The next clear night, step out of the front door, head to the nearest open patch of grass and look up. What will you see?
The moon, perhaps? Depending on what phase it's in, sure.
And depending on the hour of night and the season, some of the planets and certain familiar constellations. Jupiter and Venus are among the first to shine as sunset nears. Orion is pretty easy to spot, with the hunter's belt arranged in three, bright and close-together stars. What else, though?
Sirius, the Dog Star, brightest in the night sky?
Vega, the second-brightest star in our nighttime sky, and brightest in the constellation, Lyra? Or Polaris, aka the North Star and the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper.
Those, too. And plenty more. But far from everything that might be observed.
How truly vivid the sky appears at night depends on one's location. Rural homeowners, some separated by a mile or more from their nearest neighbor and miles from the nearest town, will see more stars than a person standing amid the streetlamps and illuminated windows of downtown. A person in downtown Burlington will see more than someone in downtown St. Louis or Chicago.
But what very few see anymore without traveling a great distance is the Milky Way — as few as 20 percent of Americans, according to a 2016 study by Science Advances cited at Vox.com. The permanent glow created by artificial nighttime light denies us a view of a sky not dotted here and there by stars, but positively filled with the glow of our galaxy's billions upon billions of stars.
Seeing it today means finding a place with what is known as "dark sky," where light pollution does not impede the view. The closest such place to Burlington is nearly 500 miles away in western Nebraska. There are dark places in the American West, but most of the North American dark sky locations are in undeveloped northern areas of Canada and Alaska.
Light pollution has been a growing concern since the advent of efficient artificial lighting systems, first gas and now electric. And it gets worse with each new rural subdivision, each new LED-illuminated parking lot, each new downtown lightscape project. Yet people continue to turn their heads skyward and wonder at the view.
Southeast Iowa has been home to several who have dreamed of the stars and reached them.
First was the physicist James Van Allen, a Mount Pleasant native and giant of the early days of space exploration who gave humanity its first real insight into the effects our sun has on life on Earth beyond providing it with light and warmth.
Next came Edward Stone, a graduate of Burlington High School who 40 years ago sent the Voyager I and II probes into space, and to this day monitors the readings each craft sends home from the edge of interstellar space.
James Green followed in Stone's footsteps at BHS. As director of NASA's planetary sciences division, he leads teams sending probes to study Mercury, Jupiter and Pluto or landing rovers on Mars, and advocates for further exploration of the solar system.
Of two astronauts with area ties, first into orbit was Jim Kelly. He graduated from Burlington High School and went on to pilot the space shuttle Discovery — first in 2001, during construction of the international space station, and again in 2005, on the first shuttle mission flown following the re-entry destruction of the shuttle Columbia in 2003.
Astronaut Peggy Whitson is a southwest Iowa native and alumnus of Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant. On her most recent of three stints aboard the space station, she became the United States' most experienced space traveler, and the world record-holder for days in space by a woman.
And rounding out our local constellation of space luminaries is Brian Metzger, another BHS graduate and Columbia University astrophysicist whose work using theory and observations across tremendous distances of space and time is at the forefront of understanding the universe.
Each in his or her own right is a pioneer of space science, exploration and travel, and a shining light even when the stars themselves are increasingly harder to see.
Our hope — as Whitson returns this week to Iowa to celebrate her alma mater's founding, but also to receive some well-deserved accolades — is the collective achievements of these six will serve to inspire future generations of local young people to turn their eyes, and their dreams, to the heavens.
The Hawk Eye