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A Cloudy Day, a Starry Night

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Events of February 1, 2012

I snuck a look out the window of the old brownstone as the professor read my paper. The sky above the College of Arts and Sciences building had disappointingly clouded over. I groaned, mentally.

As it sometimes does, my brain suddenly and unexpectedly flipped into its "composing poetry" mode:

I'm looking skyward, on another cloudy day.

(My brain only composes poetry suddenly and unexpectedly, which is why I blog in prose.)

Is this going to be one that rhymes? Something with away. "... you went away." "The sky was like that when you went away?"

No, that sounds stupid.

My professor's comments brought me back to reality. The spark was gone. I focused on what he was saying about my essay and forgot about poetry.

Still though, it was the truth -- nine years ago today, I'd been visiting Washington D.C. with a group from my church when we'd heard that the Space Shuttle Columbia had been lost on reentry. And, although the news footage had shown the spacecraft disintegrating against a clear blue Texas sky, the skies over our hotel in Maryland had been just as cloudy as today's.

Had that really been nine years ago? Nine years since I'd been four-weeks-shy-of-ten? Half my life? I'd been in fourth grade then, and I'm a freshman in college now, so it must have been... but it sure didn't feel like that long. I remembered writing a special journal entry on the fifth anniversary in 2008, but where had the intervening four years gone?

I'd noticed that the first of February this year fell on a Wednesday, a very special day of the week for me, because, as I've mentioned in previous posts, it's the day the Boston University Astronomical Society meets and the night we open up the telescopes on the roof to the public. Just like on Carl Sagan's birthday, I felt I had an extra motivation to be a very good explainer and get the visitors excited about outer space.

That was, if it cleared up. However, there were still hours to go and it wasn't even dark yet. Being as close as we are to the Charles River, the weather can change pretty fast on campus, and the wind can blow very quickly when it wants to. So I forgot about tonight for the moment and devoted my full attention to my essay.

As I walked out, the sky was clearing, and I headed back to my dorm with a spring in my step. If observing was still on, that meant I had better get to work finishing the project I wanted to show the other club members.

When I'd been home for holiday vacation, I'd gotten the idea of drawing cute cartoon versions of planets and other celestial bodies, making copies of them, and giving them to children who came to Public Night to color and take home. I figured it would be a big hit, especially on the nights when we had lectures by professors before the observing that younger children might have trouble sitting still through.

By doubling up, I managed to fit eight planets on four sheets of paper, which gave me one left over to draw the sun and the Earth's moon. (I want to add an asteroid and a comet later, if I can find the time.)

Finding time to draw all of the planets between classes had been hard, but finishing them was only half the battle -- now I had to scan them, clean up any extraneous pencil lines in Photoshop, type up information about the worlds represented to go on the backs of the drawings and then print them out.

Unfortunately, my printer doesn't print double-sided, so getting them perfect was a matter of trial and error. (The information needed to fit inside the circle so that a kid could cut their planet out and still be able to read the back.) But by dinnertime, I had a file full of completed drawings. Unfortunately, I wouldn't be able to give them out that night, because I only had one copy of each, but I did have proof-of-concepts to show the other kids in the club.

After catching up with my friends at BU SEDS/AIAA (that is, the Boston University chapters of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space and the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics) who had coincidentally decided to schedule our first meeting of the year at the same time, I sped over to the College of Arts and Sciences building, hoping I wasn't late.

The moon and the planet Jupiter were visible as I hurried across Commonwealth Ave, but they were passing in and out of some clouds that had blown in. However, the clouds were moving away, and as long as the moon was visible -- observing was on!

I headed up to the roof, and found that there was already quite a crowd. In the time it had taken me to climb the stairs, the wind blowing off the harbor had started to clear away the clouds, and in about fifteen minutes, the sky was completely cloudless. I jumped right in, welcoming a couple who had just arrived and bringing them over to see Jupiter in one of the telescopes. The view was great, with the bands of color visible on the planet's disk, and its four largest moons visible nearby.

"What are those little starlike things?" The man asked.

"Those are its moons. Jupiter has more than sixty, but the ones you're seeing now are its largest. We call them the Galilean moons because Galileo was the first to see them." I explained.

At the next telescope over, a thirty-ish woman looked through the eyepiece to see the moon and swore in surprise. After she was done observing, she struck up a conversation with another student about the moon's features and geology.

I wandered around, talking to people in line, and seeing if anyone had questions. Another couple came over asking if I could show them how to find the Big Dipper and the North Star. I explained that the light pollution from Cambridge washed out most of the constellation Ursa Major, but I was able to find the two stars that pointed the way to the North Star, Polaris. On the other side of Polaris, I showed them the constellation Cassiopeia, oriented tonight so that it resembled the Greek letter "sigma."

"That thing we were looking at over there, the Orion Nebula?" The woman asked.

"Yes." I said.

"What was that dust?"

"Well, stars are made from plasma and gas, and the nebula was created when an old star exploded. That gas and dust are its remains, and the stars you saw inside it are baby stars that are still forming from the gas." I said.

"So, we were watching star-genesis!" The man said.

"That's right. It's like a nursery for stars. Our sun probably looked like that once."

"Wow, I didn't know there were stars that were still forming."

"Oh, certainly. At every moment, stars are forming, shining, aging, exploding, turning into nebulae or neutron stars or black holes... "

The sky in Boston leaves a lot to be desired compared to the view I had over holiday break on Long Island. But being able to stargaze at all is a treat, as is being able to share it with others. After putting the telescopes away for the night and showing my drawings to the other kids, I headed to the Stone Science Library to make copies of the drawings as soon as I could. I'd accomplished one mission, but for an astronaut, that just means that it's time to start preparing for the next one.

I'm looking skyward, on another starry night...