The Great Conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn – December 21, 2020
I hug my elbows tight into my sides and slide my hands as deep into my pockets as they'll go. It's freezing tonight.
“I think it should be acclimated by now. We can start with the globular cluster in Lepus if you want,” he says.
I laugh. “You always start with the globular cluster in Lepus.”
It's an eight-inch Dobsonian telescope, no frills, nothing fancy. Except the tube, which is a deep metallic red and glitters softly in the corner of our bedroom when it's not under the faint smudge of the Milky Way. It's the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn tonight – the closest they've been in 400 years. To everyone else, they'll appear to touch. To us, they'll be keeping a cordial distance, like two strangers queuing at the grocery store.
“How much longer til we can see the conjunction?” I ask. My teeth knock against each other in a hushed, sustained drum roll.
“Maybe an hour? It's still pretty light in the west.”
The western horizon is toothed and uneven like the edges of a ripped piece of paper. Just above the mountains the sky is a melted creamsicle, and above that an expanse of sapphire studded with those first, brave stars. Our breath swirls around us in fleeting clouds, but the sky is otherwise clear and the stars unblinking. That's what you want, I've learned. Twinkling stars might be poetic, but the quiet ones – the ones who stare back at you with unyielding intensity – those indicate ideal atmospheric conditions.
“Good conditions tonight,” he says.
He swivels the telescope into position. Lepus, the hare, hides near the southern horizon at Orion's feet. Canis Major snarls at its side. I shiver, imagining the hare, forever suspended at the panicked edge of attack. The springs on the telescope's base creak as he adjusts and checks, adjusts and checks, adjusts and checks again. He nods, steps back from the telescope, and gestures to the eyepiece.
The globular cluster fills the field of view, countless points of white and yellow and pink light suspended in a creamy cosmic stew. It slowly travels across the eyepiece until it disappears entirely, consumed by the black void defining the limits of the optics. I lift my naked eyes to the sky and try to make out the cluster unaided, but it's gone. An apparition that inhabits a separate plane of existence contained by the telescope.
The Perseid Meteor Shower – August 12, 2010
Before I knew what Messier objects or globular clusters were, there were the Perseids. We made the “bug box” that year – a ridiculous enclosure of lath and screen designed to protect us from the onslaught of hungry insects. Shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, hand in hand, we sprawled across grass slicked with evening condensation, the screen rubbing our outside elbows and hovering just over our noses. The sky was thick with frustrated mosquitoes and the stars warbled above. Not ideal atmospheric conditions.
“When is it going to start?” I had asked him.
“I'm not sure,” he answered.
The dim glow of a waxing crescent moon had just peaked over the pines, sending fractured blue light across our legs. Spring peepers were singing from the creek down back and the screech owls' rejoinder provided a haunting, hymnal chorus. We laid there an hour, waiting for the meteor shower to streak across the sky, watching that faceted sapphire light color the shadows. The Perseids forgot to show up, but we didn't care.
Comet PanSTARRS, C/2011 L4 – March 10, 2013
The bug box only survived a few seasons. It provided cover for our hens one year while we undertook repairs to their coop, but was effectively obsoleted by the telescope. As Comet PanSTARRS C/2011 L4 tore a run in the gossamer of the evening sky, it lay moldering under the last of the winter snow drifts. But the telescope was new – a bright, shiny thing. He pulled me in toward it, warm hand lingering on the small of my back.
“If you squint really hard you might be able to see the ion tail,” he said. He tucked an unruly piece of hair behind my ear as I bent over the eyepiece. I squinted really hard. The nucleus of the comet fluoresced an eerie blue-green and a puff of gas whispered its trajectory across the Andromeda galaxy.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
“Pretty cool,” I nodded.
“We could try to find the globular cluster in Lepus again,” he suggested, swiveling the telescope south. The elusive group of stars, bound together by its own gravity, had become his white whale.
“Or we could just watch the comet,” I suggested. “The globular cluster isn't going anywhere.”
We stood, shoulder grazing shoulder, hip grazing hip, hands in pockets. Heads craned upward, unaided eyes straining. We watched C/2011 L4, like a fuzzy star, move imperceptibly across a field of inky black. A transitory, fleeting thing that would be gone before the first buds opened on the beech trees.
Trifecta: Super Blue Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse – January 31, 2018
The night sky of the northern hemisphere hibernates through deep winter, and telescopes with it. Favored nebulae and star clusters and supernova remnants dip below the horizon with promises to return, resplendent, come spring. Only dramatic, generational events rouse the telescope from its slumber, and the trifecta offered that opportunity. It showed no sign of upset at having been prematurely awoken and readily shook off a film of grey dust dulling its glossy red tube.
We shoveled bare a landing pad for the telescope, snow arcing around us in untidy piles. The pines creaked and swayed overhead as he considered the merits of a moon filter – the internet had been divided on that point. Turning the telescope south pre-umbra, I watched him deftly trace a line from Orion's feet downward toward the globular cluster in Lepus.
“Got it,” he said. “First try.”
His hand hovered over my waist as he offered the eyepiece, stepping away from the telescope and I toward it. Two bodies pulled apart by opposing gravity. As the moon rose and darkened and retreated in the shadow of the earth, too large to be contained by its field of view, we stepped back from the telescope. Shoulders cold, hips turned, hands fidgeting hems and zippers.
The Great Conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn – December 21, 2020
The sapphire bleeds downward toward the horizon, consuming the creamsicle in a final, yawning gulp. There are no mountains now, only little silver pegs scattered across the sky. Above the western horizon, Jupiter and Saturn appear to embrace, individual features dissolving into one glowing point of light. When I squint, they are just barely distinct – the two celestial fingers of God and Adam on the Sistine chapel, stretching to meet.
He trains the telescope on the two gas giants and yields the eyepiece to me. I remember the first time he showed me Saturn – how very like my childhood View-Master it felt. A perfect slide in miniature, rings and striations, even a coterie of white pinprick moons. She's there now, Saturn. Jupiter too. But they're not embracing – not even reaching for each other. The telescope magnifies the infinity between them as they drift, slowly, into the black void defining the limits of the optics. First Jupiter, then Saturn, until the field of view contains only empty space.
“Do you see it?” he asks, keeping a cordial distance, like a stranger queuing at the grocery store.
“Yeah,” I choke, “I see it.”