Sunday, August 12, 2012

Meteor Showers (or Not)

Perseid meteor appearing near the Milky Way
(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Darn those City Lights

I did not see any meteors hitting the atmosphere with the latest visitation of the Perseid Meteor Showers. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that I didn’t want to get up at 3:00 a.m. to catch the best viewing time. Another reason is that I live in the city and I was reminded once again of how little we can see of the night sky with all of our city lights.

As I sat in my back yard gazing up into the night, I recalled how dark the sky was in my little hometown, and how big and bright the stars. I recalled how it was simply routine to walk out at night on the way home from band practice or a football game and spot the big dipper hanging in the sky. I remembered how the celestial band of the Milky Way was ever present across the night sky. Last night as I looked up, I saw just a few stars. As my eyes adjusted, a few more came into view. Here in the city, a bright moon along with Venus or Mars are the heavenly bodies most visible.

A Flood of Memories

The night was not all lost, however. As I looked across the sky I recalled one ominous moment that occurred maybe 15 years ago. As I was stepping out our back door to feed the dogs I happened to see a huge meteor briefly streak across the sky, breaking up as it went – and that was in the city at twilight, not even completely dark. Sometimes amazing moments occur just by chance and we feel lucky to have witnessed them.

 Still another memory came back to me last night. For a while, I stood in the middle of the yard to view other sections of the sky. At one point I looked straight up, craning my neck so that my head was almost at a right angle to the rest of my body. As I felt the skin of my throat stretch and the back of my neck cramp, a distant memory was triggered.

I would have been three or four years old. We were living in Wedowee, Alabama at the time. On this particular night, the adults (my parents, and a couple of their friends who were visiting) went outside to see if they could spot the satellite. They had apparently heard that it was possible to actually see the satellite as it orbited the earth. I was not sure what to look for, but all the big people were intently studying the sky. I stood out by the car in the driveway looking straight up. I bent my neck so far back I could feel my throat stretching. My mother was noticing and she told me she was afraid I was going to break my neck if I kept looking up like that. Mothers are always afraid children will break their necks, don’t you know, so they have to keep a close watch (but we should all be glad that someone was paying that close attention to us when we were young).

I don’t think anyone saw the satellite that night. As I was thinking back on that event, I wondered if it was Sputnik that we were trying to catch a glimpse of.  My research on the internet showed me that Sputnik was launched on October 4, 1957. That would have made me not quite three years old. However, the first successful U.S. satellite (Explorer I) was launched February 1, 1958. By the time the weather warmed up enough to make outside viewing comfortable, I would have been a solid three and a half years old. That would have been more like it! Furthermore, Explorer I was an exhilarating American accomplishment while Sputnik, right there in the middle of the Cold War, would probably not be a thing that all the big people in our household would want to look for.

A Glad Remembrance

My gaze unto the night sky yielded no shooting stars but it evoked bright memories. It took me back to a time when the stars were luminous, the sky a velvet black, and manmade satellites were new and exciting (there being only two in the sky at the time).  It was a time that heralded the beginnings of NASA; it was a time of the International Geophysical Year and the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts that surround the earth.  It was a time when good mothers kept their children from breaking their necks over something as silly as a satellite.



From the 2010 Perseid Meteor Shower
(Photo by the European Southern Observatory) 

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