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The Big Dipper (and friends)

Slowly Setting, the Big Dipper Shines above the Eastern Sierras. Yosemite National Park, California.I turned around and saw it suspended there in the night sky. The Big Dipper. The first asterism, (as it’s technically called) that I learned to recognize. And though I’ve seen it most of my life, it took me by surprise. Most evenings, it shines in relative isolation in the night skies above the San Francisco Bay. But I’m not at all used to seeing it surrounded by so many equally vivid points of light. In fact, when I evaluated this image on my laptop the next morning, I could barely find the dipper amid the profusion of stars accompanying it.

The New Moon, the opportunity to photograph the night sky, and the possibility of catching part of the Perseids meteor shower drew me to the Sierras, and though I spent most of my time framing images of the Milky Way, I did pause to create a few photos of the Big Dipper that I was seeing in a unique way—familiar but atypical, its stars brighter (and bluer) than the abundance of other stars that dazzled the senses that night.

No wonder the ancients so appreciated the stars. They probably didn’t need a New Moon or a perch high in the mountains to enjoy a nightly light show. And with light and other forms of pollution marring our view of the heavens, can we—even in high and dark places—see as many stars as they could on a clear night?

One other thing that’s easier to notice at altitude: how quickly the heavens rotate. After photographing the Big Dipper, I turned my attention to the Northern arc of the Milky Way and, after a few minutes, went looking for the Big Dipper again. Only to find that its lowest star had dropped below the silhouette of the mountain top. Gotta watch those stars like a hawk. Or they start to disappear on you.