Chasing Down The Muse: Chasing down a meteor shower

"Star light, star bright …."

"The Geminids are coming!"

That's what my neighbor Jeanne proclaimed as she advised me that the Geminid meteor shower was set to peak around 1 a.m. Monday night. She planned to hunker down in her front patio with pillows and down quilts for the nighttime show. Since the Loreto night temperatures had been in the high 50s, it sounded like a fun idea.

I thought back to the year that co-columnist Cherril and I had set out to Anza-Borrego to view the Leonid shower. We packed the car to the gills with spotting scope, binoculars, tripod and camera, warm clothes, food and water and headed to the desert. We had booked a room at the small hotel near the entrance to the park.

Cherril and I had hours to kill before the show was to begin (why are all meteor showers at 1 a.m. and later? Duh – dark skies) and headed for the hotel restaurant for dinner. The small dining room and bar were filled with like minded-star gazers — which gave us second thoughts.

Who were all these odd people dressed in dark clothing? They all seemed to have sallow skin, and eerily wide open eyes. These were professional star geeks, while we were merely amateurs. Could they actually be of alien descent? Some errant strand of DNA buried in their systems that sent them into the dark of night, searching for their original home?

We fled the restaurant, donned our warmest clothes, and headed out to Fount's Point off one of the long dirt roads in the state park. It was sufficiently remote to be free of the influence of incandescent light. We parked, set up our beach chairs overlooking the valley and the east, poured hot coffee out of the Thermos into our cups, and began to wait.

And wait. And wait. Was that one? We both witnessed a tiny streak across the eastern sky. Then a second. Then nothing. Back to waiting. Where were the hundred or so that were supposed to light up the sky? And why was it so darned cold?

After an hour, we retreated to the car, opened the sunroof, turned on the heater and tried to stop shivering. By the time we gave our search up, we had seen maybe 20 — certainly not the promised 100, but worth the adventure.

The Geminid shower was advertised as the light show of the year — the last and best of 2010. While most meteor showers occur when the Earth crosses the orbit of a comet, the Geminids are unusual, because linked to an asteroid-like object: 3200 Phaethon. As Phaethon orbits the sun, it streams particles behind it, and the meteor shower is the result of the earth passing through this stream.

But unlike a comet, Phaethon has no tail, it orbits near other asteroids, and its surface colors look more like those of asteroids than comets. So experts have been debating whether that means Phaethon is an ancient comet that has sputtered out or a dusty asteroid that for some reason sheds material near the sun.

In any case, I was eager to finally see a sky filled with shooting stars. I ate dinner in town, and drove back thinking I'd follow Jeanne's lead and sleep outside.

As I stepped out of the car I was pondering my sleeping bag, when I was almost run over by a calf, who was followed closely behind by his mother, then his father, his cousin, his uncle and aunt. His whole family was trotting down my street.

Whoa! Was this a stampede or the start of a rodeo?

The mooing and snorting echoed off the sides of the house. Buster started a mad barking attack trying to scare them off. They paid him little attention, but wandered down the beach.

I went out to the patio to apprise sleeping options, but noticed that the cattle had beaten me to it. While I'd been dining in town, they'd been dining on my hibiscus, my tea plant, and my hummingbird flowers. They'd been mooing around my flagstone and leaving behind gifts of hot, smelly patties.

After removing their "gifts" and washing down the patio, it was already past midnight. Did I really want to sleep outside with cattle?

I checked the sky — no shooting anything — but the clang of cattle bells and hoof clinks continued. I gave up on the beach sleeping idea and I plopped into bed, set my alarm for 2 a.m. and promised myself, no matter how tired, I'd get up at the appointed hour.

Sure enough, the alarm felt like a hammer to the head. I staggered outside to a stunning star filled sky — a stunning holding-still star filled sky. No streaks of comet dust. No star trails. Just the gentle mooing of the night crowd.

Catharine Cooper is still waiting for a big meteor-filled night sky. She can be reached at ccooper@cooperdesign.net

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