I have posted several stories here about my work devoted to what we can learn by imaging the same patch of sky every clear night from February to October. I have written about why this work appeals to me scientifically as we try to make up for a lack of pristine skies and state of the art equipment with sheer volume of data, not the most elegant approach but satisfying in its own way. One major drawback of taking on this endeavor is a feeling that one should never leave the telescope in data season. Every night missed takes away from what we are trying to accomplish. At times I feel like a dairy farmer. You don’t just take a vacation from the herd. It needs attention every day. A dedication to capturing every clear night can lead to conflicts with very core human things – think celebrations and holidays.
On the flip side, there is a certain peace in the recognition that the stars show no concern for the affairs of humans. Whatever is going on in my life or my neighborhood or the world, the cluster I have adopted will be there, rising 3 minutes and 56 seconds earlier than the previous night. After the five month hiatus each winter, when the field is obscured from our view by the earth and the sun, the cluster has never failed to be where it should be and something is just a little more right when I once again go looking for it.
Like everything else this process isn’t all one thing or another and from this June vantage, midway through the observing season, the weight of trying to capture every clear night is noticeable. There are nights I’d rather not bother adding a few more hours of data to the hundreds or thousands already in hand and, of course, any one night likely wouldn’t matter. But as is often the case, this kind of thinking is a slippery slope. Once headed down this road it’s easy to let too much slip away. Plus, it feels right to be taking the data.
Much of the peace that comes from this work derives from the steady-going, always-there, nature of it. I am certainly aware that this steadiness is an illusion resulting from my sampling over such a narrow sliver of time. A long time ago the band Kansas sang the line, “Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.” To which I always thought, “Well, that’s right, except for the earth and sky part.” The solar system won’t be here doing its thing, making the cluster rise 3 minutes and 56 seconds earlier each night, forever. The 1600+ stars I have grown to know so well (and yet so poorly!) over the past decade are themselves on the same journey as the rest of us, a journey that will render them essentially unobservable from earth. None of that really matters on a warm summer evening when the camera shutter is clicking and the sky is a little less transparent than I’d like. The cluster, my cluster, is enough of a rock and that we’re on the journey through time together is pleasing enough in its own way.