Driftless Dark Skies

by Lynda Schweikert

Lynda Schweikert

If you know me, it’s no secret that looking up is my therapy. After a hard day of work, a clear sky and a crescent moon will surely calm my soul and give me the strength to tackle another day. So it wasn’t surprising that the night sky was one of my bright spots as I look back on 2020.

As the Safer at Home order was issued and events were canceled, I soon realized the one constant in my life was still open and no masking was needed to sit out in a lawn chair to look up. NASA and SpaceX assisted in adding to the excitement early by successfully launching Crew Dragon delivering Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. It was during this event that I realized that, even though I was watching alone in my living room, I was sharing it with dozens of people around the country from the Iowa County Astronomers on a Facebook Watch Party to friends and family texting me throughout the day sharing in the excitement of the momentous event.

July did not disappoint as Comet NEOWISE came onto the scene. From Washington State to southern Wisconsin, NEOWISE could be seen with the naked eye in dark skies. If you knew where to look, it could even be found in light polluted skies with binoculars. Pictures of the comet were showing up on Facebook posts, and I loved when my phone would ring with requests on how to find the comet. Each night I would set my telescope up in the driveway and on several occasions would invite friends, neighbors and passersby a chance to view the comet. Each time it was met with an outburst of “Wow!” Hearing the question, “Will we see it again?” is music to an astronomer’s ear.

Normally, our club would host a viewing party to give many people a chance to observe the comet, but in lieu of that opportunity, we shared our experiences over our group email. These “together apart” viewing sessions helped us feel less isolated. While we long for the time we can gather in person again, we are thankful for the opportunities modern technology has allowed us to stay connected.

As we move forward into 2021, I leave you with these parting thoughts I jotted down after being clouded out during the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in December:

1. There is a 100 percent chance of not seeing it while sitting on the couch.

2. Some of my most memorable moments are created sitting in darkness with friends together apart.

3. Don’t give up hoping for the best; it makes finding it that much sweeter.

4. What a difference a day makes.

Welcome to guest star, Lynda Schweikert. She is an amateur astronomer with the Iowa County Astronomers, dark sky warrior with the International Dark Sky Association, and was named Dark Sky Ambassador with the International Astronomical Union. She enjoys doing astronomical outreach programs, which allow her to give back by sharing the wonders of the night sky with others.