Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wanderings: The Geminid Meteor Shower

Lainey Piland photo

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, 
the silent stars go by...

For as long as I can remember, those have been my favorite lines from a Christmas song.  The image they evoke, of a peaceful world sleeping beneath the watchful gaze of stars wheeling overhead, makes me feel as though I've been wrapped up in all the comforting warmth of the Christmas season.

Those lines were running through my mind over and over last night -- or rather, very early this morning -- as I sat outside on my deck with my head tilted back toward the heavens. Despite the temperature being somewhere in the upper 30's, I didn't feel cold.  This wasn't due to the thick fleece blanket I was burrowed into, or to the several pairs of socks on my feet.  I was too focused, too intent, too hopeful to feel cold.  Tonight was the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, and I was bound and determined to catch a glimpse of the show. My breath formed small puffs of vapor as my eyes searched the heavens above, whispering through dry lips "Please let me see just one. Just one."

You see, for most of the year, I've been a frustrated stargazer.  This is a notoriously difficult hobby to maintain in western Washington, where cloudy skies are the norm.  But this year, it just seemed like I couldn't catch a break.  How many supermoons was I blind to this year? Did I get to test out my homemade viewing device during the partial solar eclipse?  Speaking of eclipses, didn't we have a few of those this year, of the lunar variety?  What about those northern lights we were promised?  What about the Perseid, Leonid, and Orionid meteor showers this summer and fall? Clouds, clouds, clouds.

So imagine my delight last night upon finding clear skies as I peeked through the curtains around midnight.  This could be my chance.  I hurried through my tiny condo, switching off lamps, dousing the Christmas lights, and throwing on enough layers of clothing and blankets to keep me warm.  In short order, I was flat on my back on the lounge chair outside, with a sky full of stars blinking overhead.

Unfortunately, I was unable to escape from those much-disdained "city lights," so my prospects for being able to see much of a show were rather dismal.  After allowing a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the relative darkness, I began to pick out familiar stars from the sky.  Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Rigel in Orion.  The showy Sirius in Canis Major was twinkling violently like a prism twirling in sunlight. I located the Pleiades star cluster, for which I've always had a special affinity. At last the stars Castor and Pollux resolved from the dim starry sky.  Those two stars lay in the constellation Gemini - the radiant for tonight's meteor shower.

Meteor showers are named for the constellations where meteors appear in the night sky.  The meteors radiate outward in all directions from this 'radiant'.  Radiant.  There's a deliciously magical-sounding word for you.  The radiant for the Geminid meteor shower is located in the constellation Gemini, the radiant for the Orionids is in Orion, for the Leonids in Leo... etc.

So I lay there in the cold, staring up at Gemini and anxiously waiting.  Sirens wailed down the street.  The acrid smell of asphalt wafted from overnight work on the nearby freeway. Thankfully, the wind soon shifted and carried with it a sweeter fragrance. The lonely stars blinked. As the moments passed, I began to worry that I wasn't in a dark enough location to see the meteor showers - that I was blind to a spectacular show occurring right in front of my very eyes.

Suddenly, a thin glowing thread of light appeared in my peripheral vision, then disappeared. Wait, was that it?  Was that a meteor? The excitedly whispered words coalescing in clouds around me were now "I saw one.  I SAW ONE!"

This was the first of thirty-one meteors I spotted during the hour spent sitting outdoors in the freezing cold.  Meteors appeared everywhere in the sky, shooting off in all directions.  They animated Orion's bow; they landed in the Pleiades; the brightest of them humbled even the piercing glitter of Sirius.  Most of the meteors were faint, and glimpsed only briefly as thin white trails on the edges of my vision.  I was lucky enough however, to see a few particularly spectacular meteors that blazed bright orange across a few degrees of sky. 

Hands-down the most exciting moment was when two flaming meteors seemed to fall straight down from the sky.  They appeared exactly where my gaze had been resting in the vacant sky, allowing me to follow their side by side progress as they plummeted downward.  Now these were METEORS: blazing orange fireballs, trailing behind them a plume of glowing light and a tail of smoke.  They appeared to be making a beeline for the tops of Doug fir trees a hundred yards in the distance, which caused me to gasp inadvertently even though I knew better: those meteors were still miles away, miles above.  As they burned out, I sat looking at the dark sky with my mouth agape for the briefest moment, before shoving my blanket in my mouth to stifle a delighted shriek that would no doubt have alarmed my neighbors. After this, I'm fairly certain that the duration of my time outdoors was spend with a huge idiot grin on my face.

Eventually, the time between meteor sightings lengthened, and I was forced to crane my neck from one corner of the sky to the other to search them out.  Frowning, I also noticed that the sky seemed to be getting lighter.  Peering over the deck railing toward the ground two stories below, I quickly saw the reason why.  Thick fog was rolling in, creeping upward into the sky and carrying with it the diffused glow of streetlights from below.  After a few more minutes sans meteor sighting, I reluctantly concluded that this magical experience had come to an end.  Plus, I was beginning to lose feeling in my toes.  I tipped my head upward toward the sky, drinking in the midnight blue vista smattered with twinkling stars.  "One more," I whispered, "please, one more..."

And wouldn't you know it, right there in the sky just above Orion's head, a fat orange meteor streaked across my vision and flared out. Number thirty-one. I smiled. Okay, maybe I can forgive the cloudy Washington skies since -- in a benevolent Christmas gesture? -- they've parted tonight and allowed me a glimpse of the stunning show overhead.  Wrapping my dew-damp blanket around my shoulders, I eased back into the house feeling completely full, content, and peaceful; leaving those silent stars to continue their work unseen.

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