Oct 9

You Can’t Truly Understand a Light Year

The dry desert air cools as the sun sets from behind while driving east toward Kanab along 389. Ahead, the steps of the Grand Staircase can be seen ascending from the depths of the Grand Canyon upward toward the sky spires of Bryce Canyon. The occasional car or SUV is passed, pulled over, flashers on, with families deployed in front of the towering glowing vermilion cliffs to the North. They are snapping photographs of themselves with the ancient painted geography. This drive, especially alone, becomes a form of meditation. There are few buildings and the highway, as Father Guthrie once described it, is a ribbon laid upon the vast landscape. There is no cell phone service and the radio stations are few and far between.

For a moment the conditions are right and an opportunity presents itself. There is a separation and suddenly, even for a brief moment, as the ancient rocks, sand, and sky glide past, we can pull ourselves away. We can begin to catch a glimpse of the universe outside our immediate concerns.

The signs for Fredonia snap us back to the present as we prepare for arrival in Kanab. The last dying light from the sun succumbs to the night’s umbrageous reign. After exiting the car a chorus of crickets sing their greeting and the smell of burning pine carried by a cool night breeze invokes a nostalgic high.

The weight of The Life and its responsibilities, for a moment, is removed like a heavy backpack that’s been carried for months. Looking up, you see a night sky that hits with the force that only a thousand suns can deliver. Dangling jewels lay out across a velvet skyscape; the timeless muse for the poets, religions, storytellers, philosophers, scientists, navigators of ships and lives, artists, and the curious throughout the ages reveals herself. The great conjurer of wonder whose physics and scale exceed even the capacity of the human imagination lies before us on any clear night. As a stargazer, your point of view changes. Days, weeks, and months become centuries, millennia, and epochs. Feet, yards, and miles become astronomical units, light years and parsecs.

This is typically the point in the article where the poor author attempts to define a unit of measure used to describe the cosmos in some human relatable away. Not doable, sorry. For example, we know ten yards is a first down and a hundred yards is a football field. Three thousand miles is roughly the distance from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast. 1 light year is approximately 5878625000000 miles or roughly 236079876 trips around our planet.

How can a human being truly understand this distance? The distance of a light year cannot be experienced and can’t be recorded in our sense memory. It is unrelatable. Of course we can use tricks like scaling down absolute distances in the universe to proportions we can better grasp, but when pondering the cosmos we must adjust our point of view to extend beyond our experiences. Only the potent cocktail of science, spirituality, and imagination can help us scratch the surface and awaken the muse.

A group has formed and have begun to layout plans to build an observatory right here in Kanab. However, the Stellar Vista Observatory will not be like your typical observatory. The Stellar Vista Observatory will not be a fenced off, mysterious, isolated area in the woods where trespassing is prohibited and operators sitting in prestigious coastal universities operate the controls over the Internet.

Instead SVO wants to make a facility for us Kanabians and our visitors. For the curious child who sees a gigantic telescope with an eye piece and can’t help wondering what sights await her when she peers into the giant light bucket.

For the 8th grader who is forced to visit on a homework assignment, but upon visiting finds a genuine interest in astronomy after learning that the photons from the galaxy he just viewed started their journey hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, traveled an unfathomable distance across the universe, and all the while were destined for his eye.

For the middle aged man who made the drive east along 389 to escape the fast paced life of the city with his family and takes a glance at a nebula millions a miles away only to see himself and his life juxtaposed against the cosmos. To see how fragile and ephemeral the circumstances of life can be; that in this fleeting cosmic moment have come together in a sweet emulsion of friends, family, health, and love. To then progress to the realization that this blissful moment in time will not be his forever. A renewed appreciation for what we all too often take for granted is rekindled.

On a clear night, take a few minutes and look up and let your mind wander. It is a good antidote for the dizzying chaos that can be our everyday lives and you may find some unexpected inspiration or a new point of view.

If you’re interested in discovering more about our precious night skies here in Southern Utah, or want to help bring about the creation of the Stellar Vista Observatory in Kanab, reach out and come to our meetings and star parties. We have a Facebook group (search Stellar Vista Observatory) and we publish our events in the Southern Utah News and The Independent.

Stellar Vista Observatory’s next public star party will be held in cooperation with Trailfest, a large trail running event held in and around Kanab. Four powerful telescopes will be set up and operated by friends of the Stellar Vista Observatory for deep sky viewing at Jacob Hamblin Park. All residents and visitors to Kanab are invited! The date is Thursday, October 3, from 7:45 to 10 pm at the City park located near the north end of 100 East in Kanab. Astro-photographs by SVO working group member and night sky artist Dave Lane will be available for purchase. The highly accomplished astro photographer has succeeded in having 13 of his images published in NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day online at www.apod.org. Dave will donate 50% of the proceeds skid at Trailfest to help fund the creation of Kanab’s future observatory.

The Stellar Vista Observatory Working Group has been organizing free star parties in Kanab for over a year, and is helping generate inspiring night sky viewing experiences for public enjoyment in our community. We need the sort of help and participation from the community that all nonprofits need; writers, fundraisers, volunteer coordinators, tech folks, doers, but perhaps most of all we need the curious. Come, and let’s ponder the infinite and tell stories!

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