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Long ago and far away

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After the horizon hills swallowed the sun last night, I sat on my back porch and watched the stars come out. I can't remember the last time I did that, but it had been long enough that the map of constellations I once had in my head had gone kerplooey.

When Sherry got home a little after 9:30, I went in. A couple of hours later, I let our dogs out and looked up. Even in the glare of the floodlights behind my house, I could see it was a good sky: clear and dark. So I let the dogs back in, turned off the floodlights, sat down in a patio chair and tilted my head skyward.

Once my eyes grew used to the dark, I could see the Milky Way wending across the sky. I spotted some old friends: Vega and Polaris, Cassiopeia and Cygnus, to name just a few. The real reason I was outdoors under the dark sky, though, was to look for Perseids meteors.


The annual Perseids meteor shower is the most well-known display, for a few reasons. First, it's reliable. Second, the shooting stars flash frequently. Third, August usually has good weather for stargazing. And fourth, you don't need any special equipment to view the meteors. Your unaided eyes work just fine. In fact, you don't need to know anything about astronomy at all. All you need to do is find a comfortable seat and scan the sky. You'll see them.

The Perseids are best seen after midnight on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12, but the shower gradually builds toward those peaks, so seeing a Perseids meteor on the night of Aug. 7 wasn't an outlandish idea at all. In fact, I saw five of them. I knew they were Perseids because when I traced their paths backward, the lines merged near the constellation Perseus, for whom the shower is named.

We used to have a tremendous night sky out here on the road where I live. There were no street lights, so the sky was darker and deeper. But many years ago, someone broke into a neighborhood house. Turns out the someone knew the house layout because he knew the house owners and visited there frequently, but the neighborhood came down with a case of the vapours, and the next thing I knew people were petitioning the Town Board to make a deal with the electric company for streetlights. Now, there's one about 40 yards from my house, and it shines into my back yard, and the light from another one across the street smudges my view of the north sky. And another one maybe 70 yards away smears light across the southeast sky. Did they ruin the view? No. It's not like I'm living in Manhattan. But still, I have to hunker down in a small, specific spot in my yard to evade the lights' glare.

I was looking for the Great Square of Pegasus last night and was having a tough time arranging the stars to find it when wham! There it was. My eyes found the stars at the square's corners. From there, I looked to the lower left corner to see Andromeda sprawling northward, her head resting on the bottom left corner of the square.

Then I began to look closely for the most distant object we can see with the naked eye: the Andromeda galaxy, 2.3 million light years away.

The different distances of stars is something I can't wrap my head around. The starlight I see originated from different stars at different times, sometimes differences of hundreds or thousands of years. Maybe one of those stars exploded into a supernova a thousand years ago. We don't know because the light hasn't reached us yet.

Andromeda blows my mind. The galaxy can't be seen by looking directly at it; instead, if you look off to the side a little bit, it shows up as a small blur at the corner of your eye. Here's where things get awesome in the true sense of the word: The light that makes up that little blur is 2.3 million years old. How long ago was that? Humans had not yet evolved from primates.

I forgot exactly where to look for the galaxy, though. I thought I had found it, but when I checked my astronomy book this morning, I saw I had been looking in the wrong place. But the Andromeda galaxy isn't going anywhere. I'll be back for another look and for the feeling of wonder the night sky provides.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
nodressrehersal
Aug. 9th, 2013 01:28 am (UTC)
Wow, so vividly described that while sitting here at my desk listening to the crickets outside the window, I can almost feel that night sky overhead.

And thanks for the reminder about Perseid - it's always fun to try and catch a glimpse of some shooting stars.
patrick_vecchio
Aug. 9th, 2013 02:20 am (UTC)
I love listening to crickets at night.

This year for the Perseids, I'm going to try—try—to get out of bed at 2 a.m. and drive out to a big sky on a dark country road and see what's to be seen. With my luck, I'll wind up parking in front of a meth lab and will get all torn up by pit bulls.
nodressrehersal
Aug. 9th, 2013 01:14 pm (UTC)
Well I would hope that, armed with this knowledge of the potential hazards well in advance, you could keep a wary eye out for the pit bulls guarding the meth lab and steer clear.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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