On one of these clear, crisp September evenings, be sure to go out and take a look at the Milky Way stretching across the night sky. It is best to get out of town away from distracting lights on a dark night with no moon. Look for a dimly glowing swath of light extending from north to south going almost overhead.
This is our home in the unending cosmos which we share with an estimated 300 billion stars. Imagine a huge pinwheel-shaped structure with two spiral arms radiating out of a central bulge. We live in between those arms on a smaller substructure known as the Orion spur.
I know it sounds kind of deflating to hear that we live on a spur, but actually it is a good place to be. The spiral arms are much too crowded and out here in the rural zone of our galaxy things are a little quieter. Life can evolve in peace for billions of years like it has on our little planet.
Looking south into that swath of light, we can see right into the heart of our galaxy where forces beyond our comprehension are at work. A giant black hole resides there, which is one of the strangest inhabitants of the universe. Every now and then it gobbles up a star like our sun for a snack. Hopefully, we are far enough away not to be part of its food chain.
Our sun is cruising through space at a speed of 500,000 miles per hour, dragging the earth and the other planets along with it. Even at that speed, it still takes us 250 million years to make one trip around our home galaxy. As you look up at the night sky, imagine all the stars that you can see are on a big merry-go-round. Most of them are traveling along with us in our journey.
Maybe you remember riding on a merry-go-round as a kid sitting on one of those ponies that bobs slowly up and down. Our sun is doing the same thing as we travel through the cosmos. It takes millions of years to make one bob and we do not notice our motion because the distances are too vast and our lives too short.
Look towards the south for two bright objects to the left of the Milky Way. Notice that they are not twinkling like the stars, which is a clue that they are planets. The brighter one is Jupiter, and if you have a small telescope be sure to check out its four moons. The dimmer one is Saturn and that telescope will show you its magnificent rings.
Later at night, brilliant red Mars is rising low in the southeast. We are catching up with the red planet in our orbit around the sun, and will rendezvous with it in October. Just before dawn, brilliant Venus can be seen in the east, outshining everything else up there besides the moon.
Protect our dark skies
The Methow Valley is one of the few places offering a brilliant view of the Milky Way on a clear, moonless night.
The Methow Dark Sky Coalition urges people to protect our night sky with environmentally responsible lighting by following International Dark-Sky Association guidelines for outdoor lighting:
• Only be on when needed.
• Only light the area that needs it.
• Be no brighter than necessary.
• Minimize blue light emissions.
• Be fully shielded.
By using timers, motion sensors, lower wattage and shields, smart homeowners can reduce their energy consumption while also reducing light pollution. Be a good neighbor by protecting our dark skies. Visit http://www.methowdarksky.org.