One evening this past summer I found occasion to surprise my family by announcing an immediate departure for a little adventure at the time when preparations for journeys into dreamland are normally commenced. For unbeknownst to wife and daughter our city of residence sponsors a regular program of skywatching, generously setting up telescopes in a neatly tucked cove surrounded by rolling hills just lofty enough to block the nearby glow of city lights. There the night sky is pleasantly dark and revealing of those shimmering little details often hidden in places of modern habitation. After a short trip, my daughter grew more and more excited as she came to realize why we were ambling down a narrow footpath lit dimly by meager moonlight in a place frequented by large, furry mammals who prefer to be left at a distance. When soon we joined a small crowd huddled around four telescopes, the anticipation was almost too great for her to bear (no pun intended), and she skipped and hopped about with excitement.
The sky that night was exceptionally clear and dark. After a brief introduction by the host, we were left to wander and gaze through the lenses to see in larger size those things now appearing only as small points of light. Drawn across the firmament as if dangling from an invisible thread were the cresent Moon in faint earthshine and the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. My daughter had seen these celestial objects through a telescope perhaps once before, but being quite young she could not remember the event. We eagerly took in the view granted by the telescopes and were delighted to see the planets in more detail, especially Saturn. It is always a pleasure to see the reactions of those viewing Saturn for the first time; the tingling excitement of wonder is contagious. That night the rings were particularly large (due to the angle of viewing) and sharp. Three of Jupiter's moons were also easy to spot. For my daughter these planets and moons were no longer merely abstract objects of mention in books, planetarium shows and school studies. Taking turns at the lense, we both noticed some mysterious flashes of light in the sky, blinking off too quickly to catch the source. Finally my daughter saw one of the fleeting lights nearby and just above the ground, and we realized they were very terrestrial in nature: fireflies. Accompanied by these earth-bound shooting stars, we peered again through the lenses, and I mentioned to my daughter how similar it all seemed to looking through a microscope. Indeed, for all its great size Jupiter appeared only a bland circle with a pair of muted stripes and massive Saturn a white dot uninteresting in appearance if it were not graced by those surreal rings. Relatively nearby Mars looked as though it were only a faintly red star. At the size they appeared, I could have easily held them all on the end of my finger. How incredibly small must Earth appear from Saturn...
We asked the host if he could identify which of Saturn's moons were in view, as there were small points of light nearby the planet. He looked through the lens, consulted his guide, and concluded it was difficult to discern the moons from the background stars. For tiny little Saturn, we were told, a ball of gas so large and vast beside it Earth would be of little consequence, was just then floating languidly in front of the unimaginably distant galactic center. The galactic center! I took my eye off the telescope and peered toward Saturn unaided. Saturn was there, appearing quite ringless to my tired old eyes, but where was the vaunted galactic center? We had seen before the starlit mists of the Milky Way when traveling through high desert, stopping at times just to sit and stare and wonder at the sheer immensity of it all, but such views tend to be obscured and hidden by the modern predilection for washing out the wonders of the night sky. Nevertheless, the view provided reason to ponder the utter strangeness and undeniable beauty of the world we inhabit, and seeing the joy and excitement of those young and old glimpsing for the first time the profound mysteries in which we are immersed made for a memorable evening.