Seeing the Milky Way in 3D

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We just got back from Hilton Head Island, where we had four days and nights of awesome weather.  We left about 12 hours too late (and drove home through torrential storms).  But while we were there, we enjoyed some of the darkest black skies I ever remember seeing on the continental United States.  The moon was a beautiful sliver for a couple of hours and then had the generosity to set, leaving us with an amazing array of stars.  It was extraordinary.

The Milky Way was very prominent, including the dark areas, which really brought home just how real it was.  It was as if I could envision the entire three-dimensional spiral galaxy being viewed edge-on.  It was even evident that the individual stars I could see were nearby stars, as opposed to the glow of the hundreds of billions of distant stars in the background.

We saw dozens of meteors (most of which seemed to be traveling north to south for some reason I’m unclear on).  Some of them left a sparkling trail while others were simple streaks.  I even saw one that broke into two pieces creating parallel paths.  (As it turns out, we lucked into the Perseid meteor shower!)

Jupiter was quite bright and impressive, as well.

But there was something unusually eye-opening about recognizing the reality of the entire Milky Way Galaxy stretching across the sky.  It gave me a perspective that I had never experienced before.  And it wasn’t about feeling small and insignificant, at all.  But it was like experiencing a “You are here” moment on a galactic scale.

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