By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News
Posted 6/16/15 (Tue)
Do you ever look at the night sky closely in North Dakota. On those clear summer nights, after midnight, you can gaze into infinity and beyond.
Anyone who goes camping knows that. Anyone who lives on a farm knows that and anyone who has an astronomical interest in the night sky knows that.
But people who live in the city don’t know that. They don’t know how spectacular the night sky can be out on a dark farm yard late at night in the middle of North Dakota. And sometimes we’ll see the aurora borealis, a phenomenon that is hard to explain to people who have never seen it.
There’s no doubt Alaska has the best views of the northern lights primarily because of its latitude. But the aurora can look pretty darn good in North Dakota too.
One bitterly cold winter night in January 2004, I stood along the bank of the Des Lacs River and photographed the northern lights at 32 below zero only because it was one of those incredible sights.
Ninety minutes later I had some good photographs, but they never do justice to what you can see with the naked eye.
It’s ironic but the night sky is better to view in bitter cold. There is less diffusion of light and so the images we see from Earth are much more clear on a night when it is 30 below vs. 50 above.
Speaking of cold, there was another night, in November 2004 when the Leonid Meteor Shower was happening. I was working a swing shift and got off work at midnight so on the drive home from Minot, stopped at the Lake Darling scenic byway and watched for “falling stars.”
Unfortunately, it was cloudy and all of 10 degrees, so I drove south and east to get away from the clouds so I could see some meteors. Besides, it’s not often that I’m up in the middle of the night when the Leonid Meteor Shower occurs.
I drove to the McClusky Canal until the sky cleared but it was worth it. In two hours, and some shivering and warming up in a running vehicle, I must have seen 150 meteors. It was incredible.
In August 1998, while coming back from a concert in Winnipeg, I noticed something strange in the sky as I drove west from Cavalier to Langdon.
Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and the Moon were all in perfect alignment. I had never seen anything like it, so I just had to get some phtographs because I doubt anyone would have believed me by just telling them.
Not having a tripod, I laid down on my belly right in the middle of N.D. Highway 5, secured the camera with my elbows to avoid camera shake, and took time exposure photographs. And just like the Leonid Meteor Shower, it was incredible.
In 1985 and 1986, I was seriously intrigued with Halley’s Comet, I had seen it in December 1985 without the tail and wanted to see it with the tail. Photographs of the comet from 1910 created quite a fascination and some research opportunities.
So, I woke up my college roommate at 4 o’clock one morning and we drove out of Bismarck to get a good view.
It was a little disappointing because the tail was short and fat, not the long, narrow spectacular tail from the 1910 photographs.
But my roommate and I saw Halley’s Comet in April 1986 with a tail. a month later, my two nieces and I took a look together.
That night we promised each other that we would look at the comet again in 2060 when it comes back with a tail. I will be 101 years old and my nieces will both be 80.
Also, I’ve mentioned this before in this column but had seen a big, black hole on the lower right quadrant of Jupiter, the result of Comet Shoemaker-Levy crashing into the planet in July 1994. That was weird, scary and left no doubt of the power of nature.
There’s just an endless array of things to look at in the night sky, things that have been there for millenia. Some of the stars may have shifted a bit in the past 1,000 years or so, but they’re still out there, still the same.
Take Polaris for instance, the north star. Military personnel are taught that if we lose our direction and don’t have a compass, we find Polaris to guide us in darkness.
But my favorite sight has to be the aurora borealis. When you look at it, it can be literally dancing across the sky and there isn’t a sound. All that movement and not a sound. What an intrigue.
They say California has a phenomenal night sky and I’ve seen it from the desert while on a military missiong at Fort Irwin, and it is spectacular, but nothing like the images we can see here in North Dakota.