The World with a Sky Made of Glass

Views of space, as seen from Earth during some of my favorite photography expeditions of 2020.

By Bill Dunford

On a Clear Day You Can See to the Moon and Back

a waxing moon rises over pine trees, with a bird flying in front of the moon
Salt Lake City, Utah. May 4, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

“You’re technically in space right now. Humans say ‘out in space’ as if it’s there and we’re here, as if Earth is separate from the rest of the universe. But Earth is a planet, and it’s in space and part of the universe just like the other planets.”
– Jay Thompson

Science writer, NASA

There’s something remarkable about Jupiter’s moon Europa.

About the same size as Earth’s moon, Europa is notable for being the smoothest object in the solar system, and for the spiderweb of fractures stretched across most of its icy surface. The cause of those cracks is even more notable: beneath Europa’s frozen outer shell hides a global ocean of liquid water. In fact, there is more water inside Europa than in all of Earth’s oceans combined. Understandably, this fascinates scientists. So much so that NASA is currently constructing a new robotic spacecraft to conduct a flagship planetary exploration mission called Europa Clipper, to venture there and investigate further.

Beneath Europa’s frozen outer shell hides a global ocean of liquid water – more water than in all of Earth’s oceans combined.

On Earth, wherever there’s water, there’s life. We don’t know whether life thrives on (or rather, in) Europa, but it’s a distinct possibility. Astrobiologists are hot to examine this cold place, especially considering that the underground ocean club isn’t even an exclusive one. The Cassini mission discovered that Saturn’s moon Enceladus not only hides an ocean, but water from that ocean continually erupts into space via immense fountains of ice crystals. Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, the dwarf planet Ceres, even dark and distant Pluto…all are thought to be candidates for hosting current or past oceans.

This raises some interesting possibilities. What if worlds with subterranean oceans are commonplace throughout the galaxy? What if most life actually lives underground? What if the only sky most beings know is one of solid ice?

What if most life in the universe actually lives underground? What if the only sky most beings know is one of solid ice?

If it’s true that most living creatures spend their days beneath an icy shell (do they have “days” down there?) how much do they know about the rest of the universe? Have their scientists deduced the dance of the spheres? Have they mounted dangerous expeditions to the surface to see?

And what would they make of Earth?! Here’s a place that, despite its lack of protective ice, abounds with life on its exposed surface, naked to the universe. Its thin envelope of air is almost completely transparent. All its citizens would have to do is look up, and they would be able to see across astronomical distances. A moon could be there, just hanging in the crystalline sky for all to see.

Here’s a place that, despite its lack of protective ice, abounds with life on its exposed surface, naked to the universe. Its thin envelope of air is almost completely transparent.

Here are a few of my photos of that transparent sky, those that I was lucky enough to capture during 2020. Astrophotography is my way to socially distance during a time of plague. It’s pretty serious distancing. I set out on little midnight expeditions to the deserts and mountains of Utah, where the sky is quiet, and as clear as a stream of snowmelt, relatively free of light pollution. It’s true that no creature within five miles of me is wearing a mask…but it’s also true that most of them are coyotes, bats, hunting owls and hunted kangaroo mice.

It was a terrible year for many people. For me, it was a great year for sky photography. A time of an undeserved bounty of light from deep space. I hope some of these images can lighten someone’s mental load, at least for a few moments.

Four Planets and More Planets

clouds and starry sky over mountains
From left to right: mountains on Earth, the planets Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, and the Milky Way. Skull Valley, Utah. March 22, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

Night, of course, is when the sky performs its full transformation from blank blue slate to window. While this window can often look as flat as a viewscreen, it’s anything but. This photo, for example, is all about depth. I took it in the pre-dawn winds of a March morning in the desert west of Salt Lake City. The clouds on the left are dusting the Stansbury Mountains with snow, maybe 10 miles away. Beyond them, the lights of a distant town cast an orange glow about 50 miles away. The next nearest object requires a bit of a leap. It’s red Mars, around 35 million miles distant. Then comes bright Jupiter; next is Saturn, hundreds of millions of miles into space.

Another leap, unfathomably vast this time, takes us to the closest stars, so far away that their light took decades and even centuries to finally pierce the cold morning air of Earth. This shot also contains the Milky Way, a whole galaxy of stars. And not just some common stretch of the Milky Way, but the bulging central core, home to countless billions of suns.

We now know that, on average, every one of these suns has at least one planet circling it. How many worlds are actually contained within the frame of this photo? We’re only now beginning to guess.

A Solid Stack of Time

starry sky behind a redrock bluff
Chimney Rock and the galactic core. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. May 25, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

It’s not only fathomless depths of space on display when we look into the night sky, it’s unimaginably deep seas of time. The rock in these layered cliffs was laid down by literal seas, and wind, and forests, and baking sunshine, over the course of many millennia. During the that time, the stars were not stationary. They flared into existence, jostled for position, exploded. They left dark lanes of dust, from which new generations of stars were born. If you had the patience of stone, you would see the sky as one long fireworks show.

Even now, when you look at the sky you’re looking back in time. The farther the star, the longer it took the light to reach your eye. You’re seeing Jupiter as it appeared about an hour ago. The core of the Milky Way ushers you back more than 25,000 years.

The Comet

bright comet in early morning sky with pine tree and mountains
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) over Park City, Utah. July 9, 2020. Credit: NASA/Bill Dunford

Comets are always harbingers. But so much happened last year that when NEOWISE showed up, it was hard to tell what doom it was announcing, exactly. The comet was also a gift, appearing first in the pre-dawn sky, clear as day, at least until the actual daylight drowned it out. You didn’t need a start chart – it was just, “Hey! There it is!” Then it appeared for a second act in the evening. Such a great chance for people to look up and see something that made them catch their breath. And remember to breathe.

(I recorded a very short video about taking this picture for NASA: https://youtu.be/FFn4-kQPjzk?t=398)

Rider of the Purple Sage

comet with long tail in the sky over a field of green sagebrush
Comet NEOWISE over Promontory Point, Utah. July 15, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

In dark skies like these near the Great Salt Lake, you could see, just with your eye, the fine detail in the comet. The separate dust tail and ion tail, both driven by the blasting Sun. So much motion! But not necessarily in the direction people think. It looks like the comet is careening forward and the tail is being blown back by the sheer speed. But the direction of the tail has nothing to do with which direction the comet is traveling in its orbit. The tail only and always points away from the Sun. It’s an enormous weather vane for the solar wind.

Spiral Jetty

Near Promontory Point, Utah. Sept. 10, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

This spot is just a few miles from the previous shot. Robert Smithson created the immense stone artwork “Spiral Jetty” 50 years ago at Rozel Point peninsula, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake.

Its spiral shape is easy to see from above, but it looks like a straight line when seen from ground level. The Milky Way also has a spiral shape, but we see it as a straight line from our vantage point inside its disc.

Fireworks

full moon behind silhouetted pine trees
Silverfork, Utah. July 4, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

“I look up, and everything else fades. This kind of love has proven so useful in this current ugliness. If you’re looking at the moon, we’re basically moon-watching together.”
– Rose DF
Physics, Astronomy and Planetary Science Student

Fireworks again, just because it was the Fourth of July when I took this shot. Very slow, very quiet fireworks. Except for that moment when the first edge of the Moon bursts over the horizon. When you’re watching for that, it strikes the senses as loudly as a bell.

Moon gazing can be lonely, whether sadly or pleasantly so. Still, no matter where you are on Earth, you’re watching the same Moon everyone else on Earth is watching.

The Road

road leading to grove of aspen trees under the milky way
Near Strawberry Reservoir, Utah. May 20, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

Don’t listen to the aspen trees in this shot. It wasn’t Fall. It was May, but the light of a nearby campground, barely visible to my eyes, lit everything with a sodium orange hue. One example of how artificial light changes (and often ruins) the nighttime landscape.

Jupitershine

two bright stars cast their reflections on the surface of a lake
Saturnshine and Jupitershine on Strawberry Reservoir, Utah. June 10, 2020. Credit: NASA/Bill Dunford

All Summer long, Saturn and Jupiter inched closer together in the sky. It was all an illusion, since in reality the two planets weren’t unusually close to each other. It was just a question of perspective, like watching two airplanes appear to be heading for a collision, only to realize that they’re separated by miles.

It was an illusion, but that does not mean the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter was not a very good show.

One note about this shot: I like to share my images online, at least on the occasions when they turn out decently. And sometimes when I’m standing at the tripod in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, I wonder how many people will end up seeing a given photograph eventually. I wonder how many people I’ll be able to bring along to stand with me virtually in the dark and look up. Sometimes the crowd consists a few dozen people. In this case, it was several million. NASA ended up using this shot for a lot of its conjunction coverage online, and as a result I think this may be the most viewed image I’ve ever created.

Trio Over Lone Rock

Saturn, Jupiter (with two of its moons if you look closely) and the Moon. Skull Valley , Utah. Dec. 16, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

The conjunction finally happened in December, when Jupiter and Saturn brushed by each other, just barely close enough for a tentative kiss. A few days before, the Moon joined them, jealous of their moment on stage. Saturn is on top, Jupiter below. If you look closely, you can even see two of Jupiter’s planet-sized moons.

Incredible

rocky mountain slope with sky zoomed in on jupiter with three tiny moons visible as dots
Brighton, Utah. July 7, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

It’s incredible that a pair of binoculars, or a modest camera zoom lens like I used here, will let you see Jupiter’s moons. For some people, apparently it’s literally incredible. This shot got a lot of attention online because some people simply did not believe that it was a real image. Friends, I was the subject of a Snopes article. (At least they rated me true.) The good news is that it is real, a single exposure in fact, and it’s true about the binoculars, too. If you haven’t, give it a try sometime.

Desert Peak

starry sky and clouds over a peak in a sandy desert
Knolls, Utah. May 20, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

During Milky Way shooting season in the summer, I get obsessive about tracking the weather, hoping for clear skies. Sometimes though, a few clouds can add some drama. This is my favorite Milky Way portrait of 2020.

The location is special for another reason. In October, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft descended to the surface of an asteroid, briefly touched the surface, and collected a sample of coal-black material left over from the creation of the solar system. The mission’s quest is to return that little bit of the sky to Earth, and in 2023, the sample return capsule will land just a few miles from this spot.

Turning

Horseshoe Springs, Utah. Credit: Bill Dunford

“You and I are going about our days on an average rocky planet in just one of trillions of solar systems. Our planet orbits around an average star that moves around the third arm of the Milky Way galaxy, local group Virgo supercluster in an ancient universe that is moving ever outward. Where are we? The answer is always changing.”
– Shannon Stirone
Science Journalist

It’s all in motion. So much so that I’m always amazed at how often I’m driving hell-bent down a desert road, one eye on the sky, glad I’m the only vehicle for miles around, racing to get into position before some astronomical event transpires. The Moon is about to set, or it’s about to rise and wash out the Milky Way with its garish silver shouting. Or the meteor shower is about to peak, or Mars is about to peek from behind a cliff. Millions of years – no, billions of years – of rotating and revolving…but if I don’t hurry I’ll miss it.

Salt-Lake-City-Henge

big red setting sun lined up with a city street
The Sun sets on the autumnal equinox in Salt Lake City. Sept. 21, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

Once again, a reminder that Space and Nature are not two separate things. Earth is a planet. The Sun is a star. On the equinox, a street laid out east to west will line up with that star, and everything will be set on fire.

I ❤️ the Milky Way

Near Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. May 25, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

“Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.”

– Mary Oliver

What can I say? Sometimes the stones speak for me.

Orion

Skull Valley, Utah. Nov. 17, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

The Milky Way is hidden behind the Sun during the winter months, but the cold skies offer their own pleasures.

Flora of the Milky Way Galaxy

blue flowers lit by a flashlight under the milky way
Trout Creek, Utah. May 20, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

Just a galaxy and some of its inhabitants.

(I used a flashlight, if you’re wondering.)

The Pleiades

yellow aspen tree under a starry sky
Yankee Meadow, Utah. Oct. 24, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

Genuine autumn this time, illuminated by moonlight. The Pleiades are the little clutch of blue stars to the upper right of the trees. They’re baby suns, just recently wandering out of the clouds of material where they formed.

Suns and Sunflowers

a starry sky above a dirt road and a field of sunflowers at night
Saturn and Jupiter (upper left) and the central core of the Milky Way galaxy. Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area, Utah. Aug. 15, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

Rebecca Elson
Poet and astronomer

I don’t know if there is life deep inside Europa, but on the surface of the Earth it surges in waves of gold, thrumming and singing, dying and being reborn stronger in spite of time and entropy.

In all our searching, we have found nowhere like this place. Earth is, to the best of our knowledge so far, utterly unique. Certainly within our solar system at least, there is no world anything like it. It is our only home.

Self Portrait

long shadow of the photographer and the tripod under a starry sky
Knolls, Utah. July 26, 2020. Credit: Bill Dunford

“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
– Annie Dillard

Whether you believe in the latticework of mathematical principles alone, or whether you believe, as I do, in a supporting Purpose beneath it all, the duty is the same: to explore, to try to understand, and to witness the beauty of nature. I mean “witness” both in the sense of “to see” and “to share.”

I’m grateful for transparent skies. It’s a privilege to stand before them, awed by their terrifying and holy presence, nothing between me and worlds without number but a thin whisper of air.