It was like a scene from a science fiction film: suddenly the night sky was pierced by a bright light ― much brighter than an ordinary shooting star. It was much larger, too: rounder in diameter, with a longer tail that streaked across the sky for a full second or more. The head, unlike the average colorless falling star, tremulously shifted from red to purple. As unexpectedly as it had arrived, the light dissipated.
“What on Earth?” My sister cried out. “What was that? Sue! Did you see that?”
Now I must confess: this is a second-hand account. While my sister was sitting outside on the porch as this ‘fireball’ crossed the sky, I was sitting inside on the couch, looking at my computer screen. By the time I had dashed outside, the light had faded away and the night sky was still. Curious if I might catch a glimpse of another fireball (or very bright meteor, according the American Meteor Society), I did some quick research. Each day, several thousand of these meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere. By that count, I reasoned, a sighting ought to be nothing short of predictable. When we take into account the likelihood that a fireball will be nearby (and not over an ocean or uninhabited region), however, my sister’s sighting started to look quite unique.
Another confession: I do not spend much time looking up. The occasional oddly-shaped storm cloud or vibrant sunset may catch my eye, but I don’t often find myself simply examining the sky. This hasn’t always been the case. When I was a child, I was enthralled by the notion that people had drawn pictures in the stars. I was never very good at discerning the shapes myself, though, so I often gave up on Orion and Ursa Major in favor of my own designs. The night sky became an enormous, dark connect-the-dots. I looked forward to my family’s weekends in the mountains, where the light pollution of Denver dimmed and the stars sharpened. Once the sky grew dark, my brother, father and I would sit on the deck, waiting for falling stars. One evening we drove into the woods in our ’73 Ford Bronco, and somehow found ourselves walking home. The details of the car’s break-down are unclear in my memory, but the dark remains distinct. Never before had I been in such unbroken night. The trees, black as ink, seemed to fold in around us. The sky looked a rich, deep indigo in comparison.
“Just let your eyes adjust,” my father kept reminding me. “Let ’em adjust, and in a minute you’ll see much better.” He would often say the same when we were sitting on our deck at the cabin, and I imagine now that his prompting meant to make me feel less afraid. As we made our way along the uneven old mining road, my eyes did adjust. I stumbled on fewer stones, and the outlines of the forest around me filled in with detail. Above me, the stars (more than I’d ever seen) were honed to fine, clear points of light. Soon I was walking along with my head tilted back. After a short while, I believe I had even forgotten to be afraid (save for the moments when my brother reminded me by tucking himself off the trail and leaping out just in front of me). At last we made it home, where even the porch light seemed blinding. I was shocked at how dim the sky appeared, washed out by the few lit windows in our sparsely-populated mountain neighborhood.
I had not thought of that walk in years, but my sister’s sighting brought it back to mind. When was the last time I had just looked at the night sky? Those of us who live between the Mississippi and the California border are surrounded by the darkest skies in the continental United States. In addition, the town of Moab only produces its own small amount of light pollution, and is surrounded by miles and miles of very dark night sky (on par with northern Finland or Siberia). In fact, just one-hundred and twenty miles to the south one can find a certified ‘Dark Sky Park.’ At Natural Bridges National Monument up to 15,000 stars are visible, as opposed to the average 500 we can see in an urban area. All of these factors position you and I in the perfect place to see the night sky at its purest, as I saw it twenty years ago and as it was seen for hundreds of thousands of years before that. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to look up.