Filling in the Spaces

26 Mar 2019 Filling in the Spaces

By Rachel Shen, Terrascope Mission 2022 

One of the best places to hide something is to put it somewhere high; most people rarely look up. Growing up in Quincy, MA, a city about ten miles from Boston, I didn’t have much of a reason to either. Being in such a densely populated area brought plenty of light pollution and although there were always a few astronomical bodies to be seen, they were only a few points of light against a grey sky. Nevertheless, those few stars and the moon amazed me as a kid. During clear winter nights or warm summer evenings, I would set up a small telescope given to me for Christmas and lie back on the docks near my home to try to identify some constellations with the limited knowledge I had. I imagined what it would be like to see the Milky Way, to see a band of stars stretching across the sky so dense it would look like stardust spilled across the night. There was something wonderful about that: seeing nearly the same patterns* people have been looking at for thousands of years, things people have made legends about.

When I came to MIT, there were even less stars visible. Cambridge lights, though exciting and busy, blotted out the night sky even more. However, I still could make out a few familiar objects. It made me feel more at home, although I didn’t know their names. That would soon change. During Spring course selection, I saw posters displayed down the Infinite, suggesting that students “Get Sirius” and sign up for 12.409, a hands-on astronomy class. I did for several reasons. One, I have a weakness for good (and bad) puns. Two, I wanted to be able to name the stars. I wanted to learn the stories behind those names. Since I’ve signed up I have learned through lecture and a lab section, looking at stars through books,on the rooftop of building 38, and occasionally Wallace Observatory. Going to the Navajo Nation, however, was even more exciting from an astronomy point of view. Because of the lack of clouds and lower population density, I couldn’t wait until I could look up and see what I was missing in Massachusetts.

During the first day of the trip we toured a ranch, and as we hiked to the ranch’s windmill I noticed the absence of two things that are usually in abundance in Cambridge: sounds and lights. I noted this to one of the people who were showing us around the ranch. I asked him, “What do the stars look like at night?” He told me that the milky way was one of the most beautiful sights in the canyon, and that he could stare at the stars for hours. Our guide the next day at the Canyon de Chelly echoed this sentiment.

The next night, we revisited the Canyon de Chelly to go stargazing. We loaded into the vans, and when we got to the site I laid down and drank in the sight of so many stars above me. I had only seen such a sky before in textbooks, and seeing the sky in reality felt unreal.

There are many things that don’t translate well from page to sky. For one, brightness is represented on the page as dots of different sizes. But that doesn’t translate to how brightly the stars of the constellations stood out, glittering against the smaller stars and velvety black of the sky. Colors, too, were very evident; the red tint of Betelgeuse and the cool blue of Sirius stood out even more brightly against the hundreds of smaller, more distant stars. I had never seen so many stars before. It was, for lack of a better word, beautiful.

When the headlights of the vans turned back on, summoning us back, I was sorry to go. I was ready to lie down on the cool sandstone all night. During the short drive back, I could still see stars where back home there were only empty space. I looked at them for a little longer, knowing now that even if I couldn’t see them back in Cambridge, they were still there.

*The constellations seen thousands of years ago are not actually the same as the ones we see today; over thousands of years, the view from earth changes and the constellations look slightly different.