Tom Burns: Vacationing in the Milky Way

Tom Burns - Stargazing

It’s the summer vacation season, and many of you will be taking a week or three to get out of town. It is the season of journeys, large and small, for those who can afford it.

The NASA spacecraft Juno has just completed a more-than-four-year journey to the planet Jupiter, where it will study Jupiter’s magnetic and gravitational fields and take images of much of the planet’s complex layers of clouds. Its long, highly elliptical orbit will take it tens of thousands of miles into space before it darts 35 times to within 3,000 miles of Jupiter’s complex layer of clouds.

On the last pass, it will dart into Jupiter’s dense blanket of air, where it will burn up and be crushed by the atmosphere’s enormous atmospheric density. Yes, fellow travelers, there is much to be learned from the intrepid Juno’s demise.

Meanwhile, the New Horizon spacecraft will continue its journey past Pluto to 2014 MU69, another sphere of ice and dirt a few tens of miles wide. Both astronomical objects are located in a band of icy bodies called the Kuiper Belt. It is out of the accumulation of such “planetoids” as Pluto and 2014 MU69 that the planets were formed some 4.5 billion years ago. New Horizons is doing more than simply journeying to objects on the fringe of our solar system. It is investigating the origin of the planet on which we live.

If you cannot afford such an expensive vacation, fear not. The universe is a vast and varied place, and it won’t take billions of your tax bucks to appreciate its magnificence, especially during the glorious nights of summer.

You’ll need to take a little cosmic journey of your own — out past the blinding streetlights of the city to a place where the stars still shine. Board the spacecraft of your imagination, and journey to the Milky Way.

You don’t have far to go. You’re already in it. The Earth, the sun, all the stars you see, and, you are part of the disk-shaped collection of 300 billion stars in our galaxy.

Because we live out on the edge of the Milky Way, we see it around midnight right now as a streak of silvery light that stretches all the way across the sky from the south to the northeast.

Along the southern horizon, our galaxy bulges out at its center in the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. Here, binoculars or a small telescope will reveal the fuzzy patches that are dense clusters of stars and the giant clouds of glowing hydrogen from which those star clusters are born.

Almost straight overhead is the cross-shaped constellation Cygnus, the Swan. Sweep through this region with binoculars and you will see uncountable stars.

Next, scan with just your eyes in the region between Sagittarius and Cygnus. A jet-black swath, the Great Rift, cuts the Milky Way in half lengthwise. You are seeing (or, rather, not seeing) the dark clouds of dust and gas that will eventually be the raw materials for new stars and planets in eons yet unborn.

To the northeast, look for the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia and the great hero Perseus as he rises. Here you will see dozens of star clusters in binoculars or a telescope.

And to the right and outside of the Milky Way’s glow in Cassiopeia, look for a small, cigar-shaped patch of light. It is the Andromeda Galaxy, much like our own, seen at a distance of 2.3 million light years.

During the drive home, consider that you have stared into the vast emptiness that is our true home. You have confronted the great abyss, and you are still alive and sane enough to tell the tale to others.

We learn much from any successful space journey, and Juno and New Horizons are not exceptions. However, please remember that we know a lot already that so few people will ever see or know because they won’t find it on some computer screen or they cannot afford to escape the brightly lit confines of the city.

Sometimes I need reminding myself. As New Horizons passed Pluto, I sat on the ground in the middle of the Zaleski State Forest and stared transfixed at my smartphone as the first close-up images loaded on the screen.

However, as the sun set, I walked a mile or so to a clearing about a mile away from my campsite and lay alone among the weeds to stare up in silent astonishment at the complex beauty of my own galaxy.

It was not the first time I felt so grounded to the planet I live on. But I also experienced the vastness of the cosmos of which we are so much a part. I felt so small, but I also felt like I shared in the enormity of things. It was an experience I would like to have again – and an experience I hope you will someday have for yourself. If you do, I hope you can share it with your children and their children before life’s great journey comes to an end.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.