The Nature Corner: Starry skies over Myrtle Beach

Published 8:36 am Saturday, June 29, 2019

By Ernie Marshall

My son Jamie and I have concocted — the credit really goes to him — an annual mini family reunion, including my wife Carolyn and myself and my son’s family – wife Jill and children Alex, Avi, Emmy and Isabelle. (Also my sister Madilyn from near Columbia often joins us for a day.) We gather at Myrtle Beach, which is about half way between my home in Greenville and my son’s in Atlanta, cutting down on everybody’s driving. Also, the location gives the kids plenty to enjoy themselves with while the grown ups catch up on family gossip.

This year had a special treat in store for my twelve year old granddaughter Alex. She is an exceptionally bright and eager gal who has developed an interest in astronomy. So I gave Alex my 20 to 60 power zoom Bausch and Lomb spotting scope, which I brought to Myrtle Beach.  It’s designed more for looking at distant birds and wildlife, but just the ticket for a neophyte star gazer. If the weather cooperates, the beach at Myrtle Beach should be a terrific venue for Astronomy 101. Her dad Jamie has just finished an addition to their house which adds a second story deck, great for seeing the Atlanta night sky. So there will be many opportunities for exploring the star studded heavens.

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Being ever the retired educator, I sent Alex some “homework” ahead of time. “Astrograms” I called them. Here is an example I e-mailed a few weeks before the trip:

Tonight is opposition, as astronomers call it, between our beloved planet and Jupiter. It is the point in our respective orbits where we are “side by side” on the same side of the sun. Still nearly half a billion miles apart but the closest we’ll be in a year or so. I got my scope back from a friend I’d lent it to, which I’m bringing to you at Myrtle Beach, and put it on Jupiter last night about midnight. My gosh, never seen it so bright.  It’s now the brightest object in the night sky except the moon. Looked like Venus, it was so bright. (But Venus is now a “morning star,” rising only an hour before it fades into the sunrise.) With the scope you can see all four of the “Galilean moons.”

Your homework assignment will be to name the Galilean moons and explain their significance.

P.S. Jupiter rises tonight about 10:30 p.m. in the east-southeast.  It will rise earlier as the month progresses but become less bright.

By the way, my wife, a retired school teacher of thirty years, jokingly objected to my giving our granddaughter “homework” over the summer vacation.

As it turned out, we did not get in a lot of star gazing. We had several evenings of thunderstorms that closed the curtains on that show, but gave us another heavenly display, including a rainbow, a waterspout and a spectacular sunrise. Alex did get a view of the planet Jupiter and seemed impressed with her scope. Of the five planets visible to the naked eye (in order of usual brightness), Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Mercury, most were not on stage. Mars does not rise until late and Saturn is slipping away in the west. Venus, ordinarily the brightest of the planets, is between acts, lost to sight behind the Sun’s glare. It will reappear as a dazzling object on the western horizon just after sunset in October. All of these and more await Alex’s future investigations of the night sky.

Sitting contentedly on our balcony at Myrtle Beach and drinking in the sights and sounds of the Atlantic Ocean, it occurred to me that the sea and sky, with its glimpse of our encompassing universe, are the two great humbling “immensities.” The scale of both are something beyond the human capacity to comprehend. Gazing out to the ocean’s horizon it seemed that I was looking to infinity. There is also the inexorableness of both, the ocean surf relentlessly rolling onto the beach and rushing back to its source, again and again as if forever. The timeless wheeling of the stars and constellations across the sky ever find their appointed places in the sky each year, Orion every winter, Scorpius every summer.

My philosophical ponderings aside, Carolyn and I had a great time at Myrtle Beach. The grandchildren are growing like weeds. I was taller than Avi last summer, and he is now the taller by a couple of inches. Their minds too are growing like blossoming flowers, all of them acing their report cards and pursuing sports and other activities, including lacrosse and softball. My son and his wife are doing a terrific job of raising these kids.

What better way to end this piece than with a bit of bragging on my children and grandchildren.