Anything better than a birthday with a meteor shower?

Celestial birthday gift

Steve Lloyd

Posted: Monday, August 31, 2015 2:00 am

My family and friends say it must be pre-ordained, that the “annual” Perseid Meteor shower coincides with my birthday in August. Perhaps so.

My parents said my fascination with meteors began during a planetarium show featuring meteors at the old Hayden Planetarium in New York City. I do recall the awe I felt at that simulation, and now, even in retirement, I’ll play owl and watch the real spectacle in the wee hours of the morning around my birthday. Living in Silver Spring when I was younger, my friends joined me one night, when four or five of us counted some 130 meteors before groggily heading to our homes. Not long after I was married, my wife and I hosted a Perseid “star party” again, off Yellow Springs Road here in Frederick. The meteor count for this latter observing session cannot be reliably determined, as we shared wine, cheese, snacks and beer throughout the celestial fireworks above us.

Clouds, weather, humidity, light pollution and annoying insects sometimes converge to ruin this annual sky show. This August, however, it was a “new moon”; the skies were clear and the light pollution wasn’t as bad as it could be. The peak of the Perseids this year was early Aug. 13, but many good meteors could be seen before and after the peak. The Perseids get their name from the apparent radiant point in the sky, the constellation Perseus. The meteors appear to start their brief life from that constellation.

On Aug. 12, I awoke to my alarm at 3:30 a.m., got dressed in shorts and T-shirt and headed outdoors. I sat in a lawn chair and settled in, realizing I had not bothered to spray myself with insect repellant. The evening was comfortably cool, although I would head indoors around 4:30 a.m. to grab a light blanket. Curiously, there were no insects biting me. It was deliciously quiet outdoors. I did not hear even distant traffic, no dogs barking, no airplanes overhead, just the sporadic rustling of leaves catching the sweet breeze. Almost immediately, a quick Perseid shot almost straight overhead, heading in the direction of Taurus. It was a brilliant blue-white, but at least as bright as the brightest stars that moonless morning. Over the next hour or so I saw only seven meteors, a modest bounty at best. A few were yellow-white, but all of them very quick. My backyard is surrounded by trees on three sides, so I undoubtedly missed many more.

There was another form of dark sky entertainment: bats. Watching them in their zigzag quest for an insect meal was almost as much fun as the so-called “shooting stars.” Some swooped low enough that I could hear the flapping of their wings. With the sky slowly brightening at dawn and then rather cold, I headed off to bed.

The next morning (the 13th) the alarm sounded at 2:30 a.m., and my wife, Jeanne, decided to watch the meteor shower with me. The weather was noticeably warmer, and humid. The skies were clear despite occasional gauzy haze now and then. A few bugs bit my ankles and arms. Within 20 minutes Jeanne sighted 10 meteors, one of which I saw, a slow moving, yellow-white fireball heading south east. Its head seemed to change in size as it zipped overhead. This fireball even left a smoke trail that lingered for a few seconds. Magnificent! That alone made it worth rising at o’dark-thirty. My wife spotted a few bats, but much of the time, I was tending to my camera, taking time exposures in hopes of catching a photo of a meteor. (Later the next day I was delighted to see that I’d captured at least one. I haven’t had time to examine all exposures yet.) Jeanne called it a night after her 20-minute session and returned to bed. At 4:30, I collapsed the tripod and headed off to bed as well. It was another great meteor (and bat) show — Mother Nature’s birthday gift just for me.

Steve Lloyd lives in Frederick and may be reached at splloyd941@comcast.net.

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