It was a summer night to remember 40 years ago. I had been stargazing for over a decade, doing what I could with my old man’s $3, plastic-lens opera glasses. With them, I had seen the craters on the moon, the moons of Jupiter, and a few ill-defined fuzzy patches that my kid’s astronomy book told me were star clusters and gaseous nebulae, whatever they were.
Throughout my undergraduate years at the College of Wooster, I had stolen occasionally away from my studies to gaze wistfully at the Milky Way from the semi-dark skies near Wooster, Ohio.
From my earliest days, I stared with an aching hunger at the full-page ads for telescopes that appeared on the back of rags like Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Science.
Among them was the Criterion Dynascope, a telescope of exquisite beauty with a light-gathering mirror a massive six inches in diameter. Oh, the things I could see! Oh, how I could explore the grandness of the universe at the cost of $194 I did not have and probably would never have given the snail’s pace of my youth.
The cost was simply beyond my financial capabilities. I was in graduate school and was eating three meals a day thanks only to my long-suffering wife’s willingness to defer her future education to work as a teller at a local bank.
So, I saved my pennies and purchased the mirrors for an 8-inch Dobsonian telescope. I haunted local construction sites begging for leftover bits of tubing and wood. I finally kludged together the rest of the telescope parts out of scraps of plywood, a discarded tube used to pour concrete pillars, and some leftover blue house paint.
I wasn’t much of a carpenter or a painter. I produced one of the worst looking telescopes on record. It was crude, and my astronomical abilities were even cruder. I couldn’t find anything but the moon and Jupiter. Still, the telescope worked! However, I needed some help to develop sufficient observing skills to goad it to its full potential.
I had heard that members of the local astronomy club did their stargazing at a site north of town. I decided one clear night to go there and ask for some help.
When I got there, I had to carry my scope down a long, dark, wooded path.
Ahead was an opening in the trees, and the memory of what I saw in it still brings a lump to my throat after all these years. The opening was full of stars.
As I got closer, I saw the dark silhouette of a dozen or so people huddled over their telescopes against the backdrop of the brilliant glow of the Milky Way in the constellation Sagittarius, the Archer. And at that startling moment, I knew that I had found a home.
Sagittarius looks more like a teapot than an archer, and that’s how most stargazers recognize it these days. But even that image doesn’t work for most members of the latest generations. Tea comes in bags now. Not too many people use teapots anymore.
Newcomers tend to attract a lot of attention at such informal “star parties.” Where had I gotten my scope? Had I built it myself? Where did I get the mirrors? Would I like to see something in it?
They gave me the grand tour of the sky, with emphasis on Sagittarius and its environs, which are laden with so-called “deep-sky objects.” They are astronomical targets like star clusters and gaseous nebulae that are out beyond our solar system.
Most impressive were the objects in and near Sagittarius. It sits in the densest part of our Milky Way Galaxy. The constellation in question is thus full of the best and brightest observational targets in the sky. These days you’ll have to travel to dark, rural skies to see them, but in those days, the sky from Perkins Observatory was still pretty dark.
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. This stellar nursery gets its name from the dark lines that split it into three parts.
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.
These 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.
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 in its center is a small dark patch that resembles a flying eagle.
Thus began a long and wondrous journey that led me to the directorship of Perkins Observatory. Along the way, I have done thousands of astronomy talks and stargazing sessions for the public. It all began with that place at that time in a constellation called Sagittarius.
That night started me on a course that led me on many clear nights to the front lawn of Perkins Observatory, where I was privileged for over a quarter-century to show the next generation the shimmering beauty of the universe they live in.
If you have ever wondered why I was so obsessed with controlling the glow of outside lighting around Perkins, know this: We don’t observe any of those objects in Sagittarius anymore. They have been wiped clean from the sky by the glow of outside lighting to our south. Other parts of the sky still have wondrous things to see, but they too will be gone soon enough unless we protect the sky like the natural resource that it is.
We are facing the possibility of the first generation of children who will never be inspired by the majesty of the sky at night. Turn off your lights, and let the stars shine through.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.