After our Friday night viewing session at the observatory, I was very excited to go back out there and watch for meteors again! Lynn successfully shamed me into trying the meteor observing program from the Astronomical League. She made sure I brought paper, pencil and a watch. So – once again we loaded up the car with blankets, chairs, jackets, gloves and yes – hand warmers. This time my youngest decided to tag along with us. Before we left I made sure she knew the rules – no complaining about being cold, tired or bored!
As soon as we got out of the car I knew it was going to be a good night. Before we even closed our car doors a bright meteor streaked above us! Everyone ooooooed in unison and we hurried to set up our chairs for the night. The sky was once again clear, and the Milky Way was visible. Facing east, looking towards Cassiopeia, we lined up our chairs and settled in. I no sooner had my paper and pencil ready when the show began!
I started recording my observations at 10:30, and by 11:30 I had recorded 20 meteors! Those were just the ones that I saw! It seemed for awhile that I was always looking in the wrong direction! One would go through the big dipper, then another near the horizon in the south east. “Mom – did you see that one?”, “no”. That was an exchange we had way too many times! Things started picking up and I started sweeping the sky rather than looking steady at one area. That seemed to work better. By 12:30 I had 55 total sightings, including the most exciting meteor I had ever seen – a Bolide! It seemed to go straight down from Cassiopeia and go for about 30 degrees. Then it seemed to explode in a flash of light! “What the heck was that?” I gasped. “That was a Bolide!” I was almost too excited to write it down! I wanted the image to be permanently fixed in my brain. “Did you see that?” I asked my daughter. I could tell even before she answered that she had! She was grinning from ear to ear! It was a great moment for me as a mom sharing something with her daughter, and as an Astro Babe experiencing another spectacular astronomical event. This one was for the books, that’s for sure!
By 1:30 am I had recorded around 80 Perseid’s! By then the crescent moon was rising, with Jupiter and Venus at its side. Very beautiful, but even the cresent moon was enough to wash out the Milky Way. As if on cue, we all started packing up our things and loading up the cars. My daughter was a trooper! She followed the rules, even though she had started to get uncomfortable and tired.
All the way home I kept thinking of all the meteors we were missing! Part of me wanted to pull over and watch for another hour or so, but the thought of my warm bed and soft pillow kept me driving.
Last night was another opportunity to go out to Parmentier’s Observatory in Luxemburg, WI., which is operated by our astronomy club. And although it was the night before the peak of the Perseids meteor shower, Amy and I went out to see the show. Tomorrow may be the peak, but in Wisconsin, you go when it’s clear because you never know what the weather may bring tomorrow.
The club hosts Parmentier’s Observing Weekends (POW’s) once a month for most of the year (usually around the time the moon is a crescent, or will be rising when it won’t interfere with our observing). Amy and I usually drive out before it gets dark so we can socialize and get our gear organized, but last night we didn’t arrive until well after dark at around 10:00 p.m.
The first thing we noticed when we stepped out of the car was the Milky Way right overhead – something we never see here in town. We could tell immediately that we’d picked a good night to go. I had been concerned that the ground might be mushy and that it might be humid because we had received over two inches of rain the day before, but sunshine and a windy day had created a beautiful sky with very low humidity.
Fortunately we both thought of bringing warm clothes, and immediately bundled up in our winter coats, hats and gloves despite the fact that it was August 10th. In addition to the 64 degree temperature, we were just a few miles away from Lake Michigan, and the wind was blowing steady from the North at about 12 mph.
We grabbed Amy’s reclining lawn chairs and our backpacks and headed towards the small group that was already nested at the base of the dome. We found Gerry lying on the ground snuggled up on an air mattress, Gary fiddling with his camera equipment waiting to snap a good picture, and Wayne just kicking back and enjoying the sky. Normally, if the weather’s good, there’s a much bigger crowd, but the wind meant the dome wouldn’t be opened and small scopes would be jittery.
We set up our lawn chairs facing Cassiopeia, piled on a few blankets, and settled in. Amy was also just there just to watch, but I took the opportunity to finally get started on the Astronomical League’s Meteor program. Recording meteors was very clumsy at first, but it didn’t take me long to get the hang of it. I managed to record 20 meteors between 10:45 p.m. and 12:45 a.m. And since everyone would Ooooo and Ahhhh in unison every time one whizzed by, I know I only missed two or three while I was busy recording.
I personally usually find observing very stressful. I know my way around the sky a little, but get lost when I’m trying to find things in an unfamiliar area of the sky while juggling heavy binoculars, sky charts, pencils, red flashlights, watches and clipboards in the dark – all this while battling mosquitoes, ticks, dew and feet that are frozen in the snow. It is not a hobby for the faint of heart.
But last night it was wonderful, just relaxing on a reclining lawn chair and admiring all the stars. The companionship was warm, the jokes were funny, and all the while we listened to 70’s music playing softly on Gerry’s radio, trying to be the first one to guess who the artist was. It turns out that Wayne is quite the 70’s trivia master, and we learned all sorts of little-known facts about Neil Diamond, Elton John and Billie Joel – I guess there’s more to learn on an astronomy outing than just about the night’s sky.
But by 1:00 a.m. Amy and I were feeling cold and sleepy so we packed up and headed home. And as I fell asleep in my warm, cozy bed, I thought of all the meteors I would miss as they sparkled across the sky all through the night.
The mere mention of an upcoming celestial event usually draws minimal attention from my family. Their participation is usually confined to me excitedly recounting the details of an eclipse or a meteor shower, while they half listen to me. So on the day of the landing of the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, I was pretty sure I would be the only one glued to the computer at 12:30am.
I set my alarm in case I fell asleep, crawled in bed and turned on the TV. I was passing the time going back and forth from the summer Olympics and the NASA coverage online. I reviewed the video describing the EDL (entry, descent and landing), otherwise known as the ‘7 minutes of terror’. It’s during this time that we’re all on equal footing. All of us, mission control scientists and scientist wannabe’s (like me!) are all equally helpless as to the outcome of the descent.
I decided to use my Kindle because it would be just me watching.The Kindle screen is small, about 5″ x 7″, but it’s big enough for me to watch with. At 12:20am, the house was quiet; my husband was tucked in bed next to me, sound asleep. I turned off the lights and was now just sitting in the glow of the Kindle. Suddenly my phone chirped. Who in the world is texting me at this hour? It was my daughter, texting me from her bedroom. “7 minutes of terror starts right now. Live cam online.” Hmm, they do listen sometimes! “I’m watching” I replied.
The door to my room opened and in walked my daughter all bundled up in a blanket. She shuffled over to my side of the bed and I slid over making room for her to sit. “Here”, I said, “take this” as I gave her one of my ear buds. There we sat ear to ear, tethered to the Kindle, getting caught up in the excitement! They would announce each step in the EDL and I’d quickly explain what was happening. (Thank goodness I watched that video!) Finally – Curiosity was on the surface of Mars! She laughed and I let out a quiet ‘yeah!’ We watched mission control erupt in celebration! They laughed, cried, high fived and hugged each other. It was such a proud moment for them and for the entire country!
We watched together until the first images from Mars came through. Then as quickly as she shuffled in, she shuffled out and back to her room. While the Astro Babe in me was amazed at the success of the Curiosity landing, the mom in me was cherishing the moment spent huddled under the blanket with her daughter, watching history unfold.