NEAR VALENTINE, Neb. — Eric is worried about the wind. He glances skyward as the blazing sun sets over the Sand Hills, feels a gust and grimaces.
In an hour, the cloudless sky will darken around this patch of campground 30 miles south of Valentine. In an hour, out will pop stars that look bigger and brighter here than they ever could in Omaha or pretty much anywhere in the United States.
In an hour, the second night of the 2017 Nebraska Star Party — this lovably offbeat annual Woodstock for amateur astronomers — is set to begin under nearly ideal stargazing conditions.
Except for that wind. Eric Balcom feels another gust. He shakes his head.
“If this keeps up, I might not even get mine out,” says the Omahan who coordinates the star party.
Eric is referring to his telescope, a Dobsonian with a 24-inch mirror that takes nearly an hour to set up and several lasers to properly calibrate. Once ready to use, his telescope is so tall you need a ladder to look through its lens. It’s also a delicate instrument affected by things like surface winds, gusts that turn perfect stargazing conditions to astronomical mud.
If this wind dies, many of the 250 or so stargazers who have traveled here from a dozen states — some with powerful telescopes of their own and many with no telescope at all — will wander over to Eric’s majestic telescope to take a high-powered gander at a sky so dark, glittering and undisturbed by the modern world that simply staring up at it with your naked eyes can take your breath away.
In 2017, perfect stargazing is as rare as a surfer’s killer wave or a sommelier’s perfect bottle of wine. But the Nebraska Star Party is the astronomer’s version of the Oahu waves or the vineyards of Bordeaux.
Out here, we are a good half-hour’s drive from the nearest town, the 3,000-person Valentine. We are surrounded by the pastures of the gently rolling Sand Hills and by country mile after country mile of the one thing every astronomer needs most: darkness.
Simply put, the absence of human beings — and their lights — has kept this spot on the Snake Campground near Merritt Reservoir ideal for star watching, even as the streetlights and lit office towers of the modern world have ruined it in almost every other U.S. zip code.
“In Omaha, the only stars you see are the giant loud ones,” says Clete Baker, another Omaha amateur astronomer who helps Eric organize the star party. “Out here?” Clete glances up at the darkening sky. “Well, we are about as close to before the advent of the light bulb as we can be.”
When I arrived at the Nebraska Star Party last month, I believed that stargazing was, well, gazing at the stars — glancing at Orion’s Belt in tight focus, say, and maybe catching a glimpse of a planet or two.
As we wait for darkness to descend, Eric and Clete politely explain how wrong that is. What they actually often do here, particularly with the high-powered telescopes, is look into distant galaxies of which most of us have never heard. What they actually do here, sometimes, is catch a glimpse at our past and our future — even at the end of all known existence.
Clete brings up M57, more commonly known as the Ring Nebula.
The Ring Nebula used to be a star even bigger and stronger than our sun, he says. Then it imploded and burned out. We will look at M57 through a telescope tonight, Clete promises. When we do, we will be looking at the future of our own sun. We will be looking at roughly what will happen to the sun in 5 billion years or so, when it is no longer the sun but rather a gaseous hulk that will not power our Earth.
“It’s the prediction of the end of the universe,” Clete says, excitedly, meaning the end of life as we know it.
He is excited, too, because it’s almost dark now. Even better: The wind is indeed dying down. We tromp with Eric up to Dob Hill, a tongue-in-cheek name for the gentle rise on this campsite where the nicest telescopes, often Dobsonians, set up.
Eric unpacks his telescope from a trailer, dragging pieces into place, snapping them together and then using the lasers to calibrate the image. Then, after the sun disappears fully, he asks: “Wanna see Jupiter?”
I peer at that gigantic planet and then, at Eric’s suggestion, turn my attention to its four largest moons, which in this telescope show up clear and bright. Eric explains that this telescope is powerful enough that what I’m seeing is roughly equivalent to what I would see if I traveled in a spaceship nearly 95 percent of the way to Jupiter and then peered out the window.
A crowd gathers behind us as Eric switches the telescope from Jupiter to Saturn. We wait our turn in a single-file line to look at the planet’s clearly visible rings as well as the Cassini Division, a gap between those rings. Then it’s onto deeper cuts, at least for novices like me. We look at a pair of galaxies called the Cigar Galaxy and Bode’s Galaxy, located near each other in the sky, roughly 12 million light years from where we stand. We look at the Whirlpool Galaxy, an incredible 31 million light years away — and, incredibly, you can see that galaxy’s spiral arms through Eric’s telescope.
All around Eric’s telescope, similar gatherings are happening. People are trudging back and forth through the campsite in the dark, looking in each others’ telescopes, asking questions, exclaiming when they catch a glimpse of a distant galaxy.
There are other star parties that cater to hardcore scientists (Texas) or that have turned astronomy into a highly commercialized long weekend (New York). The Nebraska Star Party is more like an indie music festival, except with no hallucinogenics and way cleaner port-a-potties. It’s like a family reunion if everyone in your family was intimately familiar with Jupiter’s major moons.
“There are the hardcore people here … and also the people who have dabbled, who we can say to, ‘Hey, let me show you something,’ ” Eric says.
“Plus we have a lake!” Clete says. “You can fish and swim during the day and look at stars at night.”
It is midnight now and the darkness is complete. I keep popping my head out from behind Eric’s telescope, looking up and reminding myself … this is actually the night sky.
Here, the Milky Way is a gigantic glittering band that stretches all the way across the horizon like a giant bedazzled belt. Here, the stars seem to reach out to you, no longer distant specks but instead real places you can visit.
Many of the stargazers will be out here until nearly dawn, but I’m getting weary. I walk through the darkness to where Clete’s telescope is set up and make a final request.
I ask: Can I see the Ring Nebula, the faraway former star that was once several times more massive than our sun? Can I gaze at the thing which allows us to understand what will happen to our own sun in the future?
You bet, Clete says. He locates it in the night sky and points me to the eyepiece.
The Ring Nebula looks bagel-shaped and is ringed by a darker hue than its center. It is shades of gray in my vision, but that’s only because the human eye isn’t powerful enough to accept the explosion of color from the nebula’s glowing gases.
The Ring Nebula looks ghostly. But not in a scary way. As I peer at it I find it oddly comforting, like a handshake offered by a long-lost friend you bump into on the street.
“So that’s the prediction of the end of the universe,” Clete says again when I finish.
I thank him, and walk past the rest of the Nebraska Star Party and to my car, trying not to trip in the dark.
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Food critic Sarah Baker Hansen is from Omaha. Columnist Matthew Hansen grew up in Red Cloud. As a married couple, they travel Nebraska to share with each other little-known people, unexpected stops and memorable foods. Come along and discover more of what the state has to offer in "The Better Half," an occasional series prepared with support from the Nebraska Community Foundation.