Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Stars Fall on Virginia

I'm happy to report that the Geminid meteor shower, as seen last night from Newport News's Virginia Living Museum, was a terrific success.  The weather cooperated splendidly, and four members of the Virginia Peninsula Astronomy Stargazers ( joined Museum staff and volunteers plus several dozen "members of the public" for an evening of stargazing thru both the Museums' 16-inch reflector and our own, personal telescopes.

After Friday night was clouded-out (although I could see a few, brighter stars thru the milky mess of the sky, I gave up after a few hours and caught up on some sleep instead) I must admit to having doubts about Saturday night's prospects.  All day the sun was playing tag with ominous banks of stratus cloud and thru the gaps in that cover one could see thick cirrus high above.  I even went so far as to downgrade my planned equipage for the evening; instead of one of the larger (and heavier) telescopes in my "observatory" I instead broke-out my little "go-scope", a Celestron 80mm short-tube refractor on a table-top EQ-1 mounting, and loaded it into the passenger seat of my Hyundai for the
short trip to the dome.

As I arrived at the VLM a half-hour prior to sunset there seemed little sign of improvement, and even for the first hour or so on the observatory deck the view wasn't promising.  At about 1830, however, the temperature dropped abruptly to near-freezing and the cloud cover seemed to evaporate, leaving crisp, steady air and sharp, pinpoint star images thru the eyepiece.

My choice of the 80mm refractor proved fortuitous; with four 'scopes on deck (in addition to the 16-inch SCT) we had a nice mix with an 8-inch SCT, a 4.4-inch Newtonian, and two refractors, one a 120mm and the other my smaller model.  In fact, the 80mm was the smallest telescope there; its small size combined with its low and accessible height usually make it the telescope that kids gather around.  I had a great time showing-off the Pleiades, double star Albireo and the Double Cluster in Perseus to all comers--and "pushing" the stars & joy of amateur astronomy!

All the time as the evening wore on, we kept a weather eye out for "shooting stars", both Geminids (identifiable by their apparent origin in Gemini, which at the time lay low in the eastern sky) and 'sporadics', those random, non-shower-related streaks of light to be seen on any night of the year. What began as the occasional  bright, slow moving meteor soon after sunset developed into clusters of two or more, following the same track as they "burned" across the sky, until by 2200 they could be seen whenever one looked up for more than a minute.

At about 2230 the party broke up, with the other VPAS members heading for the club's usual observing location to continue the meteor watch while I loaded up the buggy and drove the three miles back to our little white house near the park.  But my night wasn't over.

While water boiled I set out my equipment to air before stowage, and then I carried a large mug of mint tea (quietly so as not to disturb either sleeping wife or snoring bulldog) out to the backyard.  There, with the sounds of a city at night muted by distance and the trees that surround our little property, I leaned back on the porch swing to watch the barrage continue silently far overhead as the breeze tumbled dry leaves across the lawn.

All in all, a very good night.  Sharing the skies with friends old and new, spreading the "gospel" of astronomy to children with stars shining in their eyes, and watching cometary debris silently flaring in the upper atmosphere with a cup of hot tea at hand and a warm bed awaiting.

It just doesn't get much better than that.

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