Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Taking notice of a heavenly fireball

Last week when we were out yurt-camping with my parents, I scanned the dark skies over the Never Summer Range each night for meteors from the annual August Perseid showers. I saw one streak across the sky in the wee hours after a sprinkle of rain, but that was all.

Then last night, after having guests for dinner, we cleaned up the kitchen and watched the moon sail high into the night sky.

"Let's go outside and watch for meteors," Richard said.

We went out into the kitchen garden and sat on the edge of the asparagus bed, where we could look toward the northeast, where the greatest concentrations of Perseid meteors seem to originate. We had just sat down when Richard spotted the first one, a bright white star streaking past us before burning out.

I reached for his hand, and we grinned at each other in the silvery moonlight.

We picked out the constellations we could see over the house: the large ladle shape of the Big Dipper, and following the curve of its handle, Arcturus, the bright orange star in Bootes. We picked out the three bright stars that form the Summer Triangle, Altair in Aquila, the Eagle, on one side of the Milky Way, Vega in Lyra across the way, and Deneb, the tail star in Cygnus, the swan that flies along the Milky Way.

I had just located Polaris, the pole star in the Little Dipper when a brilliant meteor appeared in the black sky just over the roof of the house. I pointed, and Richard swung his head in that direction. As it sped by us in the western sky, it flared magenta, brighter than any falling star I have ever seen.

Richard uttered some exclamation, but I was stunned speechless.

The meteor streaked by, the magenta blazing into white, and then brilliant emerald green before disappearing into the dark sky, trailed by a shimmering tail that lasted what seemed like forever, but was probably only two or three seconds.

Meteors, astronomers say, are debris left behind as comets whiz through our solar system. As earth passes through these plumes of detritus, like dust clouds trailing after traffic on dirt roads, the bits of debris collide with our atmosphere and ignite instantly as they streak across the sky tens of miles above Earth's surface before burning out. The brightest of meteors rival bright stars, those that surpass them are fireballs. Most meteors are the size of grains of sand; only larger bits of debris form fireballs.

It was a fireball we saw last night, a meteor flaring magenta, hot-white, and then cool green before it incinerated in the friction generated by its trip through our upper atmosphere. Its shimmering tail lasted long enough for us to burn the sight of that spectacular falling star into our memories.

When I was a child and saw a meteor, we always made a wish - quickly, before the ephemeral bit of flaming debris burned out. Last night, I was too dazzled by the streak of color burned across the dark sky by that Perseid fireball to make a wish.

If I were to wish though, it would simply be that I never lose the desire to stop and look for meteors, and to be rendered speechless when one streaks across the sky overhead. And to wish that we all have the wonder of shooting stars - those miracles of ephemeral light created as our planet crosses the dusty trails of comets orbiting our solar system. For a moment, meteors streak across the heavens and into our consciousness, pulling us with them as they break through the routines that dominate our daily lives.

(The photograph of elegant asters comes from our yurt-camping trip. I don't have a photograph of meteors - I can't think that fast!)


Velda Brotherton said...

Thanks, Susan for a wonderful perspective on our night skies and the meteors, what we as kids called shooting stars.

When we lived in Kansas where the sky is so huge from horizon to horizon, we often enjoyed shooting stars. Here in Arkansas, we can scarcely see the sky except straight up. We usually have to lie on our backs on a quilt to actually get a good show.

Sadly, I can no longer rise from that position on the ground, but still enjoy the night and especially the glorious moonrise as it comes up beyond the mountains at one end of our little valley and sets behind the peaks at the other end.

Great photo too, Susan. I need to take some of the black eyed susans before they are gone. Such a show they put on. Cherokee called them doe eyed.

Jude said...

Hi Susan,

So great to catch up on your great perspective. I set my alarm for 4:30 and went outside to sit in my chair and watch the sky. The gorgeous tails, the fire in the sky gave me a deep feeling of connection with the rest of the cosmos. I loved learning about State Forest Park too. You make wonderful adventures. Thanks for sharing.


Deborah Robson said...

Okay, I'm jealous! One of the things that bothers me most is light pollution, not talked about as often as other types of pollution. We can see some stars where we live, but nowhere near as many as we would see if there were not as much ground light (porch lights, street lights, motion-detector "security" lights, little strings of decorative solar-powered lights . . . ). Our street is not even especially well lit.

We can drive up to Horsetooth Reservoir to see the sky clearly. But it's much better to step outside one's back door.