I met a little girl and her dad at one of the night sky viewings at Black Canyon a year or two ago. She must have been five or six years old, and they were just leaving. But she was excited:
Her: “The sky is so big!”
Me: “Is it as big as this?” (arms stretched wide).
Her: “Even bigger!”
Me: “Did you see all the stars?”
Her: “Oh, those people helped me,” pointing to the astronomy volunteers and their telescopes.
Me: “Did you see the Milky Way?”
She grinned and said: “The sky is so big; the Milky Way just fits. I’ve never seen the Milky Way before.” She paused for a minute and added, “You should go see it right now.”
Smiling, I thanked them both and wished her father good luck in getting her to sleep.
She had a point. The sky is SO big. An aunt of mine, upon first driving across the plains states to visit decades ago, exclaimed at how expansive the sky is. It’s easy to take it for granted, but she wondered how anyone made it across those open spaces in a covered wagon, and kept their minds from unraveling.
And our galaxy is that big. In fact, the numbers are… astronomical (sorry about that). The Milky Way is 200,000 light years at its greatest dimension. One light year is equal to 5.88 trillion miles, whew. It formed some 13.6 billion years ago. Scientists believe there could be as many as 400 billion stars within it.
But scientists don’t entirely agree on the measurements of the Milky Way. It’s very hard to calculate the statistics of something when you’re inside it. It would be challenging, for instance, to count all of the trees in a forest when you’re standing in the forest.
I digress. We need the dark sky to see this phenomenon, even if the dark is perhaps a bit scary. Think of it this way: for all of our lives we have lived with night as much as with day.
The sun continuously casts its bright rays our way. If Earth didn’t have a 24-hour rotation, we would never have a shift between dark and light. We would see no scintillating sunsets; no dazzling dawns.
Go out tonight, but not too early, because the galactic collection of stars starts rising after 10 p.m... You’ll need some patience, so take a friend or family member if that helps. Leave electronic devices inside.
The galaxy will arc into the sky. It’s spiral-shaped, meaning it has arms that circle out from a center point (a massive black hole) rotating, more or less, on a central plane. We (planet Earth) are on one of the spiral arms.
We’re about 27,000 light years from the center. It’s really impossible to detect any of this, even if the lights from town are distant and there is no full moon. It’s the Milky Way. The ancient Greeks saw this as sprayed milk when the suckling Heracles (divine hero) was torn from Hera’s (his mom’s) breast. Galaxias kyklos translates to milky circle. Many cultures see it this way.
If you’re reading this in the morning, you’ll have some 15 hours before it’s really dark tonight. Earth is spinning about 1,000 miles per hour. Our planet is big – remember how grand the sky is — so even though we are rotating rapidly, it still takes time for darkness to fall. I think the dad and girl I met that night were surprised to see the arcing stellar assembly because it fell outside of expectations. It’s the largest thing you’ll see in the sky.
It’s true – the huge daytime cerulean sky becomes the gigantic nighttime indigo sky. Look deep into the dark; look beyond the many numbers of our astounding galaxy. That disbelief we feel is our heart pounding when we witness something that is so massive it takes us outside of ourselves.
This sweep of stars allows our dreams to take flight. Mysteries can be exciting. Here is a place of honesty — that it’s not all about us, yet we are all part of this greater whole.
So what are to make of this perspective? I wish I could ask the daughter from that night a couple years ago. I do know we have more than enough night lighting in our cities and towns. Maybe if there was more dark, we could see ourselves as part of this greater whole. And maybe we could tap into her kind of insight.
Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993. Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.