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 double, and despite a waxing gibbous moon, I knew it was gonna be a great show once the moon set, just in time for the peak.
You know it’s a hyped up show when a commentator on WWE SmackDown is saying “more stars falling than a Perseid Meteor Shower” during one of their broadcasts.
For me, and the friends that went with me and camped out the night of the peak, a meteor shower is an all night deal. That meant getting there at my usual spot, Cottonwood Campground in Joshua Tree National Park, before sundown. For the next 8 or so hours, my diet was going to be campfire hotdogs and smores!
Whenever a popular meteor shower peaks, there are always people like me who go to the campsites out in the desert to view them. Sometimes I’ve camped out, other times I’ve simply driven out there in time for peak hours and left when the viewing party is too tired and has work the next morning.
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.
Before the Shower
City Folk: when is the shower?
Astronomer: the peak will usually be a couple hours before sunrise. You’ll see anywhere between 60-100 per hour!
City Folk: Where should I go see it?
Astronomer: Anywhere with a dark enough will do, if you stay in the city the lights will wash out most of them.
City Folk: Do you think I’ll see a few from my backyard?
Astronomer: Well, maybe one or two of the really bright ones.
City Folk: I think I’ll stay home. You’re nuts to go out and stay out that long.
After the Shower
City Folk: How was the shower?
Astronomer: Great! I saw a lot of them! How many did you see?
City Folk: I looked outside but I didn’t see any.
Astronomer: How long did you look?
City Folk: maybe 10-15 minutes?
Astronomer: At times we saw a few per minute where we were, you should have come out with us.
City Folk: yeah yeah, maybe next time.
Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
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.
The moon, Saturn, and Mars formed a close triangle that night, so it gave us some nice targets for the telescope while we were waiting for the moon to set. Because of the waxing gibbous moon, it washed out our view of the stars and the summer Milky Way, thus all we could see were the brighter meteors. Thankfully, on this particular night, there were many of the bright meteors to keep our interest during the wait. Several of them would make sounds, or explode high in the sky, causing the entire campsite to light up for a split second.
Once the moon set around 1 AM, the rest of the stars popped out, and we were treated to near pitch black skies. Despite the light pollution domes from the Coachella Valley to the west and Mexicalli to the south, the radial point of the shower (where the meteors appear to come out from) was opposite of that, so our view wasn’t bothered by city lights at all! The meteors started occurring even more, and were often followed by one or two bursts. 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.
After my parents left (in a separate car as they were not camping), and the rest of the viewing party started dozing off from exhaustion, I looked for a window to stop viewing and try to get some sleep.
Even when you are with people, when it’s just you awake and alone in the middle of the desert under a dark sky, it’s literally time spent that’s between just you, the heavens, and the cosmic force that’s responsible for you existing.
But the meteors kept falling and falling, and that window to fall asleep never came until the sun’s light washed them all out. Only then could I get some sleep before it was too warm outside, which wasn’t that long.
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.
I can handle groups of kids due to being an ice hockey coach, and was well prepared. As soon as the kids got out of the van, they instantly gravitated towards my telescope, and I was prepared to have a kiddie scope (a tiny one you can get from Toys R Us) on standby for them to play around with as much as they wanted while waiting for me to set up “the big scope.”
Many of them 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 the peak from 2015, 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! A year later, the men who were there that night still talk about it!
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 Leonid 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?!”