Friday, October 9, 2009

Square 67: Meteor shower

Square 067

I had a childhood friend named Morgan Lewis. She lived with her parents in Huntsville, Alabama, but every summer she and her sister, Gillian, came to visit her grandparents, who had a summer home down our road. We were both interested in books and nature, and would tape mock radio broadcasts to entertain our families.

Her father, Chuck, worked for NASA, and I will never forget the night he showed us the Perseid meteor shower. The day before, we made a map of the night sky showing major constellations, so we could chart all the meteors we would see. After dinner we went for naps so we would be able to sit up well into the night, but I couldnt' sleep.

Around 11 p.m. our families gathered on the edge of the golf course across the road. There were no large trees around, so we could set out lawn chairs and view the entire sky. It was a clear night with no moon. Mr. Lewis knew more stars and constellations than anyone I had ever talked to, and he identified them for us. I have remembered many of them, like the Summer Triangle: Deneb, Vega and Altair. Deneb, the brightest of the three, is 70,000 times more luminous than the sun and 1,550 light years away.

At first we saw a few small meteors. Mr. Lewis had a good reason for teaching us the names of the stars and constellations, because whenever we saw a meteor, people would call out where it had appeared in the sky, what direction it had taken and how far it had travelled. Morgan, Gillian and I would plot them on the map we had made.

After midnight, as our place on the planet turned to face its direction of travel, the meteors became faster and brighter. Some were distinctly coloured, and some left a momentary tail in the sky. We marked them down furiously, and had to start skipping some of the fainter ones.

In the wee hours a brilliant pink meteor appeared from behind some distant trees and slowly traversed the sky, leaving a long, scintillating tail. It must have taken 10 seconds to cross, finally disappearing near the western horizon.

Our group slowly dispersed to sleep, first my parents and then the Lewises, but Morgan and I stayed out all night until the pale edge of dawn appeared. We had seen hundreds of meteors. Our map showed that most of them appeared to originate near the constellation, Perseus, and radiate outward. This perspective is an illusion caused by the Earth's movement as it passes through a cloud of debris stretching along the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

The Perseid meteor shower can be viewed every year around August 12. I have watched several times, but never seen such a spectacle as that night with Morgan and her family. A few years later I visited Huntsville, and Mr. Lewis gave me a tour of Marshall Space Flight Center. I have since lost contact with Morgan, but maybe sometimes we are watching the same stars. I hope we reconnect someday.


  1. What a wonderful memory! I enjoy reading these vingettes,

  2. Thanks, Susan. I enjoy writing and remembering!