July 15, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

Why We Look Up: Anticipation: Sky and Telescopes

Auroras over Canada
Auroras over Lake Muskoka in Ontario, Canada, on May 10.
tglobo1025 / Science and technology online photo gallery

The stargazing experience extends far beyond the time I spend under the open sky. Just as the “starburst” of a clear night lingers into the next day, the period leading up to an observing session can fill me with expectant delight, especially when a major astronomical event is imminent.

Anticipation is inseparable from amateur astronomy. It is present when I use observing apps and read “star data” to choose targets for observation. It reminds me to check the weather forecast and choose a site with adequate clearance for my goals. Then there's the selection and playing with my team, plus trial and error along the way.

Some might consider the prep work tedious and the hours of waiting until dark a waste of time. For me, anticipation enhances the adventure. Anticipation makes everything sweeter.

A few decades ago I planned to surprise my grandmother in Florida. I was a college student in North Carolina and didn't get to see her often. Somehow the secret was ruined and she called me to tell me how much she was looking forward to my visit. “It's much better this way,” she said from long distance, “because now I have the pleasure of anticipating it.”

Stargazing is no different. Expecting clear nights makes the long, hot summer days a little less unbearable. The tingle in my solar plexus increases as I choose stars, constellations, and deep sky objects for the next night's search. I feel a liveliness as I charge the batteries, test the red lights, and carry my backpack, even if I'm just going to the yard.

And when something truly extraordinary appears on the literal horizon, I am beside myself with joy. That's what happened on May 10, when I received a 14-hour notice that the Northern Lights might be visible in Portland.

The Northern Lights had been on my watch list since I was a child. The ethereal colors of emerald and sapphire undulating in the sky sounded like a fairy tale. I figured I'd have to plan a trip north to see them with my own eyes.

An early morning text from my stepmom put me on alert. I had heard about the huge solar storm, but never expected to see its effects at my latitude. I checked and rechecked NOAA's aurora forecast throughout the day and kept an eye out for Portland's famous cloud cover. I told my librarian what might be coming our way (we screamed and jumped together) and tried to get the Trader Joe's cashier excited too.

I basically floated in the air all day. Fifty years of anticipation were about to be fulfilled.

I counted the hours until astronomical twilight, but then felt reluctant to head to a local park. I had invested a lot in my anticipation. I was worried that the forecasts would be wrong or that the sky would become cloudy. He was anxious that the predicted night magic would be snatched away, unrealized.

but we saw all. I stood in the dark on a grassy hill with my partner, M, our dog Jax, and a few dozen strangers, and laughed in awe at the sky. At the end of my long expectation there was not a pot of gold but a vibrant and dynamic dawn. The night came to life in green, red, pink, blue and purple. Watching the sky dance was truly a marvel and worth the wait.

aurora photo
The author put together photographs to create this panorama of the Northern Lights over Portland, Oregon.

We tried again the following nights, but the aurora did not appear despite favorable forecasts. Still, I remained elated, not only with the memory and photos of the aurora, but with the promise of more wonders to come. I hummed in anticipation of the next astronomical event, and simply the next night of clear skies. M described my fervor during Aurora weekend 2024 as “unbearable,” but he said it with a smile.

What am I looking forward to next? I have a good list. This summer I will take a closer look at Antares, my favorite star. I hope to get to a darker place to see the Milky Way's starry crack in the sky. I'll keep an eye out for new electronically assisted astronomy telescopes and keep my fingers crossed for the launch of the Europa Clipper in October.

Maybe these expectations will come true, or maybe reality will fall short. My giddy anticipation will endure. When I have a mediocre or completely frustrated night of stargazing, I wake up the next morning with the same excitement for what comes next. The lost lens cap, frozen fingers, or faulty robotic scope from the previous hours are not forgotten, but my enthusiasm has not diminished. There is always something more, something new to look forward to. The local heavens may not always cooperate, but the cosmos never disappoints.

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