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.

Head to the hills for the meteor shower tonight!

Here’s to hoping the Orionid meteor shower puts on a show tonight! Weather permitting, this annual meteor shower will pass through the night sky in the pre-dawn hours tomorrow morning. Those in cities and suburbs will see fewer meteors, but regardless, star gazers should head to the hills (or country) between 1 a.m. and dawn local time Wednesday morning. Peak activity is expected around 6 a.m. Eastern Time.

The Orionids have been quite visible in recent years, with about 15-20 meteors within the peak hours, so find a comfortable spot with as wide a view of the sky as possible, allow about 10 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkeness, and let the show begin. The meteors will come from pretty much anywhere, but supposedly are concentrated around the Orion constellation (you know, the dude with the three-studded belt). There’s really no use for a telescope or binoculars because these things fly too quickly through the night sky to catch them through a lens.

Depending on where you are in the States, it might be a chilly night, so wear extra warm clothes (or bring layers) — even a sleeping bag or blanket would be a good idea.

Enjoy the show! And if you feel so inspired, upload your meteor photos to Gadling’s Flickr pool.