Pleiades

Last night’s plane to Phoenix was late, so justifying staying up to enjoy Autumn night skies at midnight. And it was worth it, as those skies were exceptionally clear for an area like ours.

Cassiopeia shone brightly, all of the legs of the sideways W clearly visible. As the heavens advance, in a month or two it will really be a “W”.

At midnight, everything has rotated enough so that I am a little disoriented. This is a good thing for me. The tendency to look for objects in relation to the Castro Valley Porch (600 miles away) is strong. I finally find the glow of the Andromeda Galazy fuzzball in the binoculars. It is elliptical tonight – a first for me.

The cascade of stars falling out of the bottom of Cassiopeia is now almost horizontal. I am still no amateur astronomer, I realize: more likely, an amateur layperson. Why do I have trouble identifying objects I thought I knew well as a student 40 years ago? The passing of the years is only part of the answer, and perhaps not an unimportant part. The urban skyglow from one of the biggest metro areas in the United States, another. Much of it is simple disuse: I do not get out here often enough.

Mars is high enough to be clear of the ground glow – the blanket of light pollution that obscures the bottom 15 degrees or so above a “real” horizon. It is unmistakably red, unmistakably Mars. Ah, but what is this? The red glow to the northeast looks like my old friend Aldebaran. That means I should see the V of Taurus. At first I do not see it. It is lying on its side. There it is!

That means I should be able to see the Pleiades. And I do, the unmistakably and crystal clear Seven Sisters, the blue-white giants cradled in their nursery of cold gas.

But, last year, we saw them way to the southwest! How can the Pleiades be so far “north”? Ah, you old simpleton, they will climb high in the sky and then descend gently into the southwestern night, as we saw them before. I trace the arc, and see that it is true. How can one so schooled in the complicated things take so long to really grasp something as simple as that?

What star charts do I use? Starry Night software, and the center foldouts in the magazines, whatever is handy: out of an abiding conviction that I should know these things, I never take them outside with me. They are a distraction. I’m not recommending this to others, but I am not trying to train an 8 inch mirror on an area of a few arcseconds. I normally check the references out after my observing sessions.

Slowly, kicking and screaming, I will rid myself of dependence on the fixed reference points: Polaris, porch corner. Andromeda, high above the middle eaucalyptus tree. How primitive! I am finally learning to fix the stars in reference to themselves. And having a wonderful time stargazing, with just the naked eye and binoculars, at that.

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