Aurorae over Canada
Aurorae over Lake Muskoka in Ontario, Canada, on May 10th.
tglobo1025 / S&T Online Photo Gallery

The experience of stargazing stretches far beyond the time I spend beneath the open sky. Just like the “star glow” of a clear night lingers into the following day, the lead-up to an observing session can fill me with expectant delight — especially when a major astronomical event is imminent.

Anticipation is inextricable from amateur astronomy. It’s present when I’m tooling around in observation apps and reading “star facts” to pick targets for observation. It reminds me to check weather forecasts and choose a site with suitable clearance for my targets. Then there’s selecting and futzing about with my equipment, plus the trial and error along the way.

Some might consider that prep work tedious, and the hours waiting for darkness wasted time. For me, expectation enhances the adventure. Anticipation makes everything sweeter.

A few decades ago, I planned to surprise my grandmother in Florida. I was a college student in North Carolina and didn’t get to see her often. Somehow the secret got spoiled, and she called to tell me how much she looked forward to my visit. “It’s so much better this way,” she said over long-distance, “because now I have the pleasure of anticipation.”

Stargazing is no different. Looking forward to clear nights makes the long, hot days of summer slightly less unbearable. The tingle in my solar plexus builds as I choose stars, constellations, and deep-sky objects for the coming night’s hunt. I feel a lively zing as I charge batteries, test red lights, and load my backpack, even if I’m only heading into the yard.

And when something truly remarkable is on the literal horizon, I am beside myself with glee. That’s what happened on May 10th, when I got a 14-hour heads-up that the aurora borealis might be visible in Portland.

The Northern Lights had been on my observational bucket list since I was a child. Ethereal colors of emerald and sapphire undulating in the sky sounded like a fairy tale. I assumed I would have to plan a trip far to the north to see them for myself.

An early morning text message from my stepmother put me on alert. I’d heard about the massive solar storm but never expected to see the effects at my latitude. I checked and rechecked NOAA’s aurora forecast throughout the day and kept an eye out for Portland’s notorious cloud cover. I told my librarian about what might be coming our way — we whooped and jumped up and down together — and I tried to get the cashier at Trader Joe’s excited about it, too.

Essentially, I floated on air all day. Fifty years of anticipation was about to be satisfied.

I counted down the hours to astronomical twilight, but then was reluctant to set out for a local park. I’d invested so much in my anticipation. I worried the forecasts were wrong, or the skies would cloud over. I was anxious that the predicted nighttime magic would be snatched away, unrealized.

But we saw everything. I stood in the dark on a grassy hill with my partner, M, our dog Jax, and a few dozen strangers, and I laughed in amazement at the sky.  At the end of my long expectation was not a pot of gold but a vibrant, dynamic aurora. The night came alive in green, red, pink, blue, and purple. Seeing the sky dance was a true marvel, and absolutely worth the wait.

Aurora photo
The author stitched together photos to make this panorama of the Northern Lights above Portland, Oregon.

We tried again the following nights, but the aurora didn’t appear despite favorable forecasts. I remained euphoric anyway — not just with the memory and photos of the aurora, but with the promise of more wonder to come. I buzzed in anticipation of the next astronomical event, and simply the next night of clear skies. M described my fervor during the Aurora Weekend of 2024 as “insufferable,” but he said it with a smile.

What am I looking forward to next? I’ve got quite the list. I’ll take a closer look this summer at Antares, my favorite star. I hope to make it out to a darker site to see the starry rift of the Milky Way in the sky above. I’ll have a keen eye on newly released Electronically Assisted Astronomy telescopes, and have my fingers crossed for the launch of the Europa Clipper this October.

Maybe these expectations will come to happy fruition, or maybe reality will fall short. My giddy anticipation will endure. When I have a mediocre or a completely thwarted night of stargazing, I awake the next morning with the same excitement for what’s coming next. The lost lens cap, frozen-cold fingers, or glitchy robotic scope of the hours before aren’t forgotten, but my eagerness is undiminished. There’s always something more, something new, to look forward to. The local skies might not always cooperate, but the cosmos never disappoints.


Image of Joe


June 15, 2024 at 7:31 am

Great article, and you're correct ... anticipation makes everything sweeter. Last weekend I had a great observation run, in no small part because I had four S&T magazines dog eared with a long list of targets to observe. This list was interrupted from a previous session last month due to a problem I was having with my telescope driver. It was the anticipation of finally seeing those targets that made the satisfaction all the better.
Clear skies!

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Jen Willis

June 17, 2024 at 11:54 am

That sounds like a great stargazing session! I hope the telescope driver doesn't give you any more trouble. Wishing you clear skies. 🙂

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June 19, 2024 at 9:56 am

Yes, my telescope drive was fine. It turned out to be operator error! : )

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