We all have a standing invitation to the spectacles of the night sky, but it helps to have an interpreter. Bob King is a wonderful guide, however far your curiosity takes you.
The night before our conversation, Bob King was an eye witness to a breaking news story. A “very, very faint” periodic comet that only shows up every 71 years (Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks) experienced an intense outburst, with material blowing off its surface. “It suddenly brightened up so that you can spot it in a regular telescope now,” says King. “It will be fascinating to watch its evolution in the coming nights.”
For King, the event means an assignment: the task of reporting on the story in his “Explore the Night” blog for Sky & Telescope magazine. He’s also a regular contributor on cosmic phenomena for the Duluth News Tribune.
King describes himself as an amateur astronomer, the word “amateur” in this case seeming appropriate only when looking at its etymological origins in the Latin amare, ‘to love.’ His concise, scientifically grounded articles illuminate complex processes with language that a poet could appreciate.
“Nature fashions beauty with dust. There are few better ways to witness this than watching a meteor shower, when the Earth slams into the debris left behind in a comet’s or asteroid’s orbital path. Sand-grain to pea-size dross blitzes the atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. Particles glow hot from the impact, heating and compressing the air to create javelins of ionized light. Every meteor represents an interplanetary grain’s transition from outer space to earthly space. After the show is over, sooty leftovers remain aloft and fulfill a second role as nuclei for the formation of summertime’s filigree noctilucent clouds.” (October 2022, “All about the Dust—Orionids and Zodiacal Light,” Sky & Telescope)
It’s clear he’s still having fun, with such Seussical themes as, “See Summer’s Best Gobbled Globulars;” about the many star clusters in the Milky Way that were not born there but instead were cannibalized from other galaxies. “Pleasures of Lunar Pareidolia” focuses on the ability and propensity of humans to seek patterns in randomness, from images on the moon to constellations. (Asked if any stars in constellations have an actual rather than imagined association, he points to only one example, in the Big Dipper, which is not itself a constellation but part of Ursa Major, The Great Bear. “Subtract the star at the end of the handle of the Big Dipper, and the star on the opposite side, at the end of the bucket, and you are left with the five stars between them. Those are physically related to each other; they were born together and are moving through space as a cluster, part of the Ursa Major Moving Stream.”)
Another recent theme he explored for Sky & Telescope that he found revelatory focused on time-lapse animations. “Variable stars, novae, supernovae, and a small number of double and large-proper-motion stars (e.g., Barnard’s Star) show changes within the scope of a human lifetime. The rest of the universe is essentially a series of still-life paintings,” he writes. But new time-lapse animations using images from multiple sources ranging from NASA’s Hubble space telescope to the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) offer the opportunity for us to visibly perceive changes that have occurred over the past 100 years. The mini-movies he shares are thrilling, a glimpse of the dynamic universe still unfolding in our lifetimes, a kind of natural fireworks.
King’s own curiosity was sparked as a boy of 10. He remembers being fascinated by the night sky when he looked up from his home in a northern suburb of Chicago. “We had some city light, but I could still make out a decent number of stars,” he says. He got a few basic books and a subscription to Popular Astronomy magazine which had sky charts that helped him to identify his first constellations and to figure out where the planets were. “I’d make sketches, like where Saturn was in the constellation of Aquarius, and little drawings of conjunctions, like the moon and Jupiter.” He soon got his first telescope. “It was horrible, a little Gilbert reflector, virtually impossible to use; I don’t know how I maintained my interest.” Next was a Japanese refractor telescope, which was much better. “It really gave great images and I was just delighted with it. I remember my first good look at Jupiter and Saturn. I’d often go out with my sky charts at night, and then long after I was supposed to be asleep in bed, I would look out the window and see what was coming up in the eastern sky. I remember seeing Orion’s belt over my neighbors’ rooftop. I came to associate stars with the seasons, so when I’d look out the window and see the star Vega rising in the northeast, there might still be a snowy lawn, but I’d be thinking, ‘Oh gosh, spring is going to be here.’ It was the bellwether of spring for me.”
He began to keep a diary of observations. Saved-up earnings from a paper route when he was 12 and 13 eventually allowed him to trade in the refractor and buy a mount and tube assembly for a 6” reflector telescope. “Once I had that 6-inch, man, I was like in my Maserati. I was all over the sky.”
Reading his stories in the News Tribune and in Sky & Telescope, it is clear that his enthusiasm has only heightened through the years. Fortunately, so has his willingness to share what he has learned with others. Since 1987, he has taught popular community astronomy classes at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Planetarium, and has earned the moniker Astro Bob. “People continue to be fascinated with the cosmos,” he notes, whether it’s the constellations, or meteor showers, or how to take photographs of the northern lights. The movements of things, including the moon and planets, can be confounding to people. It’s one of my favorite things to explain.”
He often fields questions about equipment (he recommends a 6” or 8” dobsonian telescope for those looking to buy, and an intervalometer for photographing meteor showers). But even binoculars offer great views of Jupiter’s moons, the Milky Way, the rising full moon on the horizon, and the craters of a half-full moon in the sky. “And there is so much pleasure to be had in just looking up, no special equipment needed,” he says.
In recent years, he’s become increasingly active in supporting so-called Dark Sky initiatives, trying to minimize light pollution that interferes with our ability to view the features of the night sky. He recently showcased a success story in the Duluth News Tribune, about a woman who asked the CEO of a local hospital for help in reducing the amount of light the facility was radiating into the community’s night skies. “I think it’s mostly through people just not being aware that leaving lights on or buying poorly shielded lights actually adds up to make a difference in how far, for example, you have to drive from Duluth to see a dark sky,” he notes. “Back in 1980, you could look up from downtown Duluth and pick out the constellations. That is really a challenge now. My fond hope is that, once people are made aware, once they realize, they’ll think, yes, I don’t need that light on all night long, or I can swap out my outdoor light fixture, or I can pull that shade. People can actually make a difference and feel good about it. If there’s a new apartment complex or public building planned, they can go to a city council meeting and let local leaders know that they’d like the design to preserve the view of the night sky as part of the character of the neighborhood. But it takes that awareness. Everybody loves the stars. You won’t find a person saying, I hate the night sky. I think we have a built in love for it.”
“For the rest of my years that’s why I’m here on earth, being part of that effort. Except for the time when my attention is up in the cosmos. My wife says, ‘I look outside once in a while just to make sure you haven’t floated away.’”
You can trust that he’ll be out for one of the best shows of the year on August 12-13, the Perseid Meteor Shower, which he says won’t get much competition from moonlight this year. Mark your calendars and hope for clear skies. We’ll leave the light off for you!
Find all the Bob King stories mentioned here and many more:
Astro Bob at the Duluth News Tribune
Explore the Night with Bob King, Star & Telescope Magazine
Participate in Dark Sky initiatives: