Experiencing the Night Sky

Few things have managed to unite human spirit and determination quite like outer space. The prospect of seeing beyond our own world, discovering intelligent life outside of our planet, and potentially learning of the origins of our universe drives individuals across the entire world to look up into the sky with awe and imagine what fantastic things lay out there. This spirit of discovery and excitement caught me like a bug when I was eight years old. Each and every space documentary, Wikipedia article, and visit to NASA fueled this lifelong passion, and this week I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the James S. McDonald Planetarium in Forest Park, and once again gaze up to the stars and marvel at worlds beyond our own.

The planetarium offers hour-long shows throughout the day, and on Thursday I attended the 6:30pm show, titled “Live Sky Tonight,” a glimpse into what the sky actually looks like above St. Louis during this time of year. But why visit a planetarium when you can just look up at the sky right above and seemingly get the same view? In short, the excess of light pollution that engulfs most urban centers like St. Louis prevents people from experiencing the beauty of the night sky. We are instead limited to a few stars here and there, further complicated by cloud cover and inclement weather. But the planetarium takes care of all of these issues, and shows us the sky as it would be visible without any human influences, allowing us to truly appreciate its beauty.

I lay on the planetarium floor atop a comfy mat, and allowed myself to drift away into the presentation. As the lights dimmed, and more of the sky became visible, I was struck by just how much is out there, waiting to be seen. Stars from a few light-years away to distant galaxies suddenly popped into view. Across the whole sky, the faint cloud-like streak of the Milky Way, our own galactic home, helped define a vast sky of endless magnitude. After giving us a few minutes to appreciate everything in front of us, the presenter began to explain it all, from the four visible planets to the many constellations of stars, each with their own unique story. We saw nebulae, stars old and new, some of the most distant super-clusters known to man, all by looking in the right place. The entire time I found myself enamored by the scale – at one point we saw a star nineteen light-years of age whose light began its long journey to my eyes around when I was born… quite a profound idea. Needless to say I was enamored by the experience, longing for more and more.

The show, only an hour long, ended far too quickly for my taste, but luckily there is plenty of exciting astronomy ahead, especially in the greater St. Louis area. On August 21st, much of the United States will experience a solar eclipse, and parts of St. Louis will have the incredible and extremely rare opportunity to see a total solar eclipse (when the moon perfectly aligns with the sun, blocking its light from hitting earth). Wash U’s campus lies just north of the path of totality, but viewing parties across the region will give everyone a chance to see this unique astronomical event. For more information about the solar eclipse, visit NASA’s official eclipse page here and see where you can experience it yourself.

My visit to the planetarium renewed my interest in space that began as a young child looking up and wondering what was out there. Throughout everyday life, we find ourselves concerned only with the issues and problems we face directly in front of us, whether education, politics, our future career, etc., which can become quite suffocating. The planetarium gave me a breath of fresh air. It allowed me to, just briefly, feel inspired by the world, and wonder what exciting discoveries are right in front of our eyes waiting to be seen.

The James S. McDonald Planetarium has hour-long shows beginning at 10:30am up until 4:30pm daily, with extended hours on Thursdays. Check out their website here to schedule your own visit.