NATURE RAMBLINGS: Catch a falling star

PHOTO BY MATT BARTMANN The roof of our cabin is ready and waiting for the Perseids meteor shower. Lying on a sheet of plywood will be more comfy than those metal ridges...I hope!

Sally Roth


As soon as I start to get excited about a celestial event—an eclipse, a meteor shower, the conjunction of planets—it’s practically guaranteed that the skies will cloud over just in time to block it.

It’s my own version of a rain dance, I suppose.

Which is why I hesitate to even mention the Perseids meteor shower, my absolute #1 favorite sky show, which rolls around every year in August. Don’t want to jinx it.

But, heh-heh, there’s a sneaky aspect to this event: Falling stars aren’t only on the peak night! You might see them for as much as a week before and a week after. So even if it rains, you can catch a falling star on another night.

This year, on the peak night of August 12-13, the moon will be sound asleep. It’ll be only 2 days old, a super-skinny crescent that will set long before the show begins.

Great time to go camping, away from city lights! But if you have to stay home, give it a try anyway: Some of the falling stars will still be bright enough to make you ooh and ahh, despite the glow of lights.

All you need is some bug repellent to ward off mosquitoes, and a chaise lounge or blanket for comfy viewing of the sky overhead without getting a crick in your neck. And a decent view of the sky.

Oh, and a nap beforehand. Because the show really kicks into gear in the wee hours, after midnight.

“Falling stars” aren’t stars at all. They’re bits of debris, as small as dust, that burn up from friction as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, leaving visible trails of light. Bigger pieces create awesome fireballs.

Those bits of debris are the remains of comets or asteroids, which scribe a regular pattern around our planet. That’s how astronomers know when to expect them: Whenever the remnant bits of the comet or asteroid come around again, presto, a meteor shower!

The Perseids are the top show every year. And if the sky is clear, and the moon is sleeping at the time of the shower so that it doesn’t outshine them, the falling stars can be phenomenal.

My first Colorado viewing of the Perseids was what brought my now-husband and I together.

We’d talked online for months but had never met in person. As the date of the Perseids approached, I remembered that he’d said, “The stars are spectacular here in the Foothills.”

Great excuse to meet in person.

I drove out from my home in the Midwest a day ahead of time, just to make sure he wasn’t some creep. (He wasn’t.)

The night of the Perseids peak, we dragged a couple of thick quilts out onto the metal roof of his cabin and positioned ourselves for viewing—”Ouch! My hipbone!” Once my eyes got used to the dark, I was gobsmacked. I’d forgotten what a “dark sky” is like. So filled with stars that it was tricky to find the usual constellations. “Wow! Look at Pegasus! It actually looks like a horse!”

And the Milky Way—I’d forgotten how stunning it is to see that river of infinite stars. “See Sagittarius down there, the one that looks like a teapot? The Milky Way is the steam coming out of the spout!” I laughed happily, posing my arms in the “I’m a little teapot” dance. Hey, if we were gonna be friends, it was only fair to let him know what a weirdo I am.

The constellation Sagittarius, low in the south these summer nights, is supposed to be an archer pulling back his bow. To me, it’s a teapot, with the Milky Way steaming out of its spout.

Before long, all chatter stopped because, “Oh, holy cow, there goes a shooting star!” And another, and another, and then just awestruck silence as the falling stars rained down.

It was magical. Even if we did both fall asleep, hours before the actual peak.

The peak this year—as many as 80 meteors an hour, which you might see anywhere in the sky—begins about 1 a.m. on August 13, so plan to stay up late the night of August 12.

And if it rains that night, keep looking up! Although you won’t see as many as on peak night, the stars will still be falling a week before and after.

My Perseid-watching companion and I got married a couple of years after that meteor shower. We’re older and creakier now, but not much else has changed. We still love seeing shooting stars. I still do the teapot dance. And we still fall asleep hours before the peak.



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