Last the night was that perfect one hoped for by all stargazers. Calm weather, no clouds or bugs and a sky jammed with too many stars to count. Even the usual atmospheric turbulence that blurs planets and mushes out star images took a hike for the night.
I drove out to the lonely lands north of Duluth, Minn. and set up the telescope for a look at many things – comets (PANSTARRS was freaking amazing with its long, faint tail), Saturn, star clusters and nebulae. But the one thing that vied for my attention all night long was a curious species of aurora that resembled a sausage, or if you’re into extraterrestrials, an alien spaceship.
The sausage materialized during late twilight below the Little Dipper in the northern sky. Nothing above it, nothing below – just this strange, smooth, lime glow about two fists wide. For the next hour it played hide-and-seek, fading away and reappearing like breath on a mirror.
By 11:30 it was nearly gone. That was about the time another smaller patch fired up low in the northeastern sky. This apparition took its time, morphing into a second green sausage centered under the familiar W of Cassiopeia by 1 a.m.
Meanwhile, the International Space Station, basking in sunlight for its entire orbit the next week, passed by twice. One the first run at 11:50, it sliced right through the aurora before disappearing over the eastern horizon.
By the time of the second pass at 1:23 a.m. the patches were fading and spreading. On this pass I once again enjoyed a view of the space station and its picturesque solar panels by following it through the telescope. Giorgio Rizzarelli of Italy sent a photo that shows very well how the ISS looks through a typical telescope if you’re fast enough to grab a look.
At 2 a.m. it was time to head home and get some sleep. Driving out, I noticed my gas warning light go on, which usually means 3 gallons left in the tank. No problem, I thought. The total distance would come to fewer than 40 miles. That’s not how it worked out. Six miles from the front door, the car briefly lost power but then fired up again. One mile later I was out of gas.
Unlike the aurora, which kept surging back to life, my ride wasn’t going anywhere. I’m grateful for my wonderful wife, who drove out in the middle of the night to meet me with a gas can. Thank you honey.