Updated: Jan 1, 2021
The time was 2:51 AM on Feb 2nd, 2017, at Manasota Beach, Florida. Depending on your point of view, that's either very, very early or very, very late. The reason I was there was to attempt to take a photograph of the Milky Way. Well, more accurately, the Galactic Center of the Milky Way. Now the Milky Way is our home galaxy. You can see it everywhere in the night sky when you look up. The center of our home galaxy is even visible to the naked eye. It's breathtaking to behold as it hovers over your head on the horizon.
However, the Moon, the Sun, light pollution, and the weather can obscure this fantastic spectacle. Living in the state of Florida makes it challenging to create a photograph of the galactic center. I can find times and dates without a sun or moon. However, Florida has crazy weather and heavy light pollution. With each passing year, it becomes more difficult to find a night sky not marred with light pollution. Still, with software and some patience, I can eventually deal with that problem. It's the weather that is the most challenging part.
Now I knew the Milky Way was going to hanging low over the horizon from South to East at that time. I was hoping I could dig past the light pollution of Englewood and catch a glimpse of the Milky Way. Now I was hoping that clouds would part a bit, allowing me to take a few photos. That has happened before. Unfortunately, I couldn't see past the heavy cloud cover, especially those clouds hanging near the horizon. So, the Milky Way was not visible to the naked eye that night.
That brings me to the photo you see before you. The brightest dot in the center of the image is a double star system called Sirius, a.k.a. The Dog Star. It's 8.6 light-years away. That means it took the light 3,141.15 days to travel to be seen in the night sky on Feb 2nd at 2:51 AM at Manasota Beach, give or take. One light-year equals roughly 5.88 trillion miles. The Dog Star is one of the brightest stars in the night sky. I was looking at it, and I noticed that the star's light reflected off the Gulf of Mexico.
The star's light had traveled 3,141.15 days. Upon reaching Earth, it reflected off the water to be seen by me at 2:51 AM on Feb 2nd. The light stopped traveling when it hit the back of my eye and recorded in my brain and the camera's sensor. A 15-second exposure was all it took to gather enough usable light.
I was the only one at the beach at that time. The waves were slapping the shore, almost sounding like twigs snapping. They made me jump every couple of seconds while I was setting up the shot. My eyes were having trouble adjusting to the dark because of the city's light and occasionally blinding myself with my flashlight. When I was starring out into the Gulf, my eyes became attuned to the darkness.
Now I knew that stars are very, very, very far away. I've taken an astronomy class, looked through telescopes, and seen both Cosmos shows. I understand the distance. However, it was there alone in the dark, with only the sound of the waves spooking me when something happened. During those 15-seconds, I could feel the immensity of space. Not based on the knowledge I have, but I could feel it. I'd say it was almost spiritual. I felt so small and so large at the same time.
The image is not a remarkable picture or a great picture. It will receive no awards, and no one will want to buy it. I tried to photograph the Milky Way, and I failed that night. Instead, I have this flawed rule-of-thirds composition with clouds everywhere. Still, this image has become very significant for me. When I look at it, I'm back at that moment of staring into the heavens, and I felt them stare back at me.
They say a good photo should make you feel. They never said how many it needed to affect.