photo by evosia
In a few days, the dude and I will have been married twelve years. I can’t imagine someone more perfectly suited for exactly me, and am so thankful for all the grace and forgiveness he continually extends in my direction. It’s been twelve years, Dude. Thanks for still putting up with all my cuss.
Our anniversary (August 12) falls on the peak day of the annual Perseid meteor shower. For many years this coincided with the dude’s busiest time of year. Fourteen hour work days leave little time for anniversary celebrating. But he’d by out by 10pm, and even such a long work day didn’t prevent us from sneaking out in the middle of the night to see the streaking beauties. We’d drag ourselves out of bed at 3am or so and head out in the the quiet for our corner lot in the country. It wasn’t really ours, of course, but on the morning of August 12th every year, it belonged to us.
Some years, when the moon was nearly full, or the clouds were out, or there just wasn’t much activity, we had only conversation to show for our effort. But other years it was the sky that just wouldn’t shut up.
That’s how it is with meteor showers. Some nights tragic. Some nights magic.
On one particular occasion (not during the Perseids), the sky exploded. We decided to time it because the whole thing seemed too incredible. And in five minutes we saw over eighty shooting stars. Eighty. Can you imagine what the ancients would have thought? Then I read about the Great Leonid Meteor Storm of 1966 and I’m pretty sure that if I ever see such a thing – and I hope to – I’ll think it’s the end.
Tomorrow I’m going to post all kinds of specifics for getting out to see the Perseids this weekend. Until then, here are some Meteor Shower basics for anyone new to the theater. This is long, I know. So just skip to the parts that interest you. Or to the end. Or to the Olympics. Whatevs.
What is a meteor shower anyway?
Experientially, a meteor shower is a night-time event where, under the right conditions, you can see lots of shooting stars.
Technically, a meteor shower happens when earth’s atmosphere comes across a field of cosmic debris, usually stuff spun-off from comets. I’m no scientist, so I’ll leave it to others to do the ‘splaining. This page here explains it pretty well and speaks like an earthling. (You wouldn’t believe what kind of kooky language I encountered finding that for ya.)
So when do meteor showers happen? How do you find out about them?
Because meteor showers have to do with orbiting things, they happen annually. And lovely geeky people like our friends at wikipedia and space.com have put together lists that have all the info you need like:
- the date range of the shower
- when it “peaks” (what night you will see the most meteors, under the right conditions)
- how bright said meteors are expected to be (on average)
- how many you can expect to see per hour when the shower peaks (the ZHR)
- where in the sky the meteors will appear to come from (the “radiant point”)
- the phase of the moon
- what comet or other haps produced all that sparkling debris
You can also follow a helpful geek on twitter and they’ll give you the heads up. I probably will too. Like I am now. I guess I’m your helpful resident geek.
Keep in mind that you’ll want to double check which night the peak is for your part of the world. Check local sources for that.
OH! An important note: Peak dates most often refer the morning (but not always, so just pay close attention). So if it says August 12, it means the morning of August 12, not the night of August 12. There have been a few sad years where I forgot to account for this.
Why do you keep saying things like “under the right conditions”?
Because if there are clouds, you can’t really see the sky. And sky is required for seeing meteors. The other major foul-it-upper is light pollution, including light from the moon. If there is a fantastic storm, but a full moon, that’s not the “right conditions”. You’ll see the show-offs regardless, but to really enjoy the party, you need darkness. And to be able to see the sky.
Where do I go to see a meteor shower?
Generally, you can see meteors anywhere you can see the sky and it’s relatively dark. But because city lights will reduce the visibility of the smaller ones, you’ll want to get away from the city. Specifically, you’ll want to get away from the city in the direction of the radiant point. The radiant point is the general direction you’ll be looking for meteors. You’ll be looking that direction and you want the sky to be as dark as possible (i.e. with the city lights behind you). So drive “toward” the meteors.
Are there any tips for spotting them?
Actually, yes. According to space.com:
Relaxed eyes will quickly zone in on any movement up above, and you’ll be able to spot more meteors,” NASA officials said in a statement. “Avoid looking at your cell phone or any other light. Both destroy night vision. If you have to look at something on Earth, use a red light. Some flashlights have handy interchangeable filters. If you don’t have one of those, you can always paint the clear filter with red fingernail polish.
What do I need? What should I pack?
This is the best part. All you really need is to be comfortable. I’d suggest:
Lounge chairs and/or lots of pillows and blankets. You generally are going to be leaning back looking halfway between the horizon and the “top” of the sky. An upright chair can require neck-craning so I suggest something that leans back. Extra pillows and blankets can help make your lean comfortable, or help you create your own lean on a picnic blanket.
Snacks & Drinks. (Duh) Would I ever consider being without food and drinks comfortable? No. But it’s not necessary to slave over a santa-sack full of delights, either. Sometimes just stopping at the 24-hour stop’n’rob and grabbing whatever you feel like is equally stellar. (ha)
In warm weather: Bug spray. Enough said.
In cold weather: Whatever you need to keep you warm. Seriously. I have cinched my zero-degree mummy bag in as tight as I could and – completely decked in layers and hats and gloves and several pairs of socks underneath – still frozen myself silly. That was a rough year. Under said conditions I also would not leave without a full thermos of coffee. Maybe several. But that’s just me.
Okay, you really weren’t going to ask “what else?” after all of that. But if you’ve read this far, you’re pretty serious, and so I can’t leave you without these extra tips.
Be prepared for some waiting. Don’t expect that the second you begin your gazing the heavens are going to fall. Just kick back, relax, snack, and wait. I always plan to sit there for at least an hour.
Initially, your eyes will be adjusting to the dark. My sources tell me it takes about 30 minutes for your eyes to completely adjust to the point of being able to see the faintest meteors. Give it a little while, and take NASA man’s instructions for keeping your night vision at the ready.
Enjoy the journey. There are no guarantees with this stuff. But if you commit ahead of time to take it as it comes, you can enjoy the adventure regardless of the end result.
If you can’t make a middle-of-the night run to the middle of nowhere, keep your eyes on the night sky wherever you find yourself. The most memorable shooting star I’ve ever seen I viewed several days after the peak of a shower. We missed the peak because we couldn’t find a good viewing area and several days later were staying on the Pacific Coast (It may or may not have been at La Push beach.) Late one night we were standing on a picnic table listening to the waves crash and admiring the insane view of the milky way when the most incredible fireball hurled itself across the sky for several long seconds. I thought that stuff only happened in digital.
So even if you don’t go all out with the wee-hour watching, during the high-activity evenings, take a few extra minutes to watch the sky. You can catch them from the car windows (not to be attempted while driving), on evening walks, or on late night drives for ice cream.
Closing ‘er down (finally)
Assuming that you don’t let one dud experience keep you from ever trying again, you are bound to occasionally strike it big. The sky theater is free. And adventurous. And easily accessible for the not-so-outdoorsy. And if it’s magic for adults like the dude and me, imagine what it’s like for kids. Sure they’ll be a little tired the next day. But when they’re in their thirties, they’ll still be talking about their childhood meteor shower adventures as they look forward to the next one. Just like the dude and I did yesterday.
One way or another, consider giving it a try. Let me know if the magic finds you.