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This weekend (tonight into early Saturday and Saturday into Sunday, August 11-12 and August 12-13) will be the peak nights of the 2017 Perseid meteor shower.

The Perseids get their name because they appear to come from the constellation Perseus. Perseus is a mythological Greek hero. He beheaded the Gorgon Medusa and saved Andromeda from a sea monster Cetus. Perseus was the son of the mortal Danaë and the god Zeus. In the night sky, constellations named after other ancient Greek legends surround Perseus, including Andromeda to the west and Cassiopeia to the north.

In 1866, after the perihelion passage of the Swift-Tuttle comet in 1862, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli discovered the link between meteor showers and comets. A meteor shower is the result of an interaction between a planet, such as Earth, and streams of debris from a comet.

In John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High”, he alludes to watching the Perseid meteor shower in the mountains near Aspen, Colorado – “I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.”

A much stranger reference is the Catholic religion’s reference to the Perseids as the “tears of Saint Lawrence.” The belief was that his tears returned to Earth once a year on August 10 which is the canonical date of that saint’s martyrdom in 258 AD. Saint Lawrence was said to have been burned alive on a gridiron. From that came the origin of the Mediterranean folk legend that the shooting stars are the sparks of that fire. Furthermore, it was believed that during the night of August 9–10, the cooled embers of that fire appear in the ground under plants, and are known as the “coal of Saint Lawrence.” I checked around my garden Wednesday night. No coals.

This weekend you can watch from late evening until dawn. The meteor showers have been “falling” for several weeks, but this weekend should be the peak. The greatest number of meteors typically fall in the hours before dawn. In a remote location and on a “moonless” night, you might see 50+ meteors per hour. For 2017, there will be a bright waning gibbous moon after midnight. And I will be in Northern New jersey, not far from New York City, which will make viewing more difficult. But I still should be able to see those bright enough to overcome the city and moonlit glare.  This year they may be a “Perseid outburst” with 200 meteors per hour at the peak.

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Matisse - Fruit and Coffeepot

Henri Matisse – Fruit and Coffeepot (1898)

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.

It’s was clear enough this past week for me to have had the chance of seeing some of the meteors known as the Leonid meteor shower. I went outside and stared up into the deep, dark sky. But I didn’t see any shooting stars or fireballs.

Something I did see this past week was an article that noted that the poem “Sunday Morning” is 100 years old. That really surprised me. It shouldn’t surprise me, because Wallace Stevens was writing in the early 1900s.

Sunday Morning” starts out pretty nice (as shown at the top of this post) with coffee and oranges, a woman in a negligee and a cockatoo hopping on the rug.  But Stevens isn’t really known for lightness.

I first read the poem in a college class and we dissected it. It is a serious poetic meditation, a philosophical poem about what might happen to us when we die.

The “pungent oranges and bright, green wings” very quickly transform into:
…things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

When “Sunday Morning” was published in 1915 in Poetry magazine, the Modernist movement was the thing. T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” also was published that year.

So, on this Sunday morning, why am I connecting this poem and a night sky?

When I was staring up at the sky the other night, I was pulled into thoughts about old age and death. I don’t know that gazing into the universe at night causes those kinds of feeling for everyone, but eternity and the impossibility of it really do fit together.

I find that sometimes I have to fight moving from a happy moment of coffee and oranges to a sad one . They also fit together sometimes too. Something is so good that you start thinking about it being gone.

That night sky does make me think about eternity. It is the only thing I can see that comes close to being eternity.

Eliot’s Prufrock wonders

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.

Do I dare even stare into that universe that reverses our decisions and revisions so easily?

What about an afterlife?

Stevens writes:

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?

I don’t find any comfort in the concept of an afterlife. I suppose that means I lack faith.  I never did believe, or perhaps I was afraid to believe. Even as a child, I found an afterlife frightening. It scared me that people who died were somewhere watching us.

Maybe I’m just feeling age building up in inside me.  I grow old. I already wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

More likely, I am feeling more in love with life and with those people I love. I don’t want them shooting off into space or eternity. I want them here.

It is a sunny, autumn Sunday morning after the terror attacks in Paris. I don’t have any oranges in the house, but I was just having coffee with my wife in her peignoir and I need to hold onto this morning well into evening and the night.

And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

taurid poland

Because of their occurrence in late October and early November, the Taurid meteor showers have gained the popular name of “Halloween fireballs.”

The Taurids are an annual meteor shower associated with the comet Encke. They are named after their radiant point in the constellation Taurus, where they are seen to come from in the sky.  Encke and the Taurids are believed to be remnants of a much larger comet, which has disintegrated over the past 20,000 to 30,000 years, breaking into several pieces.

They are rather slow-moving (from our perspective) and so often make a good show. They usually peak from November 5-12.

According to earthsky.org, they are not known for having a great number of meteors, but  “a high percentage of fireballs, or exceptionally bright meteors.”

The South Taurids should produce their greatest number of meteors – and hence their greatest number of fireballs – between midnight and dawn on November 5, 2015. Try watching on the morning of November 4.

Higher rates of Taurid fireballs seem to occur every 7 years and the last big display was in 2008, so 2015 should be a good year for viewing.

You may have seen some video on the news over the past Halloween weekend of some fireballs seen over Poland. The photos at top are from there and you can see the video here.

If you want to check what to look for in the sky on any day,  check out earthsky.org/tonight/

It is that time of summer here in the Northern Hemisphere when I gaze up to the night sky, along with a lot of other people,  to catch a glimpse of the Perseids meteor showers.

The early morning hours after midnight until dawn of August 11 -13 are usually the best days, with the peak times varying year to year. Not having a Full Moon at the same time helps, as well as being somewhere where light pollution isn’t an issue. The two best views I have had were with my young sons in the Maine woods and on a cruise ship with my wife out at sea.

A few Perseid meteors would have been visible back in early July and the last ones can be sighted by some of us (and those with telescopes) through late August.

But if you’re in your hometown, it is still a good idea to go out and try to catch a glimpse of some “falling stars” the next few nights. The best part about this year’s show is that it will happen near the New Moon, meaning the night skies will be darker and perfect for meteor spotting. If it is cloudless in your neighborhood, you could see see up to 100 shooting stars an hour.

Of course, they are not stars that are falling, but dust to pebble size rocky material released from ancient comets. In those big numbers that we really can’t grasp, those bits have traveled journeyed billions of miles around the sun and are now returning as our planet’s trip around the Sun takes us through this shower of comet rubble.

As the falling material enters the upper atmosphere, friction quickly burns the particles and gives us the fireworks of luminous trails of the meteors falling down on us.

We are seeing this week the thickest concentration of the particles that came from the Swift-Tuttle comet. It was discovered in 1862 by two American astronomers, Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle. The materials radiates from the constellation Perseus, but the meteors appear in all parts of the sky. The Perseids are considered by many people to be the year’s best shower and often peak at 50 or more meteors per hour in a dark sky.

You can check out earthsky.org, the next few days for best viewing suggestions.


Time lapse video

The Lyrid meteor shower is active each year from about April 16-25, and we’re now approaching the peak of this shower for 2015. Their peak is typically around April 22 each year (late night April 22 to dawn April 23).

The radiant of the meteor shower is located in the constellation Lyra (The Harp or Lyre), near this constellation’s brightest star, Alpha Lyrae (proper name Vega).

The source of the meteor shower is particles of dust shed by the long-period Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher.

These April Lyrids are the strongest annual shower of meteors from debris of a long-period comet, mainly because as far as other intermediate long-period comets go (200 – 10,000 years), this one has a relatively short orbital period of about 415 years. The Lyrids have been observed for the past 2600 years.

Still, it is a modest shower and often offers no more than 10 to 20 meteors per hour at its peak, but it has been known to have bursts of activity that could dazzle you.

This year the waxing crescent moon will set in early evening, guaranteeing a dark sky for meteor-watching.

Try to get out there from midnight until dawn.

meteor

The last meteor shower of the year is the Ursids which began on Dec. 17 and will end on Dec. 25. It peaks on Dec. 22 and 23.

It is one of the minor meteor showers that produces up to 5-10 meteors per hour.

We can also observe at least five planets in the December sky. Mercury will be too close to the sun for most of the year and so the view is affected by sun’s glare, but by the end of the month, it will move away from the sun and will be visible in the west-southwest sky after the sunset.

Venus returned as our “evening star” in the southwestern sky at the beginning of the month. Mars is will be visible in southwestern sky. Jupiter will appear in southern sky at night and Saturn will emerge as a “morning star” in the southeastern sky visible at the daybreak.

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Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.

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