The Darkest Sky

He was a man’s man. Big and strong, the kind of man that made the ladies swoon, but he was also a loner, a hunter, a fisherman, and like many of the animals he liked to hunt, he was nocturnal. Nighttime hunting didn’t go over so well with the local DNR, so he moved his operation to his own isolated island where he could hunt and fish to his liking, night after night, undisturbed. Life was great for the reclusive hunter.

She was beautiful, like a Goddess, his secret admirer. Every night she flew her chariot past his island, looking down, longing to be with the mighty hunter. But her father forbade it, and she knew she must stick to her duties and obey her father.

Until one night. She halted her chariot on the island, and when they gazed into each other’s eyes, it was love at first sight. The hunter gave up his hermit life then and there and they hunted together the whole night through. Night after night this went on, until her father found out.

To her father, he was merely a lowly, lonely man, unworthy of his daughter’s love. He planned to kill the hunter, but so as not to lose his own daughter’s love, it had to look like an accident of course. So during the daytime while the hunter was sleeping he snuck a deadly scorpion onto the island to do the deed. After a mighty struggle that went on for hours, the scorpion delivered the fatal sting and the hunter quickly expired.

Not long after, the Goddess arrived in her moon chariot and found her mighty hunter dead, the scorpion valiantly leaving the scene. Realizing what her father Zeus had done, the Moon Goddess Artemis grabbed the scorpion by the tail and flung it into the sky.

She sat crying, cradling her man – the hunter Orion – in her arms. She placed him in her moon chariot and carried him into the sky and gently tossed him there, opposite the scorpion, making him a bright constellation she could easily see on her nightly voyages across the sky. There in the sky, they would always be together. And when Orion rises at night, Scorpio the scorpion sets in the western sky, the two of them never to meet again.

And that’s how Orion the hunter came to be in the night sky. Such is the excitement waiting for us if we just look up into Winter’s night sky.

The Winter Solstice just passed – the longest, darkest night of the year. Naturally, great celebration around the world follows the Winter Solstice, when the continuous lengthening of the darkness, occurring steadily over the last six months, finally reverses and the light returns.

Meanwhile, here at one of our remote Champaign County Forest Preserves, we uniquely celebrate a significant achievement: the official designation of Middle Fork Forest Preserve, located in the dark northeast of Champaign County, as an International Dark Sky Park. This designation, difficult to earn, puts our own Middle Fork Forest Preserve in the company of Grand Canyon National Park, Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. In fact, Middle Fork is now the first Dark Sky Park in the state of Illinois and the only such County Forest Preserve designation in the country.

So with the passing of the Winter Solstice, the long dark nights, and Middle Fork’s newly awarded IDSP designation, it’s a great time to step outside; get out there after dark and look up. Trust me, it’s way better than the movies.

In movies, time travel is fictional. Under the stars, we experience an ocean of separate epochs unfolding right before our eyes; hundreds, thousands even millions of years apart, often right beside each other. Under the night sky, we engage in what in the movies would be impossibly fast space travel, crossing a quadrillion miles in the blink of an eye.

I am not making this up.

Take the constellation Orion.

Alnitak, the star at the left side of Orion’s belt, is 817 light years away. One light year is 6 trillion miles, the distance light itself can travel in one Earth year. So it takes us 817 years just to see what’s up out there on Alnitak. Or, think of it as what we’re seeing of Alnitak now actually happened 817 years ago. The star right beside it in the middle of the belt is Alnilam, which we are seeing 1,340 years ago. To its right on the belt is Mintaka, which we see 916 years ago. Time travel: right before our eyes. Mintaka and Alnilam are themselves at least 2.5 quadrillion miles apart (that’s 15 zeros). Yet how long does it take your awareness to travel across those 2.5 quadrillion miles? A blink of an eye.

What’s perhaps even cooler is that Betelgeuse (not the one played by Michael Keaton; the one on Orion’s shoulder) is 429 light years away. The people of a planet orbiting red giant Betelgeuse, had they the technology, could look back at Earth and witness the English Armada led by Sir Francis Drake, setting sail in 1589 to attack the Iberian Peninsula (Drake would lose). Even more impressive is Betelgeuse’s super massive size. If it were our sun, it would extend beyond Jupiter. Of course then our Earth would be toast, so let’s not imagine that.

Instead, imagine Rigel, Orion’s left knee, the fifth brightest star in the night sky. Rigel is the brightest star within 1,000 light years of Earth. If it happened to be same distance away as Proxima Centauri – the closest star to Earth at a mere 4 light years away – it would shine as brightly as a full moon, casting shadows on Earth at night. Then Breakfast at Tiffany’s might forever be associated with that classic crooner ballad: “Rigel River”.

Now imagine an astronomer of spiral Galaxy NGC 4845, coming in at a whopping 65 million light years from earth and located in the constellation Virgo. Using her super-powerful telescope developed by her super-advanced alien civilization she would look back at our Earth, absent a single homo sapien. Rather she might catch an actual T. Rex devouring a velociraptor. Heck, I had to pay 40 bucks to take my family to the theater to see that. And it wasn’t even real.

So this Winter Solstice season, hop in the car and head out to Middle Fork Forest Preserve. Step outside, look up and ponder what you see there. Ponder Orion the hunter rising in the east and think about how he got up there, then breathe a sigh of relief that your wife or girlfriend doesn’t have a jerk of a Dad like that. Ponder the astronomer of NGC 4845 as she observes the actual Jurassic epoch, and for free! And ponder the entire sea of time that you are right now experiencing up there, all while humming a few bars of Rigel River quietly to yourself.

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