I have intended to write this post for a couple of years now, but keep getting busy in early August, and just haven’t gotten around to it.
I have, for as long as I remember, enjoyed looking at the stars. Particularly on a clear, pleasant night, with enough time to just wander and stare.
Unfortunately, growing up in Los Angeles, there weren’t too many of these nights. Summers were poor for stargazing, because of the smog and the marine layer that tended to haze things up even in the valleys. California gets nearly all its rain in the winter, so any given night could be cloudy then. However, there were good nights starting in the fall, when the Santa Ana winds would blow dry air from the desert and clear out the haze. Sure, the light pollution of the city still made it impossible to see the Milky Way, but you could at least get a good view of some major constellations. This would continue throughout the winter, before spring brought back the marine layer.
This is why, until a few years ago, when we started camping in earnest, my knowledge of the summer constellations lagged far behind that of the winter ones.
I can point to a few other important celestial events that made an impact. When I was around 11 or so, we waited in line at Griffith Observatory on a cold winter night to look through the 12 inch refracting telescope at the Orion Nebula. (For what it is worth, this is the most looked through telescope in the world, even though it is fairly small even by recreational standards these days.) It made an impression on me at the time, and I have never forgotten it.
Sadly, even though Halley’s Comet came through in 1986, the best I was able to see was a fuzzy blob, dim on the horizon. I wish I could have gone to a better viewing location. If I make it to 2061, I am finding the way somehow to view it with a decent telescope.
Fortunately, I got the opportunity a few years later to see two amazing comets when we lived in the mountains. Hyakutake in 1996 was the first, and I remember getting up with my parents early in the morning to view its curled tail before dawn. The most memorable, definitely, was Hale-Bobb the next year. It stretched so far across the sky, and was visible even at dusk.
It is another comet, however, that has been the source of a decades long fascination of mine. Comet Swift-Tuttle was discovered in the 1800s. It last made an appearance in 1992, but it was very dim - you needed a clear night and binoculars. It won’t be back until 2126, when it is expected to be pretty bright. Although no threat to the earth right now, it has a slim chance of eventually hitting us. But the next time it is even close enough to monitor won’t be for 2000 years, so it is unlikely to be a factor for any of us.
But what Swift-Tuttle did do is leave a trail of dust and rock behind it on each of its passes around the sun. The earth passes through this trail every year in its orbit, leading to a predictable mid-August meteor shower:
Photo by NASA of the 2015 Perseids. It must be nice to have the equipment to do a multi-exposure time-lapse.
The Perseid shower first came to my attention when I was in 6th or 7th grade (I forget), when a friend invited us to go watch. At the time, we were trying to buy a little acreage up in the mountains, so we sat out on the land and watched the meteors until the wee hours of the morning. I never forgot that night, even though I never really remembered when the shower was. (This was in the pre-internet days…)
Later, I did try to watch a few times, and after we moved to the mountains, I did stay up a couple of times. After I got married, my wife and I drove up to the clear air and snuggled in the back of my little truck and watched. Then the kids came, and I wasn’t able to do it.
I restarted the tradition roughly nine years ago, when I started camping with my older kids. I would load them up on marshmallows and hot chocolate, put them in their sleeping bags, and sit out under the stars with a jacket and a glass of wine and watch the show. Eventually, they began to watch with me.
We haven’t done it every year. Some years, it is during the full moon, alas, and you can’t see much. Others have been amazing. A couple of years, we were traveling somewhere without clear skies, and didn’t really get a chance to watch. But when the show is good and I can get free, I head to the mountains and lie back to watch the heavens revolve around me.
My very most memorable year, however, was 2013. A group of us guys took a backpacking trip up to Big Pine Lakes in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. This place is so spectacular that we actually did it two years in a row. I think it is still the most amazing place I have ever hiked.
I took this picture of 4th Lake on our trip. The Palisade Crest is in the background. It contains several 14,000+ foot peaks, and California's largest glacier, which we hiked to the next day. We watched the meteors from the rock on the right midground.
Anyway, timing worked out so we could go up during the Perseids. During a new moon. So essentially spectacular conditions. We camped at 4th Lake, at about 11,000 feet, and spent half the night on this rock hill watching the meteors. I swear, you could almost touch the sky. The Milky Way was almost painfully bright. We saw a nice fireball the first night, followed by a steady stream of streaks. The world was still and quiet, the night was cold but not too cold, the air was so clear that you could pick out details in the constellations that were invisible from most other places. It was just an amazing experience.
This year, like most, I will “just” be going camping in the nearby Sierra Madre mountains, at one of our favorite places. I am hoping some friends will join us, to share the experience. But if not, for another night, I will be out there bundled up, watching the heavens open once again.
The Perseids take place over a 3-4 day period in mid-August. Because this is a leap year, the peak is early on the morning of August 12 - it is either the 12th or 13th each year. The shower tends to last for a few days, so if you miss the peak, try the next night.
This year is supposed to be a good one, with higher than average frequency. (About one per minute is a decent rate most years.) Unfortunately, the moon will be up for the first half of the night this year. Best to wait until midnight or so, and watch until dawn. Where we go, the mountain will block the moon to the west before that, so that should help. Best in any case to plan to be up a lot of the night.
For more information, space.com has a good summary and guide to the various meteor showers.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of books by one of my favorite astronomers and authors, Phillip Plait. I read the first during our trip to Bryce Canyon National Park for their astronomy festival - seriously, put it on your bucket list! The second debunks a lot of astronomical myths, from astrology to misconceptions about how tides work. Plait’s books are a lot of fun - and full of information.
I also recommend Plait’s video series, Crash Course Astronomy, available for free on youtube. We are using it for part of our homeschool science curriculum right now. I have learned a lot from it - and I already had a pretty decent knowledge of science.
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy my series on the National Park System.