Of course, everything in the night sky is our own galaxy, except for the single dreamy smudge that is Andromeda. But right now, from late August through October, when night falls we’re aimed toward its edgewise disc, its most concentrated part. During the first few hours of darkness, from 8:30 to midnight, the Milky Way neatly splits the sky from north to south and passes directly overhead on its way to the south. There, one-third of the way up from the southern horizon is the glow that is the galaxy’s center – the place around which the entire heavens wheels once every quarter-billion years.
It’s a far cry from the spring, when the Milky Way is almost coincident with the horizon and invisible. Then the sky offers only a smattering of stars. Now it’s a planetarium come to life.
In recent years we’ve learned that our Milky Way is no “grand design” spiral galaxy – the kind that has exactly two dominant arms. Rather, we have many, meaning that ours may be a so-called flocculent spiral. Moreover, it has a straight bar extending in both directions from its core, with one bar aimed in our direction just to make it harder to detect.
The Milky Way is not merely a glow crossing the sky. From a dark region like our enchanted corner of the Catskills, it’s wonderfully ragged and splotched with a myriad of inky patches that are vast molecular dust clouds in our Galaxy’s spiral arms. It’s dotted with bright and faint stars that make it alive with activity and set it apart from other sections of the sky. It’s a vault where star clusters and nebulae and 30,000 additional faint stars spring into view for anyone slowly sweeping it with binoculars.
This is the place where knowledge can safely be put aside, in favor of a rejuvenating bath of star-drool. Here, knowing the stars or constellations is as unnecessary as naming each goose in a flock winging across the heavens. The lunatic riot of stars tumbling downward toward the south and the twisted texture of the background glow surely belong in our lives at least once a year.
So take the hand of your soulmate or lover or child or anyone whom Destiny has brought to you, and pull this companion away from the TV and house lights anytime after this weekend. Lie under the night until your eyes adjust to the scene thousands of light-years above, and say, “This, my sweetheart, is our true home. I wanted you to see it.”