***image4***I've always lived in places with dark skies, cities like Boulder, Colo., and Santa Fe, where art and music keep things bustling and nature quietly waits just down the road. In high school, just south of Denver, my friends and I would load up my hand-me-down Chevy Beretta with my dad's old, half-broken telescope and head east, toward the middle of nowhere, where the land was flat, the sky black and the cops nowhere to be seen. Sure, we'd crack a few beers and smoke the cigarettes we weren't old enough to buy, but these trips weren't about raising hell. They were about finding the second tail on the Hale-Bopp comet, spotting Jupiter and making up our own myths to go along with the constellations we'd learned about in elementary school.
Northern New Mexico is a great place to view the stars. Low humidity keeps***image1*** the sky clear with very few obstructions, and it's not hard to find a place away from the city lights. When you're out stargazing, the more sky that's visible the better, but even on a late night in Diablo Canyon just a few weeks ago, a friend and I were able to scope out the Pleiades, a small cluster of stars and galaxies most commonly recognized as the Subaru logo (Subaru is the Japanese name for the Pleiades).
From Sept. 13-17, the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance and the International Dark-Sky Association are holding the First Annual Southwest Night Sky Conference in Taos (Taos Convention Center, 120 Civic Drive, www.nmheritage.org). The conference offers programs to help amateur astronomers choose the right telescope and to educate the public about keeping the skies dark (so that stargazers don't have to travel far to see the spectacular sights right above their heads). Other offerings cover the myths behind the constellations (so you don't have to piece them together from an ever-fading memory).
Fortunately, the sky is dark enough that, on any clear night in northern New Mexico, it's easy to spot the common fall constellations such as Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Pisces. But the real fun lies in searching the skies for the events you have to be dedicated to see (read: running on vampire hours) or the ones that may or may not be fruitful.
According to Gary W Kronk, author of Meteor Showers: A Descriptive Catalog, and Comets: A Descriptive Catalog, the Leonids used to be a dependable thrill. This regular meteor shower was so spectacular it not only lit up the sky, but the whooshes of celestial material overhead could actually be heard.
But, Kronk says, "The Leonids aren't going to be good again for a century." The shower, which peaks every year around Nov. 17, has moved out of orbit. That's not to say that there isn't anything to see, just that the spectacular storms of a few years ago are unmatched. Kronk's Web sites, www.meteorshowersonline.com and www.cometography.com. can give you more ideas on what to look for.
According to the International Meteor Organization (www.imo.org), a group of astronomers and amateurs, the September Perseids (from Sept. 5-17, peaking on Sept. 9) is a fairly unobserved shower that can yield exciting ***image2***outbursts. When it comes to showers like this-the kind with unpredictable outcomes-I like to invite a friend, pack up a blanket, a late-night snack and an appropriate iPod playlist, and head out to the middle of nowhere. So long as the weather cooperates, a few meteors will crisscross the north sky and, if you pick the right friend, the night won't seem long at all.
While you're waiting for debris to go whizzing by in the night, there are a few standards to check out. Jupiter hangs due south, shining brightly and, on Sept. 17, one end of the crescent moon will point directly at it. The other end will point to a reddish dot that many people confuse with Mars; it's actually a star called Antares. With Jupiter so bright and easy to spot, a good telescope is in order. Even an older one can help you check out some details of the amazing planet.
If DIY stargazing isn't your thing, you can spend some quality time with the experts at the White Sands Star Party on Oct. 6 and 7. The New Mexico Museum of Space History, White Sands National Monument and Alamogordo Astronomy Club host this annual camping trip that offers participants a chance to look through professional telescopes and learn about the skies from experts. It's also a great way to camp out on the dunes and meet new friends who you'll always be able to call on those off-peak cell phone minutes.
At the end of the year, when things really start to get cold, it's time to bundle up and track down a telescope, or at least a pair of binoculars. There are always a few things out there that can't be seen and enjoyed with the naked eye and knowing about them has always been my favorite way to wow friends. (Well, at least it was before the telescope took its final dive and found a new home in the local dumpster.) ***image3***
The Tuttle comet-not to be confused with the brighter Swift-Tuttle, Tempel-Tuttle or Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák comets, all of which were discovered independently by or rediscovered by Horace Parnell Tuttle-isn't visible with the naked eye, but with a telescope you'll at least have a chance.
According to Kronk, the Tuttle returns every 13 years and will make its closest approach ever this year. "Because it is moving faster than the Hale-Bopp comet, it will be a challenge to catch," he says. "Tuttle is moving quickly from high north to south, so it really just depends when [between December and January] you happen to be looking." So take that telescope and slowly scan the sky. You might find the Tuttle, or you might find some other magical celestial object, but no matter what you see you'll be looking deep into the universe and giving your imagination one hell of a late night workout.