Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Adventures in Hedonism - The Lyrids

Chalk it up to boyhood fantasies of being an astronaut, or simply that desire to sit in awe of nature, but I have a love of astronomical events - eclipses, comets, the movement of the plants - all of it fascinates me. Early in the year I added a number of events to my calendar to make sure I wouldn't miss them. I paid particular attention to the meteor showers. The Lyrids come every year between April 16 - 26 usually peaking on the 22nd. This year we managed to find a place in Joshua Tree during the peak. High desert, clear skies, a perfect place to watch the shower unfold.

Well, despite the facebook claims that this would be the "rarest of events" and that "thousands" of meteors could be seen, I knew enough to consult some actual astronomy sites to understand what might actually be in store. Yes this is one of the main annual meteor shower events, but the moon was approaching full and would be spending a fair amount of time in the sky durring the peak event. That moonlight alone could wash out many of the fainter events.

Living in the city with so much other competing light pollution it's hard to conceive of how much light an almost full moon can produce. On our first evening, stepping out in to the night it was amazing to see how much detail you could see once your eyes adjusted - the boulders, the cactus, the Joshua Trees, the lone dirt road riding along the valley floor. But looking skyward, Jupiter, Saturn, some of the major constellations - an absence of the star field I had hoped to see. I probably spent at least an hour hoping that some significant meteor would streak through bright enough to compete with the moon.

Alas, I saw nothing, but I knew that might be the case with the moon as it was. There was still a chance after moonset. So I set my alarm and got a little sleep in the meantime. 4:30 is never a comfortable time to get up for me, despite doing it for work on a near regular basis. But I got up before dawn and looked up at the most magnificent sky. The Milky Way stretched out across my view and I could see the earth riding the sun along the edge of the galaxy. A multitude of constellations who's names I don't know made it difficult to finally locate Lyra - the focal point of this shower and the brilliant star Vega pointing the way.

I let an hour pass, and then the first glow of dawn started to peak from behind the mountains. Slowly the pink and orange glow started to erase the star field as once plentiful constellations started to fade into the sky leaving only Saturn and the brightest stars. I didn't see one meteor - and having read the astronomy sites, I knew that was a possibility. As predictable as these showers can be, whatever you see is couched in so many variables that it's impossible to predict what minute particles left over from passing comet's tail might actually strike the earth's atmosphere and leave a trail to make a wish on.

There are still a few days left in which to see some meteors fall.

I will keep watching.

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