I’ve always been fascinated by the stars. They represent such a vast amount of knowledge and unknown, it’s hard not to be. I bought a telescope when my daughter was young just to marvel at their existence. After months of sitting in the closet we finally took it out of the box and put it together. It was such a chore to try to decipher the dark sky’s majestic code we gave up. Nothing looked like it should, except the ‘Macy’s’ red sign we could see miles away, at the Tucson Mall. Upside down! We didn’t realize our scope flipped everything.
I later decided to take classes through Pima Community College in order to understand the night sky and explain it to my little girl. The class met weekly at the end of Tanque Verde, where the sky was filled with stars unseen in most neighborhoods due to the ambient light they produced.
I have to confess, what seemed so logical with the instructor became vague and unclear when I tried to show off the constellations at home. Forgive me, but a slightly skewed box with stars off three corners just doesn’t yell horse to me! And trying to pick them out of all the others stars became a guessing match. Really, were the original navigators who labelled the stars above us drunk when they saw a warrior, or scorpion, or bull? Because there’s no way they did that in their right minds. There are only a few clear cut arrays like the Big Dipper or the 7 sisters (the Pleiades). And they may say the North Star is the brightest in the sky, but at my house they all look pretty darn bright!
When I asked Siri,
“How many stars are in the sky?”
“There are 10 to the 24th power stars in the sky.”
Think about that. 100 billion is only 10 to the 12th power!
So when I look above me I’m reminded how small and insignificant we really are. That we’re only here for a brief flash in the scheme of things. There are billions upon billions of stars and galaxies and we can only see a small, limited portion. The idea that by the time the light of far off stars reaches my eyes, some may have already ceased to exist makes me ponder how they or we fit into the bigger picture. We may never find out, but how we live, what our lives stand for, is all we can hope to impact in the short run. That’s what I take away each night. That and their beauty and breadth as well as comfort in knowing they’ll always be there. No matter how the night skies change and evolve I derive solace in the fact they are still a constant in our brief moments of existence on earth.
I remember glancing through the paper in 2001 and happened to read that the Leonid showers were coming. Every 33 years it’s expected to produce phenomenal numbers of meteors, averaging 1 every few seconds at its peak. A firework display unlike anything seen on Earth. This would be one of those years. I was amazed, since truth be told I’d never seen a shooting star in real life. Because it was due to happen on an early Sunday morning in late November, I thought it’d be a wonderful way for my daughter and I to finally experience the stars. A celestial show, what could be more incredible?
I put her to bed knowing I’d awaken her to a surprise in a few hours.
It was chilly that night so I bundled up and sat on a lawn chair at midnight filled with anticipation. Nothing happened.
Two hours later I feared I just didn’t understand what a shooting star was. Maybe they were all around me and I just didn’t know it. Crazy? Maybe. But clearly I wasn’t seeing the the other worldly festival as touted.
By 2 AM I thought I finally saw one. A brilliant path of lights sparkling through the sky and ending at the horizon. I was hooked. Fifteen minutes later there was another one! I hoped this wasn’t all there was to see but even so it was worth the interminable wait.
Then, at 3 AM, something changed. Now the soaring lights were sizzling across the sky every few minutes. It was incredible.
It was time to wake my sleeping princess and enlighten her to the ongoing activities outside. Half awake and still under sleep’s trance, she thought it was a dream. Mommy bundling her up and marching her outside into the cold night air. But as we laid in the grass gazing up at the wonders above us, her brain caught up to the reality. We didn’t need a telescope, binoculars, or a high mountain to have a “star gazing” party. The spectacle was dazzling, throwing shafts of dizzying amounts of lights every few seconds. It was impossible to catch them all as they lit up the night sky.
For an hour we cuddled together in our blankets and didn’t say a word. Just stared in awe at the wonders around us, sharing a moment we’d never forget. Staring into the dark night we felt a part of something bigger than ourselves. Something magnificent and ethereal. We both went to bed a little bit lighter, a little bit happier, feeling a little bit closer to the cosmos, knowing that for that brief time all was right with the world. For a magical moment the stars aligned and everything necessary came together perfectly to allow a little slice of the heavens to be seen.
I may never know enough to navigate the impressive array of stars but I learned something else. Holding my baby in my arms, watching the spectacular show above us brought us closer together and would be a memory we’d cherish forever.
Meteor showers are named for the constellation where the meteors appear to be coming from. So, for example, the Orionids Meteor Shower, which occurs in October each year, appear to be originating near the constellation Orion the Hunter.
Here are dates of major meteor showers. Peak viewing times will vary by a day or two each year. Keep in mind: If the moon is full or near full, you may not see many meteors. Some years are better than others for numbers of meteors per hour.
- Quadrantids: December/January
- Lyrids: April
- Perseids: August
- Orionids: October
- Leonids: November
- Geminids: December
For more information, visit: NASA Solar System Exploration