Meriwether Lewis and William Clark departed from St. Louis, Mo., in 1804 to embark on a two-and-a-half year and 4,000 mile journey on order of President Thomas Jefferson and with the task of exploring and claiming land that the United States had newly acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Check out our Scene on the Scene photo gallery from this event.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark departed from St. Louis, Mo., in 1804 to embark on a two-and-a-half year and 4,000 mile journey on order of President Thomas Jefferson and with the task of exploring and claiming land that the United States had newly acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Their treacherous journey up the Missouri River would require them to use all of their faculties and dose of astronomy in order to record an accurate record of where they had been.
Lewis and Clark star gazed and wondered what story the stars above them could tell.
Over 200 years later, star gazers are better armed with knowledge of the skies and yet still marvel Lewis and Clark’s work on the Missouri River.
All of the above were topics of conversation during the Astronomy 101 presentation at the Missouri River Basin Lewis and Clark Center at Nebraska City on Saturday, April 11.
The conversation began with amateur astronomer Eugene Lanning talking about what kinds of obstacles that Lewis and Clark faced on the Missouri.
Lanning said the most advanced piece of technical equipment the pair of explorers had would have been their chronometer, a watch in a box that the explorers hoped to keep accurate during their journey.
In order to keep an accurate record of points of interest in their travels, the explorers needed to determine their latitude, and, for that, they needed an accurate measure of time.
The chronometer itself, Lanning said, had issues as its readings were erratic and the chronometer had to be wound daily, something that didn’t always occur. Lanning said the explorers needed to continually make sure they had the right time.
And that had obstacles as well.
In order to set the clock, Lewis and Clark employed a sextant. By using the device, the explorers would record the time when the sun’s position in the sky was both 20 degrees above the eastern sky and 20 degrees above the western sky.
By taking an average of those two times, the explorers would then know what time noon was and be able to adjust their clock accordingly.
Even that had problems, Lanning said.
Cloudy weather or terrain, such as mountains, which blocked the sun, forced delays in travel as the explorers had to wait and try to get a better look at the position of the sun the next day.
Complications didn’t end there as Lewis and Clark consulted charts to help them account for anomalies such as the earth’s non-circular orbit around the sun, the earth’s axis tilt and the refraction of light through the earth’s atmosphere. They also had to find a way to determine north without using a compass or the north star since both are inaccurate.
Despite having all of those complications, the pair were able to chart their location on the 4,000 mile journey to within 40 miles.
One minor error in calculations could have produced a discrepancy of 100 or more miles.
For the explorers to be as accurate as they were is certainly amazing.
The feeling of amazement at the accomplishments of Lewis and Clark is a bit analogous to the feeling of amazement one feels when looking at the night sky in the here and now.
As you look up, you’ll see the same stars that Lewis and Clark saw back in 1804.
Well, hopefully you will.
Doug Friedli, Executive Director of the Missouri River Basin Lewis and Clark Center told the assembled crowd that seeing the stars these days has been complicated by light pollution.
The advent of electric lights have created more and more light that shines upward and obstructs the view of celestial objects.
Friedli said the glow of lights back in the 1950s was minimal with the coastal areas being lit up and the middle section of the country being relatively dark. These days the light is getting more and more intense, thus cutting off a great percentage of the country from the privilege of star gazing.
Friedli said a 1994 earthquake and power outage in Los Angeles illustrates the issues inherit with light pollution and the urban glow put off by major cities.
With the power out, Los Angelenos were calling into 911 in a panic over the glow they saw in the sky. That glow was the Milky Way galaxy, something they had never seen before.
In addition to blocking the view of star gazers, Friedli said light pollution causes confusion for migrating birds, who use celestial bodies to guide their flight, and it can lead to troubles for animals such as the sea turtle, who, from birth, are trained to follow the light of the moon to their home in the ocean.
What’s the solution for star gazers and animals alike?
Friedli said wider use of lights which aim their power at the ground is key. If lights are produced with the proper shade, on them, light pollution will go down and the chances to see stars will go up.
And there are a lot of amazing things to note about the heavens.
Dave Silcox, a co-presenter along with Lanning, and an amateur astronomer in his own right, gave a brief history of the telescope, nothing that Lewis and Clark used telescopes for the terrestial purposes of seeing farther ahead on their path. Telescopes these days are used for that purpose and for seeing more stars.

Lanning said if an observer looks up at the sky and charts every star seen with the naked eye, that number would be about 6,500 stars.
Back in Lewis and Clark’s day, that would be what they considered to be the universe. And the fuzzy glowing thing that scared Los Angelenos, well, that was just milk in the sky to Lewis and Clark.
Our view of the stars is a bit more advanced.
Known are the facts that the earth belongs in a solar system that belongs to a Milky Way galaxy that’s one of millions that exist.
The sun rotates around the center of the Milky Way galaxy in an orbit that takes 230 million years. And the earth’s orbit around the sun, because of the rotation of the sun around the Milky Way galaxy, is one that’s comes closer to a cork screw than a circle.
Many questions about the universe and its workings remain unanswered. It will take Pioneer figures like Lewis and Clark to solve some of those mysteries.
And the hope continues to be that, in 200 more years, we’ll have more answers.