This was the day Orion Bear Astronomy semi-officially began.
August 11-12 is usually the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower
The 2016 shower was predicted to be an outburst shower, and despite a waxing gibbous moon, I knew it was gonna be a great show once the moon set, just in time for peak hours.
For myself and the friends that went with me, a meteor shower is an all night deal. That meant getting there at my usual spot in Joshua Tree National Park, before sundown. For the next 8 or so hours, my diet was going to be campfire hotdogs and smores!
It doesn’t matter how much I try to hype up such a shower, few people want to take the trip out, even for just a few hours. Most would rather stay in their light polluted back yard and hope to see ONE meteor, only to hear about how many we saw out in the desert, and then wish they came out with us.
Since this shower was predicted to be double, that meant more people were eager to make the trip, and the entire campsite was FULL! I wasn’t the only party with a telescope, there were many other groups with various equipment. For that night, the Cottonwood Campground was a city of astronomers.
And it wasn’t just astronomers, various campers were there too to catch this shower, and many saw my telescope and assumed I was a professional, and asked me a lot of questions. “What time is this shower going to happen?” “why is the shower happening?” “Why does a comet not lose any mass when it ejects stuff?” One person asked all those questions, but inserted many expletives every other word in the sentences.
Right as the sun went down, the show started as we were treated to several low “earth-grazing” meteors that streaked across the sky. The meteors didn’t stop until sunrise! As the shower progressed, the entire campsite was filled with cheers and awes from the excited audience, and the background noise stayed persistent throughout the night.
Even though the waxing gibbous moon washed out the Summer Milky Way and most of the fainter meteors, there were many bright meteors that kept streaking by as we waited for the moon to set. Once the moon set around 1 AM, the rest of the stars popped out, and we were treated to near pitch black skies. The meteors started occurring even more, and were often followed by one or two bursts. Many meteors were super bright and you could hear a pop sound as they exploded in the sky! Surely enough, by the time the actual peak occurred, we had seen hundreds streak across the sky; during the peak we saw nearly 200 per hour! My 68 year old father, whose birthday happens to be August 11, said it was the best Perseid shower he’d ever seen.
Now, the story would usually end by this point, BUT not for us. You see, we had another group of adults bringing a group of boy scouts ages 6-8 to watch the shower THE NEXT NIGHT!
The actual peak was on a Thursday night, but the boy scout group couldn’t make it out the next night, so we said “okay great, we’ll just stay out an extra night, and you can come watch on Friday night.”
Sure, I was riding on zero sleep and was getting ever more crankier, but I didn’t care, this was what I loved doing.
After patiently waiting for the hot day in the desert to pass for the night time activities to begin, it was time for the encore presentation of the 2016 Perseids, this time with a bigger audience.
Most of the children had never viewed the moon or any of the planets through my telescope, so I was more than happy to assist and make it happen.
The boys were eager to learn astronomy, but they were also there to be boys and have a good time. One thing they were obsessed with was finding scorpions. Thankfully I happened to have a UV pen/flashlight and we were able to spot one. For the rest of the night, the adults had to make sure that they weren’t getting anywhere near the kids while they slept under the stars.
The shower on the night after the peak was predictably not as spectacular. However, to me, it resembled a “normal Perseid Shower,” so it was still a very good showing, enough to impress the people who came out. I actually had low expectations knowing it was past the peak, but was still impressed. The kids enjoyed it too, and many of them stayed awake until the sun started drowning out the meteors.
During the peak hours, with all the kids who were watching, we tried setting a record for how many we could see within a minute, and the highest we got was 11.
Right as this picture was taken, which was when the shower was coming to a close, we all happened to be looking towards Orion as it was rising, and the best I can describe was a bright meteor that streaked from the zenith all the way down in front of Orion. It left a huge trail, AND exploded! To this day, those who were there still talk about that meteor!
If only I happened to have a camera taking a picture in that direction.
It was surely an experience that won’t be duplicated. After 48 hours of no sleep in the middle of the hot desert, had there been another big celestial event happening the next night, I would have done it all over again in a heartbeat!
The only thing that will top the 2016 Perseids will be either an outburst of near 500 meteors per hour, or the next meteor storm… whenever that will be!
But the impact it had on the people who watched it remained, and to this day they will ask me “so when’s the next big shower?!”