Summer sky full of surprises


This week, my son and I spent some time checking out the celestial skies in our back yard.

While I can pick out the dippers, Orion’s belt and a few other constellations, my astronomy knowledge is fairly limited.

These days, children are learning those lessons a lot earlier which I think is pretty cool. Evan can easily tell when the moon is waxing or waning. I can tell you if the moon is shaped like my dinner roll and that’s about it.

I can remember learning about the constellations in junior high school. In fact, I remember when Hale-Bopp’s comet swept through the skies in late spring in 1997. I clearly remember finding the comet in the sky above the school’s gymnasium during Cotillion practices waiting on my mom to pick us up from our dance lessons. Hale-Bopp had a bright nucleus and two bright, distinct tails.

I also remember learning about the Hale-Bopp comet in class. This was around the time when the Internet was recently installed in our science class. It was the first classroom to have Internet hook-up. We ended up teaching our science teacher how to “dial-up” and connect online nearly 20 years ago. Around the time of Hale-Bopp’s appearance, we asked our teacher if we could search online for more information. This was just a few years before “Google” was even in our vocabularies let alone, our daily lexicon.

Our dear teacher pulled up the image of the computer screen on our large projector as we tried to help her enter the information in the Netscape Navigator browser.

Now, there’s a throw back to the past. Does anyone remember Netscape? Well, it was the browser which came with the classroom computer and it featured a large letter “N” sitting on top of an orb or planet. During web searches, the computer would animate the stars in the icon’s background to show it was “busy” looking for the information. When the stars stopped disappearing in the “horizon,” the search was done.

Well, our teacher, as sweet as she could be, thought we were truly looking at a small, outer space video in real time within the browser window.

“Look! There’s the Hale-Bopp comet right there on the screen.” This is probably one of my favorite technology-based memories in school.

I always think of that story as I look up at the sky and try to remember where the North Star is located.

This week, one of the reasons Evan and I were spending time staring up at the skies was because Jupiter and Venus were very bright in the western sky . The two planets were definitely noticeable after the sun set in the west.

There’s nothing like star gazing out in the country. No street lights blurring the skies. A few airplanes and a cell tower or two and that’s about it out here in the sticks.

The stars sure do seem brighter out here. After a few minutes of watching the planets stay put in the sky, we decided to get a closer look. Evan received an outdoor telescope for Christmas one year. My mom was impressed he knew so much about the moons phases and certain constellations so she thought he would like to see them up close.

We pieced the telescope together, placed it on the tripod, and took it outside.

I decided to spend a few minutes trying to focus on the moon before we got all fancy trying to find the planets.

I zoomed in and out. Looking up in the sky, then looking down in the telescope. I’d make a few adjustments, moving the telescope back and forth in the general vicinity of the moon. This took a lot longer than I thought it would.

Finally! A big, bright, yellow light appeared in the viewer!

“Evan! I found the moon! Here look!”

Evan switched places with me, looking in the viewer before he started laughing.

“Mom, that’s not the moon! That’s the light on the outside of the barn.”

Well folks, here’s a lesson in both backyard astronomy and humility.

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