hello, darkness, my old friend…

(Sorry for the earworm.)

It starts like it always does: as sunset turns into dusk, my eye immediately goes to the Big Dipper. I cringe inside every time it happens, because it isn’t even a constellation, it’s an asterism.

Regardless, there it is, as it always is, as it always has been for as far back as I can remember: plain, straightforward and bright, even in heavily light-polluted areas. The two stars that make the front of the “cup” form a line — if you follow that line up about four more lengths, you arrive at Polaris, the “North Star”, so named because it is almost directly over our North Pole, and it stays in (roughly) the same spot all night. All other stars from our perspective appear to rotate around this point in space.

Actually, it is we who spin. The stars don’t really move at all.

Polaris begins the handle of the Little Dipper. It is very faint, and in most civilized areas, it is usually blocked by street or moon light. Which is why, on this gorgeous, cool Monday night, I’m out in the middle of the Arapahoe National Forest, staring up at the night sky and watching old friends re-appear before me.

It’s hell on my back, but I enjoy putting on headphones and dancing under the night sky, with my head craned back and my eyes pointed almost straight up. (It makes me miss being in a band.) Seeing Polaris isn’t such a big deal — it’s a medium-brightness star — but seeing the rest of the Little Dipper tells me that things are good and dark where I’m standing.

Polaris is 434 light years away. When you look up at Polaris, the light that is actually burying itself in the backs of your eyeballs left that star 434 years ago — the population of China was only 60 million when that light left its originating star. And it travelled all those millions of miles (168,000 miles per second, or a mind-bogglingly big number like 5.87849981 × 1012 miles for the full-light year — times 434). IT CAME ALL THAT WAY JUST TO FALL INTO YOUR EYES, in all that time, all that distance, it brings a single bright message of heat and friction, of eons and fantastic distance.

Similarly, just to each side of you, there are other light particles that have also come all that way with the same distant message, simply to fall into the ground.

This may seem to be a profligate, wanton expenditure of energy, but 434 light years isn’t really all that far in an astronomical sense. The edge of the observable universe is some 46-ish BILLION light years away. The earth is only 4.5 billion years old, which means that light that reaches us from that distance left 40 billion years BEFORE the earth even bubbled into existence.

As I drink it in, out pops the Milky Way, our home galaxy. It comes up as two vaguely potato shaped blobs for me, and my heart sinks a little, because that means the seeing isn’t going to get much better: too much haze in the air, and there’s distant lightning flashing on the horizon that probably is trailing a huge vapor stream across my visible sky.

In great seeing conditions, the Milky Way comes up as a solid dark lane surrounded by a continuous milky line on either side of the lane, punctuated by bright stars and the occasional outcropping. What I’m seeing tonight is the two bulges near the center of the galaxy, where the visible density of stars would make the most light for me to take in.

And so, it isn’t the WHOLE Milky Way, but there it is anyway. I stand, and I gaze, and I gasp as another old friend pokes his head out for a brief, flaring moment.

The Perseid Meteor Shower, which I haven’t seen in five years, starts in a little early for me.

From that point forward, it’s just the near-focus scanning of the sky, looking for the telltale signs of movement. Every once in a while, a plane draws the eye and makes the scanning difficult. Even more rarely, the eye picks out the arrow-straight trajectory of something much fainter: a satellite, or even the ISS.

That evening, I got no flares or fireballs: just streakers and maybes. Most meteors are streakers: little bits of debris that burn evenly and peter out (maybes are these too, but they happened too far into your peripheral vision to confidently call it a “hit”). Flares are rare: I imagine they are bigger meteoroids, burning more brightly and flaring at some point in their burn, and momentarily lighting up the whole sky for a moment, and they frequently leave a bright stream of burning material behind in the sky. It’s quite a thing to see. Fireballs are special flares that explode at that point of maximum burn, and often the resulting smoke cloud persists for many minutes. I’ve only ever seen one fireball in all my meteor chasing.

So, back to Monday night, I watched for a couple of hours, seeing roughly three dozen meteors: my plan was to eventually wander out to the lake near the campsite and set up the cameras, but I languished in the dark and drank some of it in for myself. I knew once I started working with the cameras that my adjusted eyes’ night vision would be trashed, so I waited until I’d had my fill for the evening.

Out at the lake, I took over 400 long exposures. Like always, I picked a couple of 90-degree angles from the origin (the Perseids are named after Perseus, the constellation they appear to emanate from), and set the cameras up to shooting. I only have one wired intervalometer, so I have to use my wireless remotes for the rest.

And of course, I was between frames when the best capture of the night could have happened.

Oh well. That one will just have to be mine.

I struggled with the gear, and all the shit I forgot. Still, I settled into a rhythm, and even though I didn’t get any decent pictures of meteors, I had everything sussed out for a great show Tuesday night.

Which, of course, never happened, as the weather refused to cooperate. Rolling into Tuesday night, the weather was clearly not cooperating. Eventually I gave up and bailed on the campsite.

When it became clear that it wasn’t going to clear out around Denver on Wednesday night, we took a last-ditch ride up to Mt. Evans. We hit the cloud wall at 11,000 feet, and while I did get some interesting shots, there was no meteor action happening.

Oh well. Hope I can do better for next year. The next big shower is the Geminids, but those come in the cold of December–probably better seeing, but entirely different challenges.

Anyway: some really nice pictures still happened anyway.