Seven astonishing astronomical spectacles

The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, easily seen through good backyard telescopes, is on our list of seven astonishing spectacles. It consists of one-million suns packed into a ball just 200 light years wide. (NASA)

If we care about astronomy, it may be for the intellectual stimulation provoked by concepts like black holes. A small proportion of us take it much further by looking through a backyard telescope.

But mostly it’s the same motivation that drives us to the movies or a new vacation spot. To have fun. So let’s cut through the nebulosity and get straight to the easiest, most astounding experiences the sky can ever offer. We’ll start with the absolute easiest – those that require no equipment whatsoever.

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The most mind-bending experience is the total solar eclipse. It knocks people backward.  People weep, it’s that powerful. Oddly, that same word “eclipse” is also used for a lengthy list of other phenomena that are not particularly dramatic. It’s only the “total solar” variety that delivers magic. 

This common misunderstanding of what comprises a true spectacle explains why many remain in a location where a solar eclipse is 99% “partial” rather than travel 150 miles to where they could see totality. So let’s say it again. Totality is the life-altering experience. Anything less is just ho-hum and so-so. When the Sun is 99% eclipsed, it is not 99% as amazing as totality. It is zero percent as amazing as totality. Everything happens at totality.

I’m emphasizing this now because in just three years, on April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse is coming to our region — the final one in our lives. Or, at least, until May 1, 2079. Totality will be seen in Burlington, Vermont but not in Bennington. It will be seen in Rochester but not Ithaca. You must be in the right place. Paths of totality are available online so you can begin planning.

Also important to know is that lunar eclipses — even total ones — are incomparably less amazing than the solar kind. You must also know whether it’ll even be visible. Coming up next Wednesday the 26th is a total lunar eclipse. It’ll get a lot of media attention. But it won’t be seen here. None of it.

After the total solar eclipse, the next-best sky spectacle is a major display of the Northern Lights. We get them here about once a decade, on average. We last had decent ones in the autumn of 2001 and 2000, while an amazing all-night, all-sky spectacle unfolded over our area on March 13, 1989. If you’re impatient or else simply want to see the very best aurora, join me in Alaska some year by looking at Special Interest Tours online.

The next mind-blowing sky spectacle is a great comet. That’s the official designation. They arrive every 15 to 20 years on average. We had one a year ago in the form of Comet Neowise, which although faintly visible to the naked eye probably didn’t quite qualify as a “Great Comet.” The ones in our lifetime were comet Bennett in 1970, comet West in 1986, comet Hyakutake in 1996, and Hale Bopp in 1997. West and Hale-Bopp were the best and brightest. We are now somewhat overdue.  

The final amazing sky spectacle is a rich meteor shower. A single brilliant shooting star called a fireball is a definite winner all by itself. An exploding meteor, termed a bolide, is unforgettable. But seeing meteors cross the sky every minute or so is the gift bestowed by the two reliable annual showers, the Perseids of August 11 and the Geminids every December 13. Unfortunately, the spectacle is reduced or even ruined by a bright Moon, so we don’t actually see showers annually. Then there’s the cloudiness issue, which obliterates around half the events.

But to use the word “astonishing” we’d limit the “shooting star” story to the rare super-rich spectacles called meteor storms. We had only one of those, a relatively minor storm: the Leonid spectacle in the pre-dawn hours of November 18, 2001. This page alerted readers to it in advance, and many in our region did set their alarm. Totally clear skies and an absent Moon thankfully cooperated, and people lying on lawn chairs or on their cold November lawn in sleeping bags saw five brilliant, vividly green meteors every single minute for hours, all of which left behind lingering trains that persisted like Cheshire Cat smiles. It was the only meteor spectacle of its type in our region in our lives. The next is not expected until November 18, 2099.

Those are the naked-eye spectacles. With a good backyard telescope, gasps of appreciation and amazement are audible when the instrument points at the half or gibbous Moon, the planet Saturn and sometimes Jupiter, the double star cluster in Perseus, the Orion nebula and with telescopes whose lens or mirror is at least six inches wide, the Hercules globular star cluster. 

There you have it. The seven celestial sights that make people gasp with amazement. Most require no instrumentation. And maybe one more, spanning the entire sky: The Milky Way on moonless autumn nights, seen from a truly dark, unpolluted, open-field location. If you can’t get to the Sonoran or Atacama desert, the Catskills offer a few runner-up sites right here.