Monday, August 13, 2007

Waiting For A Star To Fall

At the pool party, we talked about watching the Perseid meteor shower, which started tonight. Every August, the earth passes through the tail of the comet Swift-Tuttle. When that happens, small particles of debris thrown off by the comet enter the earth's atmosphere, burning up in the process and we see it as a flash of light. In the case of bigger particles, they leave a streak across the sky.


I'm a die-hard night owl. Staying up to watch the Perseids tonight wasn't difficult for me and I watch them every year, so around 2:00 a.m. I put on my flip-flops, grabbed a blanket (to protect myself from the mosquitoes) and my camera, and headed outside. It was a perfect night for watching, because there's no moon to dilute the darkness. We live in the middle of nowhere, so there are no city lights to contend with either. The neighbors on each side have security lights, but there's a spot by the pool where the trees block that light, so it's nice and dark and perfect for meteor watching.

I pulled the patio lounger out a bit so I could get a better view while laying on it. It had already become damp with the night moisture, so I grabbed a beach towel and wiped it off. I wrapped myself up in the blanket and plopped myself down on the lounger to watch and wait.

Hmmm . . . I forgot that I'm near-sighted. I got back up and went in the house to find my glasses, then returned to my post. I left my camera in the house this time, because after laying there for a minute, I could see that getting an image of a meteor was going to require an immeasurable amount of luck and I didn't feel that lucky.

So now I was bundled up in the blanket, lying down looking up and waiting. I heard the train whistle from the Norfolk & Southern train, three miles away. There were the crickets and frogs providing background music, with the staccato percussion from a katydid now and then. The classic night sounds of summer.

The sky is really big. With ideal conditions (meaning you're not too tired, too old, or too a-lot-of-things) the eye takes 200 milliseconds to track something, once the moving object is detected. That's pretty fast. But so is a meteor. They travel anywhere from 25,000 to 160,000 miles per hour.

I'm not a math whiz, so I'm not sure how that all works out, but I know if you're looking east and the meteor is in the west, it had better be one of the streaky ones or you're going to miss it. So I tried to look straight up and consciously use my peripheral vision to hopefully catch a glimpse of a few meteors. As I laid there, I wondered which would happen first - a mosquito bite or a meteor?

A METEOR! I saw one, and then another. I even saw one large enough to leave a streak. They averaged about one every three minutes or so and most seemed to be traveling from eastish to westish. (I know those aren't words, but they should be.) Each time I saw one, it made me smile. The streaky one even caused me to say OUT LOUD, "Now that was cool." I don't know who I thought was going to hear me say that, but it really was cool.

I laid there for about half an hour watching them and each time after I'd see one, I'd tell myself, "just one more." In all, I probably saw a dozen or more. The frequency of them increases the nearer you get to dawn, so I decided to come in, then set the alarm for 4:30 so I could go back out and see more of them. They're supposed to be visible all week but more so on Sunday and Monday nights and there's a chance of rain tomorrow night, so I want to be sure to see them all I can tonight.

I have a couple of observations that puzzle me about these things. One, the Perseids were first noted in 1863. Doesn't the comet eventually burn up? I need to study up on comets. Second, If we're passing through the path of the comet's debris, it seems like some of it should hit the earth as meteorites. Maybe it does, but apparently not much, or we'd hear about people finding them every August or getting bonked on the head by one. Wouldn't we?

Okay, so I wasn't a science major. Wait. Yes, I was. Indiana University awarded me an Associate degree in Science. But we studied teeth and I sure don't remember hearing about any comets. And this is precisely the reason that Al Gore invented the internet. Thank goodness for Google.

I'm going to go lay down on the couch now, because 4:30 will be here before I know it.

Photo from YES I Can! Science.


Barbara said...

There is an old saying that goes like this: if you see a star falling you may think of a wish...perhaps it will realize some day. We are also watching the sky until tomorrow, yesterday night we had too many clouds....I wish you a lot of visible stars and meteorites...and then a good sleep! Enjoy this night!

Rosengeranium said...

Of course eastish and westish are words! You used them right there, I saw them! As an old language professor* said; "Language is what people say, not what they ought to say."

The nights have been cloudy in Sweden, I doubt we'll have the chance to watch comets this year. We'll have to wait untill next year, I guess.

*Tolkien to be exact, he did more than writing fantasy.

Unknown said...

I understand perfectly--I toddled out last night around 0100 and stood gawking skyward too, and I too grinned and was gleeful every time I saw a meteor streak across the sky. WE're very fortunate to live in a rural area and with minimal light pollution (a cottage down the road 300 metres or so has a light but it's not a big nuisance) so I can spend a lot of time staring skyward. The Northern Lights make me even more gleeful--and awestruck.

Annie in Austin said...

Lovely, lovely story, Kylee - you got to really do what I tried to do. We went out both Saturday and Sunday nights, and managed to catch a few star-streaks while enjoying the sounds of frogs and the relatively cool 80º at 3 AM, but our area is too light for real stargazing. And all of our neighbors have their front porch lights on all night long.

I'll be hoping for another post on the Leonids in November!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Alyssa said...

Oh you are so lucky. I went out about 2:00 but looking east I look towards the lights of Milwaukee! And there were lots of clouds too.
I stood out for about 15 minutes and gave up - I could barely see any constellations much less meteors!

Great post!

kate said...

Kylee, you were lucky to see them. A friend went out into the country, stayed for awhile and then the clouds rolled in. The same thing happened last night. Since I live in the centre of the city, there was no meteor gazing for me. Sometimes I'm lucky and catch a glimpse of a shooting star. Woohoo!

Shirley said...

Hi again, Kylee

Great story and lucky you to see something. It was a cloudy over my garden in Scotland and I gave up at 1.30am. Ah well maybe next year - we did catch a lunar eclipse in March though :-)

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