Why Astronomy Provides Essential Vitamin Q

A -8 magnitude Leonid fireball captured by one of John Chumack’s video cameras at his home in Dayton, Ohio. Click to see a video of all his captures. Credit: John Chumack

By all accounts it was a slow year for the Leonid meteor shower. I almost feel like apologizing for promoting it, but as often happens in astronomy, you don’t know until you go out and see for yourself. Had the shower been unexpectedly spectacular and you passed on it, you’d feel disappointed, right?

This sleep thing is overrated. If only we could stay up and stare at the sky with unblinking eyes like John Chumack’s low-light video setup. He ran his cameras from the evening of Nov. 16th through the 19th and recorded 84 meteors. Most people who’ve e-mailed me saw one or two at most.

I spent some time this morning waiting for some action from that strand of comet debris forecast to give us a second Leonid maximum, but none showed during my brief vigil. Don’t lose hope. More meteors are on the way. The next shower, the Geminids, have been very productive in recent years, even besting the summer Perseids. Stay tuned for that maximum forecast for Dec. 13-14.

Yesterday I had my oil changed and tires rotated over at Larry’s place. We talked for a while about deer hunting. He’s the animal hunter, I’m the star hunter. Larry didn’t get a deer this year but found equal or greater pleasure in the solitude of the forest as he waited in his stand. He noticed little things like how much sound a bird makes foraging for food or fluttering from tree to tree.

“You wouldn’t normally go into the woods to listen to the quiet or pay attention to a bird flying,” he said, but hunting gave him the occasion or at least the excuse to do so. That’s how it is with observing the night sky, I told him. Many of us have so many other commitments that we unknowingly push aside things we don’t even know we need. Quiet is one of them.

The Milky Way (left) with Orion and Jupiter (top) on Sunday night from north of Duluth. Details: 15mm f/2.8, 25-seconds, ISO 2500. Photo: Bob King

I’m a pretty purposeful amateur astronomer and get a lot of pleasure digging in the dark with my scope, but this past Sunday night, under the clearest sky in weeks, I walked away from the telescope, sat down and looked up. A light breeze sifted through the fir trees, water gurgled from a distant river, but mostly there was silence. I’d forgotten how much I needed the quiet. It’s such a rare commodity. Tasting it felt like that first gulp of cold water down the throat when you’re dying of thirst.

There are sights too – the eternal stars, the vastness of space hinted at by the band of the Milky Way, the brilliance of Jupiter. All of them provide sustenance, a vitamin “Q” (for quietude) to strengthen both resolve and inner peace. We may go out to hunt with prey on our minds, but return home sustained by the intangibles.

You’ll need some of that resolve if you’re planning on getting up in the wee hours to watch the International Space Station. It continues making great passes this coming week. The times listed below are for the Duluth, Minn. region. Click over to Heavens-Above, Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys or sign up for free e-mail or phone alerts at NASA’s Spot the Station site to get pass times for your town.

* Weds. morning Nov. 21 beginning at 6:22 a.m. across the northern sky
* Thurs. Nov. 22 at 5:34 a.m First appears out of Earth’s shadow below the North Star and moves east.
* Fri. Nov. 23 at 6:19 a.m. across the north
* Sat. Nov. 24 at 5:31 a.m. Like Thurs., the ISS suddenly appears below Polaris and continues east.
* Sun. Nov. 25 at 6:16 a.m. Crosses nearly overhead reaching magnitude -3.1. Brilliant!

2 Responses

  1. One 25-second exposure! That makes one crazy-wonderful photo. Amazing how many stars a good photographer can catch with ISO 2500 and a clear night sky (and a good tripod and knowing what to do. It’s been wonderful watching Orion throw his legs up over the horizon in the late evening the past few weeks. Being low on the horizon makes Orion seem like a giant.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Bob,
      Thanks. I feel the same. Can’t get enough of Orion when he first comes up. There are few such distinctive constellations that make such a grand entrance when they rise.

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