As sure as we take them for granted, they are deceiving. A star that exploded a thousand years ago might be visible tonight. For every star we can see. there are millions more our eyes fail to detect. And the shifting, the brightening, the twinkling-is that them, or us?
It’s anybody’s guess. Stargazing is blessedly egalitarian -almost. We city dwellers are unsparingly deprived of much of the night sky’s wonders, trapped under a fog of neon and fluorescent washout. It takes a visit to the country or the desert to make us realize what we routinely miss. Some of the stars in the following three maps of the summer constellations can be seen from within the city, but for a show more on par with what the ancient Greeks got, get out of town. Twenty miles is good, thirty much better. Bow Walker, planetarium director of the Science Place, likes to stargaze from Dinosaur Valley State Park, about 80 miles southwest of Dallas. In picking a site, remember that house and pavil-lion lights can knock out a few hundred stars with the flick of a switch. For the ultimate star search, tape red cellophane over your flashlight’s lens when reading the constellation maps. This forces your iris to open even wider, allowing you to perceive more stars. (Remember to hold the map over your head, and to bring a compass. If you don’t have one, find the North Star by following the line formed by the lowest two stars in the Big Dipper’s bowl.)
If you’re hunting falling stars or meteors (which are made up mostly of iron and burn as they enter the earth’s atmosphere), wait until after midnight when North America is on the leading edge of the planet as it plows through the heavens. The best meteor shower of the summer, Perseid, occurs for several days around July 25, the peak, although many of the Perseids will remain invisible because of the moon, which comes full on the 31st. Still, the shower could have an hourly rate of 20 visible meteors or more. And throughout the summer, if you’re patient, you can spot meteors on any given night.
For studying the planet Saturn, which will be in Libra most of the summer, as well as general stargazing, you can get a considerably sharper view through stadium binoculars. But brace yourself against something firm lest you think you’ve entered hyperspace. A standard pair of 7 x 50 binoculars is roughly equivalent to the telescope used by Galileo.