I share the stars

By

THERE are stars on my ceiling. My enchantment with indoor orbs started when I was house-sitting. The first night when I climbed into bed I looked up -- and saw the Little Dipper shining just north of my head. In the dark void of a strange room, I wasn't sure if there was a skylight or if I was hallucinating. I looked around and saw other familiar constellations, but then I began to notice whimsical star patterns like none I had ever seen. I reached up and discovered my friends had put glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling.

I soon purchased my own package of stars, planets, moons, and meteors. Tempting as it was to invent my own universe, with constellations in the form of my initials or perhaps movie stars, I decided on verisimilitude. At the time, I was sharing my house with a friend and her five-year-old son, and the extra packet I gave to Anders was used in extremely imaginative ways. Monsters still dance across the ceiling of the spare bedroom, and a ring of stars identifies the light switch.

I picked a Northern Hemisphere March sky for my bedroom because it includes most of my favorite constellations. I added Pegasus and Cygnus, not visible then, because I couldn't bear to exclude them. It felt very daring to center Cygnus the Swan in my simulated spring sky where it shines in midsummer, gliding through the Milky Way.

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The stars are self-sticking. With a star chart taped on my ceiling for a guide, I spent hours putting up constellations. Now every night I'm com-panioned by Hydra the Water Serpent, Leo the Lion, and Cassiopeia, Queen of Ethiopia. I've become especially fond of Draco the Dragon because at its tail is Postmark Pete, a star I have a vested interest in.

For a small fee, I was able to name a star in the International Star Registry as a Christmas present to my brother. Though its name refers to Peter's hobby of postmark collecting, I like to imagine people of the future seeing the name and making up tales about Postmark Pete, interstellar vagabond.

The display has become a learning tool for me as well as entertainment. Many constellations I put up were ones I'd never found in the sky, but I know them so well now that I'm recognizing them in their celestial locations. I was thrilled one night when backpacking to see the kite shape of Bo"otes and the crown of Corona Borealis for the first time, looking just as they do over my closet door.

Now on winter evenings when I'm walking home from meetings, eager for distractions from Montana's cold, I can find Canis Major with its key star, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The column shape of Gemini is also easy to spot near one of my childhood favorites, Orion.

My ceiling display has also led me to read about celestial phenomena. It pleases me to look up at Castor and Pollux, the twin bright stars in Gemini, and know that Castor is really a double star, even though it's not visible that way to the naked eye.

I've discovered fresh facets even to Orion. In late 1985, my mother, sister, and I drove far from city lights to view Halley's comet. We did see the dim blob of the comet, but more exciting was the Great Nebula below Orion's belt that I saw for the first time through binoculars, and the spiral galaxy in Andromeda, the galaxy beyond our own closest to Earth. As I gaze toward my ceiling before falling asleep, I can now imagine galaxies swimming overhead and stars being born in hazy nebulae.

Spring comet viewing in the velvet darkness of the Australian outback opened up more celestial wonders for my sister and me. Through telescopes we saw more than ever before -- proto-stars and Saturn's rings and globular clusters. An astronomer explained the Magellanic clouds, satellite galaxies to our own which appear in the Southern Hemisphere as perplexingly constant fuzzy little clouds. I loved being shown the bright star Canopus, never visible in the North. For years I had assumed Doris Lessing invented the name for her powerful science-fiction series ``Cano-pus in Argos: Archives.''

My enchantment with the night sky continues. I always head for a dark open place during the August Perseid meteor shower. I regularly gawk at the full moon, remain alert for northern lights, and delight in learning new stars.

Nevertheless, at times it's nice to view the sweep of stars in the comfort of my room, without fighting off mosquitoes or getting dew on my sleeping bag. Many of my friends agree.

An Austrian couple visited recently, and I gave them my room to sleep in. Shortly after they turned out the light, they started chuckling and commenting in German. I realized they were identifying constellations they recognized!

The next morning they begged to know how to obtain stars for themselves, and I was glad to be able to give them a packet as a small gesture of international friendship.

One night I mentioned this experience to other friends, visiting from Italy, and they asked for a star tour and their own packet. Whenever people come by now, they ask for a look. I like thinking of my Viennese and Italian friends with stars sparkling on high old European ceilings, giving similar star tours.

The museum in my town plans to build a planetarium soon, so my room may lose some of its allure. It's disconcerting to have a bedroom as a tourist attraction anyway. However, until the planetarium is completed folks are welcome any night, especially if they bring eat-in-the-dark snacks and new star facts for me to chew on.

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