of the heavens on to the next generation. In doing for other beginners what my mentors did for me, I pay back a tiny portion of the debt I owe them, a debt I can never repay.

Oh, and one more thing. I recently acquired a Criterion Dynascope, the telescope of my fledgling dreams, from a member of the Columbus Astronomical Society. It is rusted and somewhat battered from use and age. When I finally retire, I will lovingly restore it, and it will appear upon the lawn at Perkins to show yet another generation the wonder and majesty of the universe they live in. After all, some circles beg to be completed.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.