The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Dark Sky, A Portal into Mind and Meaning.
The observatory is fifty feet to the south of the two story house. An eight-foot round dome sits on top of a square ten feet by ten feet building. The walls are stuccoed the same color as the house. The roof is sealed with a color the same as the house roof. The door and trim is near the trim colors of the house although a bit more grey. To the west of the dome twenty feet away is a prow shaped wind barrier made of cement seven feet high protecting a fourteen inch diameter cement telescope pier. All the cement is the same color as the cement foundation of the house which is satisfyingly close to the color of the red rocks and dirt it rests upon. They are simple constructions but somehow at the same time they are complexly attractive icons presenting a standing invitation.
I have called the observatory a “portal to the heavens” and that description is often enthusiastically accepted. From friends to the public, people express eagerness to see it. A couple of times I have been photographed and interviewed by Utah’s newspapers and was featured in a short film.
I wonder what exactly that attraction is. What do people expect to see? What do they want from it? Why do they ask me to come and see it? The location has to be part of it. Just outside of Capitol Reef National Park the area was originally considered to be part of the Park. In almost any other place it would be a monument or a park. Surrounded by red rock cliffs and high alpine plateaus in a rural area where dark skies at night still rule, a lot of people want to come here anyway. Getting away from the city and into the country with a chance to see the stars and Milky Way is a natural attraction, something I think that is similar to an instinct. It is, after all, what we were presented for the vast majority of our human history. Until just a hundred years ago there were no electric lights anywhere to light up the night sky and hide the stars.
The observatory dome has two ten foot shutters running vertically from the top down the face of the dome that separate from each other and mechanically expose a slit of sky to the telescope equipment inside. The opening is not unlike a curtain opening on a stage and the feeling to the observer can be the same. Every time I open it I feel butterflies of anticipation for a stellar show.
My wife Kirsten and I have come up with a routine that makes for a good star party. While folks are enthused about the idea of a party under the stars, their actual interest and patience usually does not run past an hour. We start outside the observatory building at the outside pier with a telescope set up to be used visually. That might sound strange, but the telescope inside the observatory is configured for photography in a way that is involved and complicated and time consuming to change to be used visually. Outside it was Kirsten’s idea to start with the closest objects in the sky and move out. If the moon is up we start with that. My outside setup is not what is known as “goto.” That means a computer is not running it and it won’t automatically slew and point to the object desired. The moon is the closest, and easiest to find manually, and I swing the scope to it and get it focused. The moon is so bright it almost hurts to look at and of course sets people’s night vision back, but there are usually a half dozen folks who are taking turns looking giving the other viewers some time to recover.
On an August night before the pandemic, we were in Torrey with a handful of folks who are on the board of Torrey House Press, a nonprofit publisher of books that my wife and I founded. Most of them have both a literary and conservation bent and I have known them in both capacities for awhile. Even so, between the night, the dark, and the physical closeness of helping my friends find the eyepiece and the focuser, the experience has a new level of intimacy and community. As we get started I invite one of our board founders over. We stand side by side and I steady her as she uses the step stool to get her eye up to the eyepiece level. It is dark enough that I need to take her hand and guide it to the eyepiece. Then I place her other hand on the focuser so she can bring the image right to the point that works best for her. I wait for her to grasp what she is looking at and I get the usual delighted gasp as she pulls her head back and begins to take in what she has just seen. She moves back in, plays with the focus and begins to exclaim about how the moon appears to be right there, so close, so detailed. She backs away again and looks at the moon with her naked eye and tries to absorb what she is seeing.
We take turns with the board members and then I swing the scope to Jupiter, an object that is in our solar system but much further away than the moon. We can see the spot on Jupiter and three of its moon, all in high contrast, stark black and white. The planet is daytime bright and the space around out is inky dark. It is, as hoped, otherworldly to see. Then on to Saturn with its rings plainly visible. Some of the more patient viewers can even make out the shadow of the rings on the planet. Finally I swing to M13, a globular cluster in the armpit of Hercules. This group of stars amounts to a mini galaxy and is at the outskirts of our galaxy, the Milky Way, 22,000 light years away. I mention this distance with the perspective that most of we humans’ written history is only a couple thousand years old. The light we are looking at has taken ten times as long as that to get to the opening of our telescope. Then I mention the cluster is almost as old as the Universe, almost as old as time itself. I am pushing her mind to step through the portal that is open before her. With her eye to the eyepiece, she goes quiet, intent, and looks.
Next we all squeeze into the observatory. By now we are talking in a hush. While the observatory has plenty of gee-whiz functionality, in my mind it is a bit of a letdown compared to being outside under the stars. I sit down at the personal computer keyboard and open the software that runs all the equipment. I remember, a little too late after someone yelps, to remind everybody that the unfinished inside walls have exposed nail tacks poking out and not to lean back. The interior lights are red and on low. At the glow of the PC console, I command the shutters to open and a slice of the outside world begins to appear again. Unlike outside, everything in here is computerized and I command the telescope to slew to M13, the same object in Hercules that we last looked at outside. As the telescope swings to position, the dome rotates to align the shutter opening with the telescope.
At the end of the telescope, on the viewing end, hangs a train of equipment set up to take pictures. Attached to the telescope where the focusing knobs were, there is an automatic focusing device. Between the specialized camera and telescope there is a filter wheel housed in a compartment about seven inches square and a rotator about five inches round to turn the camera to any position desired. I tell it to make up north, toward Polaris, the North Star.
The camera is like nothing the lay person is used to seeing. There is no eyepiece. It’s about five inches round, with handles and vents and a built in fan for the internal cooling mechanism to both keep the sensor cool and hold it at a constant temperature, eliminating some noise and allowing images to be combined and stacked with similar environmental characteristics. The camera is monochrome. Usually images are taken at the same length of time, from five to ten minutes each, through the different colors in the filter wheel: red, green, blue, clear and a special narrow band filter called hydrogen-alpha. These sub-frames will be combined and stacked in such a way to create full color image that amounts to being an exposure that is multiple hours long.
Tonight we are going to take one minute exposures through the clear filter and let them start to stack up on the screen, bringing out better detail and more exposure as they do so. It is in black and white and a far cry from the Hubble images everyone is used to seeing. But it is still compelling to see the object we had just looked at visually in a much dimmer form become fuller and more detailed.
Perhaps they expected to see images like those of the Hubble telescope. In that case they are disappointed. I show them a few of my finished images, which to the uninitiated can look pretty close to the wild deep sky images seen from big, scientific observatories or even the Hubble. It has taken an hour to do the tour and we head back to the warm indoors, some waiting wine and cheese, and chance to share notes.
What did they see? Is it what they hoped? Is there a portal?