If you missed this year’s excellent Perseid meteor shower, take heart. There’s always next time. Such events repeat themselves yearly. Next August, your planet will again plunge through the same cloud of cometary debris, and different hunks of tiny detritus will burn up and leave in their wake brief, but brilliant, streaks of light.
I observed this year from Ohio’s newest observatory, the John Glenn Astronomy Park. As the night wore on, the number of meteors steadily increased. By the peak hours before morning twilight, between 2:45 and 5:45 a.m., I observed 170 meteors, only about two-thirds of which came from the debris cloud that causes the Perseids. At least 25 meteors were caused by stray hunks of debris called sporadic meteors.
In that regard, any moonless night is a good night to look for meteors. Even on non-meteor-shower nights, you’ll see 5 – 10 “sporadics” every hour if you are observing beneath a dark, rural sky. In that case, the meteors are a pleasant diversion from a far grander and more profound experience, as we shall see.
That night, as the number of meteors increased, the number of people looking at them decreased as folks headed for difficult Monday mornings after a night with little sleep. However, retired astronerd that I am, even as the sky approached morning twilight, I couldn’t tear myself away.
The simple truth is that you can stay a few hours, see a few meteors, and leave early and quite satisfied. Or you can stay the night and experience, directly and profoundly, the texture of the universe.
You can take a brief cosmic vacation — out past the blinding streetlights of the city to a place where the stars still shine with awe-inspiring abundance. Board the “spacecraft of your imagination,” as Carl Sagan put it, and journey to the Milky Way and beyond.
You don’t have far to go. You’re already in it. The Earth, the sun, all the stars you see, and you are part of the disk-shaped collection of three hundred billion stars in our galaxy. You can start, as we all did that night, exploring your own backyard, the environs of our planet and its home star, the sun. It was (and is for the next few weeks), a great opportunity to do so.
The journey begins with four naked-eye planets. Brilliant Venus is setting in the west as reddish Mars rises in the east. In between, Jupiter sits near the oddly named star Zubenelgenubi in Libra, and Mars floats above the lid of teapot-shaped constellation Sagittarius.
And then you can begin to explore your immense galactic neighborhood. Because we live out on the edge of the Milky Way, we see it around midnight right now as a streak of silvery light that stretches all the way across the sky from the south to the northeast. Its hazy nature is, of course, an illusion based on the inability of your eyes to see. A simple pair of binoculars breaks up any part of it into innumerable stars.
Along the southern horizon, our galaxy bulges out at its center in the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. Here, binoculars or a small telescope will reveal the fuzzy patches that are dense clusters of stars and the giant clouds of glowing hydrogen from which those star clusters are born.
Almost straight overhead is the cross-shaped constellation Cygnus, the Swan. Sweep through this region with binoculars and you will see uncountable stars.
Next, scan with just your eyes in the region between Sagittarius and Cygnus. A jet-black swath, the Great Rift, cuts the Milky Way in half lengthwise. You are seeing (or, rather, not seeing) the dark clouds of dust and gas that will eventually be the raw materials for new stars and planets in eons yet unborn.
To the northeast, look for the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia and the great hero Perseus as he rises. Here you will see dozens of star clusters in binoculars or a telescope.
And to the right in the constellation Andromeda, just outside of the Milky Way’s glow in Cassiopeia, look for a small, cigar-shaped patch of light. It is the Andromeda Galaxy, much like our own, seen at a distance of 2.5 million light years.
If I had bothered to get up and moved a few feet to the telescope, I could have observed a hundred, a thousand, of the millions of galaxies visible in it. I could have measured out a billion light years and have seen a billion years into the past.
But the 2.5 million light years of nothingness between Andromeda and us was emptiness enough for my heart that night, almost more than my soul could take.
Here then is the texture of your universe — a vast darkness dotted almost forlornly with tiny collections of 300 billion stars each. And within those galaxies, vast, incomprehensible distances separate the stars from each other. And enfolding me that night was one of those galaxies. I felt a part of the Milky Way, which, come to think of it, I am, as are you, gentle reader.
Your star, the sun, your planet Earth, every rock, every tree, every hair on your head, every cell of your body, every thought, every whisper of glory, every personal triumph, every abject failure is part of the Milky Way, which in turn is part of the more general universe.
We all share in its substance, but we also share in the emptiness, the vast and glorious darkness, that enfolded me like a warm blanket that night.
Granted, my ultimate destination was a warm bed and much-needed rest. But I took the long way home, around the Milky Way, across the universe. It is a journey — a vacation from want and care — that I have taken many times but never tire of. I deeply wish for you, gentle reader, that just once in your life, you experience the quiet joy of such a journey.
During the long drive home, I contemplated the fate of meteors. They flash briefly across the firmament, some bright and some faint. Most of them go unnoticed because no one happens to be staring into darkness or in their direction as they make their mark.
Humans have much in common with those meteors. Some leave brilliant vapor trails that shine for a moment or two before they are gone. Most of us shine but dimly or go unnoticed because no one in particular is looking in our direction. Then we too are gone.
But for that moment, we share in and, in our own small way, add to the glory of our Milky Way and the greater universe that surrounds it. We may depart, but the universe endures. And that, gentle reader, ought to be enough.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.