Look Up: The Perseid From Texas

I’m moving out of Austin and back to New York just before what would have marked two years in Texas. I only have four weeks left until I pack the POD and I have an expanding bucket list to make good with before I go. One of my incentives for leaving NYC in the first place was the sky. I wanted to see it. I wanted to observe its expansive breadth and color during sunrise and sunset. I wanted to see that glimpse of the world beyond Earth provided with each shining star and planet in the night sky. In the event of a meteor shower, like The Perseid, I wanted to see those soaring trails of light, too. And so we drove; we drove west. At the suggestion of a friend who was in a back seat of our van, we followed the highway west and into the ink black of the early morning. Steep hills and sudden, sharp turns paved the path into the Westlake area, where we followed our friend’s directions through a twisting, gravel road that brought us to the windy top of a ridge, wherein his family owns ten acres of land.Pine in the air outside, cedar in the ranch’s interior, and a blank canvas of a sky, ready for the brush strokes of passing meteors. We took lawn chairs out to the center of the wooded yard and looked up.

“Six years ago, we heard an awful noise coming from out here. It was a mountain lion eating a baby deer,” my friend told us.

I curled my legs into my chest and wondered where my dogs had wandered off to. Every twinkling star I saw through the trees beside me looked like a glowing, peering eye of a calculating cat. My shuddering was paused at the sight of what I’d come to see, a shooting star, a member of the Perseids participating in its annual, orbital dance. Vega was straight above and persistent as an LED flashlight shining from across the room, but Vega isn’t across the room. Vega is 25 light-years away. It’s 2.1 times as massive as the Sun and a planet about the size of Jupiter may be in orbit around Vega.

We know nothing, I thought as I stared at Vega. We see nothing, I thought as I concentrated on the sky, hoping that the layers between me and the rest of space would shed like onion peels. This is all we have, this small ball of a planet, barely plotted on the map of it all. Zoom out on the universe and we fade away alongside the meteors we see, which are similarly relatively tiny. But then again, maybe that’s everything. Perhaps the best we can do is take those harrowing right turns into our countryside and look around and then look up. The scents of the wild, the instinctive fear of a predatory animal looming, the mysteries within the keyhole view of the universe we see from here – we’re hardwired to explore and take note. Bucket lists exist because of this facet of our being, the pursuit of knowledge and even better, knowledge by way of experience. I wanted to see a meteor shower in the Texas sky and I did. And while my bucket list for Earth is a bottomless well, one day our travel planning will be based off of a list that isn’t anchored to this one little planet. We’ll one day vacation on the Moon or Mars, but then what? The universe is expanding and travel will follow suit. And no matter where we are, no matter which far-off planet we get to, we’ll always be compelled to look around and then look up.

Perseid Meteor Shower Brings Show of Shooting Stars

The Perseids meteor shower, an August tradition

The Perseids meteor shower is an astronomical tradition that returns every year, running from late July to mid-August. The night time fireworks occur for several weeks as the Earth moves through the tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet, which sprinkles particles across the atmosphere. Those particles, in turn, burn up in a bright, colorful, display that is amongst the best light shows that nature has to offer.

The 2010 edition of the Perseids has already begun, and will actually peak this week. The absolute best days to watch the meteor shower are tonight, tomorrow night, and Friday. (August 11-13) During these peak days, you can expect, on average, about 30-40 meteors per hour. But after mid-night things really pick up with as many as 90-100 shooting stars per hour. That’s 1.5 meteors per minute for those keeping score at home.

This year, stargazers have the sky working in their favor as well. On August 9, the moon entered the “new” phase, meaning that it will be absent from the sky at the peak days of the shower, ensuring that there won’t be any natural light pollution to obstruct the views. Having a dark sky is crucial to really getting the full effect of the Perseids, and that includes the lights of the city as well. If you want to enjoy the display to its fullest, it is definitely best that you head somewhere without too much ambient light, such as a large park. Better yet, leave the city behind altogether and head out into the countryside.

The next few days give us all the chance to observe one of the best astronomical displays of the year, and although it is most prominent in the Northern Hemisphere, it can be seen nearly every where on Earth. For an enjoyable and relaxing evening, grab a bottle of wine and a blanket, head out onto the lawn, and stay up late for the show. You won’t be disappointed.

[Photo credit: Mila Zinkova via WikiMedia]

Meteor Showers at Their Peak Tonight

Wherever you are tonight, unless you’re in a city with too many lights, look up. This is the peak of meteor shower gazing. I remember lying in a field in Maine between my junior and senior years of high school watching meteors streak across the sky, one right after another. It was glorious. August is the busiest month for these fireballs and because there isn’t a full moon this year, the show is easier to see.

The Web site total escape gives tips for where to go for the best viewing. If you’re in a desert, on a mountain or in the countryside away from the coast, you’re particularly lucky. Coastal areas are more prone to have moisture in the air which can fog the sky. For the fullest viewing pleasure, look after midnight. There may be up to 60 Perseid meteors an hour doing their thing.