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When meteors are stars

Perseid meteor shower 2014 - Copy.jpg
Not a big sky gazer. Not one of those people keen to boldly go where no man has gone before. But when promised that this year's Perseid meteor shower would be particularly impressive, and when the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority invited people into the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve until midnight last night, with telescopes and naturalists on hand, your correspondent and 404 other people accepted.

We boldly hiked a dark mile along the rutted road illuminated only by the flashlights and headlamps of people who had remembered to change their batteries, your correspondent not among them.

Although the San Fernando Valley glowed endlessly eastward, we climbed a hill to escape enough light pollution that our somewhat starry night would be dappled with the dust that defined the meteor shower in the northern sky along a trajectory roughly emanating from the constellation Perseus, hence the name.

The MRCA has held this event for several years, thanks to the regularity of the sky show -- every mid-August the Earth moves through this stream of meteoroids provided by remnants of the Swift-Tuttle comet. Last year, according to MRCA Naturalist Andy Bleckinger, about 170 people showed up to mostly disappointing results, because the moon had insisted on shining brightly that night. This year, Bleckinger said, had all the hallmarks of a fabulous display: high air pressure, hot, dry temperatures and a no-show moon "should clear out the particulates."

The crowd was a mix of generations and cultures. Your correspondent followed the iPhone light up the road behind three young women speaking Mandarin. They wore open-toed sandals and didn't trip once. Another guy along the trail pointed out constellations to his young companion: "There's Ursa Major. [He probably went to private school]. There's the Southern Cross."

Even your correspondent, who can identify only two constellations (Big Dipper [she went to public school] and Orion) knew he was not a reliable celestial witness.

At the top of the hill, Carolyn Everhart, another MRCA naturalist, directed people to the laptop displaying the actual constellations visible from our vantage, and to the telescopes trained on Saturn and Alberio, a bright star in the constellation Cygnus. Your correspondent can confirm that Saturn still wears a ring. She couldn't see Alberio, nor could she tell that the second star in the Big Dipper's handle was actually two. Everhart suggested a visit to the ophthalmologist.

Throughout the night, Everhart walked among people lying on blankets, their eyes trained on the heavens. She told stories about Cassiopeia, that vain bitch (your correspondent is paraphrasing) and her unfortunate daughter, Andromeda. Everhart explained that the stars in the dipper's handle represent the Native American hunters and trackers in search of the ever elusive bear they managed only to wound, and whose dripping blood is responsible for turning autumn leaves their sanguine color. Why in the world some people were paying more attention to their smartphones than to Everhart is a deeper mystery to your correspondent than galactic ursine endurance.

Everhart's stories, illustrated with a laser pointer, were wonderful narration to an otherwise ... how to put this ... subtle celestial performance. Although the meteors weren't supposed to peak until about 1 a.m., there still wasn't much action shortly before midnight -- the notion of "shower" is decidedly different from that connotation with rain. (You remember rain, right?)

In fact, unless you're in the middle of nowhere, where the sky is as black as the inside of a cow, you're not going to see "showers" of meteors, even in peak conditions. The sky is not the Earth, it's a whole lot bigger, and the bits of primordial matter that become meteors typically are not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. If you're lucky, as Bleckinger noted, you'll see a corn-kernel size contribution appearing as a fireball -- it makes a louder statement upon entering our atmosphere, with a larger, longer-lasting glow sometimes featuring a multicolored tail.

Your correspondent was not so lucky, but did manage to spot four or five bright, streaky sky racers in about an hour and half of neck-craning. She probably would have seen more had she not been gazing downward so much after Everhart told someone that although rattlesnakes are not a concern, scorpions do come out at night, and she had just seen one.

"But none of our Santa Monica Mountain scorpions are dangerous," she added, cleverly wielding her laser pointer to the constellation Scorpius, menacingly stretched across the vast southern sky.

A guy asked Bleckinger what the difference was between a meteor and a shooting star, which he sees frequently. If you're somewhere dark and you're somewhat patient, Bleckinger said, you can see meteors almost any time, because they're just another name for shooting stars. You know, like ursa is just another name for bear?

In fact, Bleckinger said, you can find meteorites fairly easily with a metal detector if you're in the right place. A meteorite is a meteor that has found its way to Earth intact. Usually small, metallic meteorites are 93% iron, with a little nickel and some fairy dust (your correspondent is paraphrasing) mixed in. The California and Arizona deserts are prime hunting ground for meteorites because vegetation doesn't hide them.

Maybe one day your correspondent will find a meteorite boldly hiking in a place where scorpions are dangerous. But maybe she wouldn't want to. There's something magical about watching the heavens sling its debris around its own 'hood. And knowing that as small as you might feel against the vastness of space, even a dust spec traveling 37 miles per second, 70 miles above your head makes an indelible impression.

Photo: NASA


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