Every night, you can hope to see a shooting star every 10 to 15 minutesby Cal Flyn / January 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
The new year came in through a hail of celestial fireworks: the Quarantids, a short but intense meteor shower seen each January as our planet passes through the remnants of an extinct comet. On a good night, one might see a hundred or more shooting stars an hour, as flecks of rock flash through the atmosphere, burning up as they go—streaks of gold and green and electric blue.
This January the UK was perfectly situated to see the display at its height. The starbursts peaked at 3am in dark winter skies lit only by the faint silver sliver of a new moon. I was in the Highlands, far from artificial light, and got up in the wee hours to watch. But my plans were stymied by a blanket of cloud that drew in overhead, opening only rarely to offer glimpses of the heavens as if through windows.
Towards the end of the month, I was setting my alarm again. This time I was, inescapably, in Edinburgh. But the sky was frostbitten bright as I went to bed, and I calculated I could watch the eclipse of the supermoon from the front window—which I did, albeit through the sodium haze of streetlights, which gave it a dingy, inexact quality: a pale stripe giving way to a flat beige glow. I soon went back to bed.
Such is the way. For me, scheduled stargazing rarely works out. For every cosmic phenomenon I’ve “spotted” (northern lights pulsing above a frozen lake; a blood moon seen through a gauze of mist from a city skyscraper) there have been two or three disappointments: planetary alignments smothered by smog, or comets swishing by unseen behind an ill-placed mountain.
My most memorable, most transportive stargazing moments have taken place unplanned when (forgive me) the stars have aligned of their own accord. Sometimes I have stumbled cluelessly outside at just the right moment. A formative teenage party in a field comes to mind, punctuated by pyrotechnics I now know to be the Perseids. And a solar eclipse seen unwittingly from a ridge in the Rocky Mountains, which turned the midday sky twilight (and scared the bejesus out of me and my partner).
Other times there was no particular astronomic spectacle to see—only a cloudless sky and the right frame of mind. Every night, overhead, there are a thousand run-of-the-mill marvels. Look up, and find the firmament aglitter with ametrine stars. The Milky Way billowing a trail through the sky. The smooth, unstoppable sweep of satellites—manmade but no less incredible to me.
With a telescope you’ll see far more: great swirling nebulae, like that at Orion’s sword; or the star cluster that hangs like a shining bauble from the loincloth of Hercules. But I prefer the low-tech approach—the naked eye, the open heart, an appreciation for beauty in all its forms, whether you can identify it by name or not.
Every night (even normal, non-meteor-shower nights), when you look to the sky you can hope to see a shooting star every 10 to 15 minutes. They are always there. We just rarely take the time to watch for them. It takes patience: at least 20 minutes until your eyes adjust. So, settle down somewhere dark this month, and see how many you can spot.