On watching a meteor shower from high altitude.
Kamikazes from the Vasty Deep
Our son alerted my wife and me to the Leonid meteor shower a few weeks before it was scheduled to occur. As the date drew nearer, occasional sound bites on the news began cropping up. The Internet indicated that the shower would peak at 3 AM Mountain Time on the morning of November 18th.
My wife and I have a hide-a-way up near The Grand Canyon, at 6000 ft. elevation. We live in Mesa, Arizona, which gets very hot in the summer, and we spend practically every weekend between May and October up there where it is much cooler. The skies at those elevations are very clear at night, and stargazing is excellent. Normally if we see a single shooting star on any given evening, it’s a memorable event. But when the debris field of a comet passes through Earth’s atmosphere, one might expect to see hundreds of shooting stars in less than an hour! That is why these relatively rare occurrences are called “meteor showers.”
The Leonid meteor shower is one of the most spectacular. Since one of this magnitude isn’t expected to occur again until 2099, we thought it might be worth making the trip up to the higher elevations to watch it. On the other hand, it’s a 3-½ hour drive up from the Phoenix area, and we were going up the following Wednesday for a long Thanksgiving weekend. So we debated whether to go. We decided to watch things from Mesa, where the viewing would not be nearly as good due to metropolitan smog, city light pollution and so forth. Saturday afternoon the sky began to cloud over, and it looked like we might not see anything at all if we stayed in Mesa. So at 5 PM we hit the road, arriving at our place up north by 8:30 PM Saturday night.
We went straight to bed, setting the alarm clock for 2:15 AM. (Remember, the experts said that peak viewing would occur at 3 AM.) I was awake before 2:15 and walked out onto the front deck. I was astonished! Meteorites were already streaking through the sky!
“It’s show time!” I shouted, rushing back indoors to get bundled up. (Yes, in mid November the nights are chilly at 6000 ft.) My wife, Marge, got into her own down parka and we settled down out on the back deck where there’s a nice swing with seating for three. We scrunched down and rested our heads on the swing’s back, so as not to get cricks in our necks, and began to watch the show. With increasing frequency the meteorites streaked across the sky. “There’s one!” Marge would cry. “There’s another!” I’d answer. In the space of an hour we no doubt saw more shooting stars than we’ll see again in the remainder of our lives. It was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime display!
It’s now Sunday morning, and I’m writing this up here in the high country where we spent the night. It’s a beautiful day outside. After being up for two hours plus in the middle of the night, we slept in this morning and didn’t rise until the Sun was well up in the sky. As I drift back mentally to what we saw last night ... hundreds upon hundreds of tiny visitors from outer space, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere ... and as I think about the turmoil among men even as I write these words, it’s clear that there is much to ponder. The Universe is so vast, and we are so insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Taking the big view, the madness that occurred on September 11’Th here in our own tiny bubble of space would seem comical and even ridiculous, if it weren’t so tragic.
Will we survive as a species, long enough for our descendants to travel out among the stars, perhaps to discover and colonize real new worlds (and not simply new continents here on our mother planet)? Your guess is as good as mine. Suffice it to say that I’m glad my wife and I made the trip up here, where clear night skies are the norm, and didn’t decide to wait for the next display in 2099! The Leonid meteor shower was an awesome production put on, in my opinion, by an infinitely awesome Producer. With luck it might be hoped that freedom and human rights will, in time, be enjoyed by all the men, women and children of planet Earth. And if and when that happy day arrives, then hopefully there will be enough of God’s bounty left for us to fashion mighty galleons that embark on voyages out among the stars. Stay tuned, humanity. The best may be yet to come!