So my alarm goes off at 7 o'clock. Nothing unusual. Every spring training day, I get up at 7:15, take a shower, make my "gourmet" breakfast and head to the stadium. However, this was no ordinary 7 o'clock, this was a 7 p.m. wake-up call, set so that I can make the hour drive to the Orange Blossom Special. It was time for the annual star party at Hickory Hill, the sky-watching home of the St. Petersburg Astronomy Club (SPAC).
My first close encounter with Hickory Hill, an orange grove, was three years ago. I found out about SPAC while searching the Net, shortly after recalling a little bit about amateur astronomy from some college courses. Armed and dangerous with just a little knowledge, I went to a local telescope store, picked up a red penlight, a star map, and headed for the Hill.
FADE TO BLACK
This year, I made the hour drive as a seasoned veteran. I arrived carrying a Subway sandwich, a few layers of clothes, a digital camera, some NutriGrain bars, and two bottles of water. I had learned that staying out until 3 a.m. can make for 37-degree temperatures, even in sunny Florida. The hot apple cider that they served helped, but not like five layers of sweatshirts.
At any "star party," white light is seen as the grim reaper of sky watching. To see the night sky, your eyes need to be "dark adjusted" to detect these often faint images. So I learned how to drive up to the Hill with fog lights and bust a K-turn with no lights at all. For those that have trouble driving in complete darkness (shame on you), they will appoint someone to lead you in with airplane light sticks.
Even in the dark, the Hill is bustling with life. RVs line one side, the "clubhouse" occupies the center, and the backyard is a sea of telescopes. There are tents that house everything from a mirror grinding station to a "cloudy day" concert area. Apparently, one of the acts can do a mean Elvis imitation.
RED LIGHT DISTRICT
Not all light is evil. Light filtered through a red film is allowed. Red light does not severely set back your dark adjustment, so everyone tiptoes around with red light pens. Anytime you need to read a sky map or chart, red light is the light of necessity.
On my night, the clouds came in, which in non-astronomical terms meant that I saw absolutely NOTHING. However, that did not stop SPAC. We passed the time by covering everything from collimation (mirror alignment) to the assault on the sausage in Milwaukee. A band was playing, people were projecting space movies onto the clubhouse wall, and discussions came up about the light pollution from Wal-Mart. Hot apple cider in exchange for complete demolition was not received well by Wal-Mart execs. That's OK, I love their tube socks.
THE 'STAR' TEAM
The team started with my sky guide Dee Stephens, my personal North Star. Through her bronchitis on my first trip, she helped me until I got my bearings of the sky. Dee let me know what I was seeing and taught me how to see it.
In the cloudy downtime, I learned the story of Ron Jones, who made a 22-inch Dobsonion reflector. He started with the glass from a dining room table he found at a condemned house. In 100 hours, he put together a telescope from $500 worth of roller blade ball bearings, oak framing, Teflon, machine-grade nylon, and amateur mirror grinding skills to make into a $12,000 work of art. Talk about making a killing on eBay.
There was also Bill Melillo, who was allergic to ultraviolet light and found the perfect hobby for a man who must stay out of the sun. Not to mention the lawn care specialists, engineers, retired professors, painting contractors, paralegals, and one baseball player.
HERE TO UP THERE
Many astronomers see sky watching as spiritual, even downright therapeutic. There is nothing like feeling small in comparison to something else. It is humbling to see the vastness of something, yet also see that everything seems to work in precise harmony. You quickly notice that the star Polaris becomes the point of a spinning top where the entire sky seems to pivot around. And the zodiac slides through the sky in familiar order, Virgo following Leo, Leo following Cancer.
The therapy may also come from being able to tell everyone everything about you, since is it so darn dark you can't see anyone's face. You don't know (or even see) their reaction. Then you walk into the light of the clubhouse and realize with whom you were talking to … There is nothing like talking to Ron about Bob and finding out that you were talking to Bob about Bob.
Regardless, every night came with more awe, more questions, few answers, but a renewed peace.
WHAT I SAW
I did finally catch a great night and here are some of my favorite night sky objects. The M represents Messier number. Charles Messier was an early comet chaser that cataloged sky objects.
1) Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) -- A double spiral galaxy in the Hunting Dog constellation of Canes Venatici. The brightness at the core is that of 100 million suns. Shades recommended. Thirty five million light years away. According to my crude calculations it would take a Billy Wagner fastball 235,000,000,000,000 years to get there. Most likely, E.T. would swing and miss just like the rest of us.
2) Pleiades (M45) -- The Seven Sisters. A bright cluster of stars located between the horns of Taurus. Many mythological stories surround these daughters of Atlas and Pleione. Alcyone, Asterope, Electra, Maia, Merope, Taygeta, and Celaeno. The Mono Indians believed that six wives (seventh star is the mother) ate onions and were thrown out by the husbands, forcing them to wander into the night sky. The husbands remained lonely. Ladies, no onion rings.
3) Rings of Saturn -- Composed mostly of asteroid or moon debris in a chilled hydrogen form. Three main ring zones exist (A, B, and C), even though there are more smaller ones. Two gaps exist between these zones. The Cassini and the Encke Division. The ring is about 170,000 miles wide yet only one mile thick. Think of it as a piece of paper 40 blocks wide. Might jam your fax machine.
4) Orion Nebula (M42) -- Located near the sword of the Orion constellation. Contains a star cluster called the Trapezium. A stellar nursery. Birthplace of hot new stars. American Idol must have stolen the idea from here.
5) Sirius -- a.k.a. the "Dog Star." Located within the two hunting dogs of Orion. Canis Major and Minor. A double star with Sirius B (The Pup). Its 5,000-year lore tracing back to the Dogon people of Western Africa. Egyptians followed the progress of this star to predict the flooding of the Nile. To the Romans and the Greeks, the star appeared near the sun during the hottest days of the summer. You guessed it, the phrase "Dog Days of Summer" was coined for this reason.
The night sky has timeless and infinite stories. Every civilization in history had a story, a dream, or a thought, on what they see "up there" and I found the whole thing mesmerizing. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences I have had, despite being in near total darkness.
As my guide Dee framed it, "somehow, someplace on the inside you feel a part of the whole thing. Not strange, not really far away, it just appears that way." And now, I understand what she is talking about.
Thanks to the members of the St. Petersburg Astronomy Club and SEDS -- Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.
ESPN.com contributor and Phillies outfielder Doug Glanville is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in Science and Systems Engineering.