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Here’s Something You Can See in the Sky This Summer That’s Even Cooler Than the Solar Eclipse

August 18, 2017, 3:01 PM UTC

On Monday, the shadow of the moon will sweep across the United States along a narrow corridor from Oregon in the West to South Carolina on the East Coast. Anyone within the shadow path will experience one of nature’s most impressive spectacles: a total eclipse of the sun.

If you live within the 60-mile-wide shadow corridor—called the path of totality—you probably already know about what is coming. It is here that observers will be plunged into deep twilight within the shadow during midday as the moon precisely covers the sun for up to 150 seconds, depending on the exact location of the observer. It is dramatic, breathtaking, and awesome. Once experienced, you will never forget it.

Outside the shadow corridor, the event is interesting, but the unique, full-blown, total solar eclipse is what eclipse chasers literally travel to the other side of the Earth to witness. They have been planning for years for this month’s total solar eclipse. If you haven’t booked accommodations within driving range of the path of totality, forget it. Watch it on television. (Really.)

For an alternative astronomical adventure, try something that only requires a dark country sky (the darker, the better) and normal binoculars.

High in the northwestern night sky in late summer and on through autumn is the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbor spiral galaxy. It looks like a cosmic mistake—a small, fuzzy celestial erasure mark on the blackboard of the night. In reality, it is the combined light of about a trillion stars dimmed by distance. Astronomers use the term light-year—the distance light travels across the universe in one year—as a convenient measure. By this yardstick, the Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light-years from Earth. (One light-year is about six trillion miles!)

I am often asked whether the immensity of the universe makes me feel totally insignificant, even depressed, when I am out stargazing. On the contrary, I feel a deep sense of tranquility under the starry night sky. It’s not an unfathomable mystery, but a wonderland to be explored. We may not understand all the intricate workings of the universe, but we do know enough to recognize our place in the cosmic scheme—at least in a physical sense. For that reason alone, we are not so insignificant.

 

Stargazing for me is a cerebral voyage among the stars and galaxies, a communion with the beauty and immensity of the universe. It isn’t overwhelming—it’s exhilarating.

Those feelings are reinforced every time I stand under a rich canopy of stars and see the Milky Way’s glowing spine of starlight arcing across the sky. I sink back in a lawn chair and turn my binoculars to the throngs of stellar points in Cygnus and Sagittarius. The ocean of stars offered by humble binoculars never loses its impact.

Terence Dickinson is the author of 15 astronomy books, the most recent of which is Hubble’s Universe: Greatest Discoveries and Latest Images, published by Firefly Books.