Saturday, August 14, 2010
Perseid Meteor Shower
I have successfully failed at sighting the Perseids again this year.
If you detect something of a history enshrouded in my statement, you are correct. Regarding the Perseids, I have never seen anything that approached a meteor sprinkle let alone a shower.
My mother grew up in rural Clarion County, Pennsylvania before the Rural Electrification Administration brought light pollution to the sticks. She said that the Perseids was an annual treat--treats during the Depression being far simpler and less costly than treats today. My grandfather, not ordinarily given to the concerns of promoting wonder in his children, would gather everyone outside in the lower pasture to watch the meteor shower. My mother said that there was constantly a falling star visible and often numerous meteors falling at the same time.
When I was a child, my father, somewhat more given to instilling a sense of wonder in his children, but certainly not slavish about it, would always take me and my sister out in the backyard to see the Perseids. My father, growing up in Pittsburgh, never had seen the Perseids. I think he was inflamed by my mother’s stories of seeing one after another endlessly, and was bound and determined to experience this spectacle. My sister, always of a practical mind about bed time, found little wonder in standing in the backyard and watching nothing. She would quickly depart for the comfort of her bed. My mother, perhaps spoiled by the gold spoon of a truly dark sky in her youth, could not be bothered. So that left my dad and I out desperately scanning the light polluted skies of suburban Pittsburgh for the illusive Perseids. The murk in the sky would be ablaze by the various steel mills down on the Monongahela River. I don’t recall of ever seeing a single meteor in our Perseids watches. It became something of a joke in our house—a basis of negative comparison, “Is this going to be as good as the Perseid Meteor Shower Dad?” Between my mother's actual sightings year after year in her youth, and my father’s burning adulthood desire to see them, I am sure that I have the Perseids somehow encoded in my DNA. They are in my blood.
My father often talked about going up to my grandfather’s farm to see the Perseids, but of course that was something that was perpetually left for next year. “Next year, we should go up the farm and see if we can see the Perseids.” The 75 minute one way drive and actually seeing something would have been a bargain compared to our annual search in the industrial light polluted murk of Pittsburgh. Of course, like many good intentions, we ran out of next years. At some point during my adolescence, I became too cool and far too lazy to go out in the backyard with my crazy old man to look at some dumb meteors that were not there. Yet my father persisted with the Perseids every year, never with great success.
While in the Air Force in the early seventies, I was stationed for two and a half years in the Mojave Desert in California. The air base was at 3000 feet above sea level in elevation and had a relative humidity of less than 10%. At night, if you drove a few miles away from the lights of the base, you could not see a bit of black sky. Every pixel of the night sky was a star, most with a magnitude so slight that it only appeared as a speck of dust. The entire sky was a “milky way” and the Milky Way blazed in comparison. I never thought of the Perseids when I was there, which according to the Wikipedia article cited above August 12 1972 was “reported to be the most active shower in recorded history”. That was 5 days before I left for Thailand. So although I missed the big show, one February night, quite by accident, I did see something of a meteor shower. Watching for about a half hour, I would estimate the rate at 2 to 3 a minute--not exactly continuous, but still quite spectacular. The bone chilling cold of the Mojave in February finally drove me back inside.
Despite my DNA, I do not possess the magnitude of my father’s desire to see the Perseids. If I remember them, or more likely, if someone mentions them to me I will go out and take a grudging look for nostalgia’s sake, usually spending most of my time cussing out the inventor of the orangey shade of light pollution that dominates the night sky from sodium vapor lights.
When my wife and I moved to northern Allegheny County when we married in 1977, we could routinely see the Milky Way at night. Not so now, it takes an incredibly clear night to see it even faintly. Yet another element of romance lost to the builders of malls, excessively anal security personnel, and people who seem to think that their McMansion (or corporate headquarters) should be illuminated like the Washington Monument shooting night destroying photons into the coal fired murk that is required to provide all of this needless and excessive lighting. So in my younger days I did have a few successes with the Perseids but I would characterize ZHR (Zenith Hourly Rate) of my personal observations as running at about 0.5 per hour. That is if I stood out there like a jack ass for two hours, I might see one falling star. For something that is in my DNA, I have had a rather dismal history with it.
So that brings us to Thursday night, August 12, the big day for the Perseids. Of course I never gave it a thought, but one of the nerds at work mentioned it. I put in a double shift at work out in the heat on the factory floor, working on an emergency refurbishment. Then I had to pick up my wife at her mother's and bring her home. I was extremely exhausted when I crawled into bed at 12:45 AM. "Oh hell, the Perseids!" So I crawled out of bed, slipped on my Bermuda shorts and sneakers, and went outside. I dutifully looked to the northeast at the high flying kite of Cassiopeia above my forehead, and Jupiter blazing above my right ear. There was a bit of a high flung miasma in the sky, but it was still somewhat clear. I watched for 15 minutes. Nothing! I went back to bed. The nerd at work saw about 20 of them in an hour and half. Another guy looked for about an hour and saw 8.
Last night, August 14, in the spirit of my long departed father, I endeavored to stay up and went outside at 1:30 AM. I insisted that I would stay out until I saw at least one falling star, a misnomer fortunately—most are falling specks of dust no bigger than a grain of sand moving at 72km/sec relative to the Earth. The flare up we see is the particle burning up from the heat generated by friction with the atmosphere at an altitude of 40 miles.
The sky was a good bit murkier than Thursday night and there were some absolute cloud formations glowing orange, but I persisted. I was not going back in until I saw at least one meteor. Hmmmm! Looking upward is a young person’s sport. My neck soon developed a crick and my back and legs soon started to hurt. I sat on a lawn chair but the damage was done, my neck started killing me. At 2:15 AM I gave up and gratefully put my decrepit old body with its depleted DNA in bed. Yet another successful failure at observing the Perseid Meteor Shower.
Side Note on the California Expedition
My brother-in-law is on his way home, they expect to get back on Tuesday. At this juncture he has no idea of how many different species he has seen, but he estimates it to be in the hundreds. He got over 30 new birds when his wildest expectation was 20. They took a boat trip and saw 4 different species of whales! He says that he will be months entering all of his new finds in his journal. Alas, my brother-in-law discovers most every living organism in California, and I can’t see a lousy falling star.
Edit 8/12/16: Failure again. I spent 2 minutes looking. My neck is a good bit junkier than the original post, and is now snapping from my 120 second endeavor. The sky was pretty murky and we have even more lights now. The tradition continues.
Edit 8/13/18: Success! I was out for about 50 minutes after 2 AM last night. I saw 10 confirmed meteors, 4 of which were rather spectacular. One of the 4 fell with a huge streak and then seemingly exploded, and another left a very thick sparkly trail. I would estimate that I saw perhaps a dozen unconfirmed meteors. I would characterize these as corner of my eye or just barely bright enough that I could see it with my off center night vision, but when my eye tracked to look directly at it, not a trace. So I can't really count them. But still, 10 meteor in 50 minutes in a murky sky with suburban lighting. Not bad! My Perseid curse has been broken. Oh the other good news was my neck didn't bother me near as much as my previous posts. A magnificent observation, altogether. Perhaps, the winds of fate are blowing with me.
Wikipedia (It is actually the Leonids--don't tell anyone.)
Image Caption: A famous depiction of the 1833 meteor storm, produced in 1889 for the Seventh-day Adventist book Bible Readings for the Home Circle.
Image Description: The most famous depiction of the 1833 actually produced in 1889 for the Adventist book Bible Readings for the Home Circle - the engraving is by Adolf Vollmy based upon an original painting by the Swiss artist Karl Jauslin, that is in turn based on a first-person account of the 1833 storm by a minister, Joseph Harvey Waggoner on his way from Florida to New Orleans.
Note: Click on the image to see a full size version.