I was destined to be a sky watcher. My birthday falls on the same day as the Perseid meteor shower that begins usually around August 10-12 each year. I learned this fact sometime around the age of ten and began celebrating my birthday by dragging lawn furniture or a blanket outside and watching for falling stars until the early morning hours. I’m about to celebrate my 66th birthday so I have been doing this for about 55 years. The Perseids are probably the best meteor shower for the entire year and they are somewhat forgiving. If it is cloudy on one night you can usually pick it up the next night. Sometimes I’m forced to do my sky watching a day early or a day late but that’s fine with me.
I’ve seen hundreds of meteors over the years. I’m skeptical when I hear an expert say that meteors are only the size of a grain of sand. Maybe that is true, statistically speaking. I’m sure there are thousands that we can’t see because they flare out in an instant and are forty or sixty miles up. The meteors that shoot halfway across the sky must be larger. I’ve seen green and yellow and blue meteors. I’ve seen them come in as a pair, flying parallel to each other. I’ve seen some break apart with flaming fragments veering off in different directions.
On my fiftieth birthday I was on a vacation trip up along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. There were two families travelling together and we were staying at Saugatuck that night. My buddy and I went out to watch the meteor shower on a bluff overlooking the lake. Being on the shore of Lake Michigan, there was very little glare from city lights. It was a pretty good show for my birthday that year.
Where I live now, in the high desert, the night sky is almost alive. The air is thin at 5,800 feet and there is very little humidity to cause any haze or glare. On most nights the Milky Way is a bright band across the sky. There is an Air Force base and a busy airport about twenty miles away. There is almost always something to watch. There is something called an Iridium Flare that is very unusual but also predictable. This happens when sunlight reflects off the shiny surface of an Iridium communications satellite and for an instant, maybe a couple seconds, there is a flash in the sky that is brighter than anything else in the night sky. There are over 60 Iridium satellites in orbit so these flares happen a few times each night and there are tables and schedules on the internet to predict when one will be visible from any specific location. The reflected light is like someone shining a flashlight on to the surface of the darkened earth and if the observer is hit by the circle of light there will be a bright flare. It is startling the first time you see one. It’s really cool.
Not too long after I moved here I saw a notice that the local astronomy club was going to hold a star party. The members of the club would bring their telescopes to a local park and set them up so people could see different objects in the sky. They had a good turnout of amateur astronomers with telescopes and general public just wanting to see what they could see. There were many families with their kids – which was really great. The conditions were not ideal because of the bright 1st quarter moon and the closer proximity to the Albuquerque city lights. We were able to see quite a lot and it was an interesting and informative evening.
Only the last few of the following pictures are mine. There wasn’t any way to photograph what we were seeing but what follows is an example of what we saw. The telescopes were of every description and size…but still portable and limited in what they could show. Some had video screens so you could look at the screen to see what the telescope was viewing.
Lunar landing sites — One telescope with a video screen produced a great image of the moon and the astronomer would take folks on a short tour of the Apollo lunar landing sites.
Andromeda Galaxy — Kids were excited to see this. The image was fuzzier than I expected but very cool to see.
There were several telescopes aimed at star clusters. This one is a double cluster.
The Dumbbell Nebula — This was cool. The telescope had a video screen that showed the image but you could look at it directly through the eye-piece as well. I never heard of the Dumbbell Nebula but the name is very descriptive.
I was most excited about seeing Neptune and Uranus.
Neptune was discernible as a sphere — maybe due to the power of the telescope. It was this same milky blue color. It was much smaller than this image.
Uranus is the farthest known planet in our solar system…way out beyond Pluto, now. The image we saw through the telescope was a small blue dot. It wasn’t recognizable as a planet…just a bluish star….much, much smaller than the image but the color is about right.
The evening experience inspired me to get out my old telescope that I got when I was a kid. Saturn, Mars and Jupiter are visible as I write this. The Moon is always interesting as well. We have had a couple “super moons” this summer and I enjoy watching the moon come up over the Sandia mountains.