Not terribly long after I’d pestered the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society’s admin email for advice on how best to see the Perseids meteor shower this year, an invitation appeared in my inbox. Would I like to come set up a lawnchair and watch the Perseids from River Ridge Observatory, where the society observes the cosmos with fancy telescopes from the middle of nowhere in Perry County? Yes, I would. And was I fully vaccinated, by the way? And willing to wear a mask if entering one of the facilities? Even better, I thought.
So it was that I ended up booking it to Bigelow around sunset last night, my car loaded with a companion, a picnic blanket, a pillow, a cooler full of the fanciest snacks I could conjure from the contents of my pantry (stargazing deserved raspberry seltzer water and hunks of mozzarella with Kroger-brand prosciutto, I determined), two bottom-shelf headlamps that emitted low-power red light, plenty of mosquito repellent and the pair of camp chairs that have taken up permanent residence in the back hatch of my car since I forget when.
A few observations, astronomical and otherwise:
Adjusting your eyes to the dark — and keeping them there — is way more important than I’d realized. I know, I know, every set of guidelines about stargazing tells you exactly this. Problem is, it’s really hard to do unless you’re pretty intentional about it, or unless you’re surrounded, as I was, by a handful of folks who know what they’re doing. Maybe you’re watching from your backyard, and find yourself going inside for bathroom breaks, where harsh white lights undo any adjustments to the dark you’ve taken time to make. Or you’re camping out and need to turn on your flashlight to find your Off! Deep Woods. Or, more likely, you’re picking up your cell phone to google “where in the sky do i look for the Perseids” or “when do the Perseids peak,” and unless you’ve made some adjustments to your device’s brightness, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Should you ever make it out to the Society-owned River Ridge Observatory for a “StarBQ” or to one of the state parks where the Society holds (or held prior to the pandemic, and will again when it subsides) skywatching events, it’ll be crucial that you park your car in such a way as not to flood observers’ fields of vision with your bright headlights. Do some research beforehand on where in the sky to look for a particular astronomical event so you don’t have to pick up that phone. Adjusting your eyes takes a while, and you’ll see a lot more if you can keep the light around you at an absolute minimum. River Ridge’s clubhouse and bathroom facilities have low red overhead lighting for this very reason.
The astronomers at Central Arkansas Astronomical Society consider what they’re doing “amateur astronomy,” which to true novices like me just means “We’re not NASA.” It may be, technically, amateur astronomy, but make no mistake about it, the members of this group are pretty dang serious about it. Our brief tour of the grounds, courtesy of longtime member and tech guru Jim Dixon, came complete with definitions of the three types of telescopes, all of which are represented among the individual members’ equipment. One of those is a robotic research-class telescope that the group operates at River Ridge in partnership with Arkansas Tech University. At the Zoom meeting I attended last year, much of the camera and telescope jargon was way over my head. Don’t let a lack of tech savvy or science background dissuade you. The stars belong to everyone, and intimate knowledge of fish-eye lenses and sky-tracking software is not a prerequisite for getting into astronomy.
Those time-lapse photos you see of hundreds of meteors streaking across the sky at the same time? They’re absolutely gorgeous, but I’m convinced they might be destructive to a skywatching experience. At one point, my companion leaned over and asked only half in jest, “And they’re sure this thing is tonight?” Real meteor shower watching is slow stuff, and the frenetic juxtapositions of hundreds of meteors in those photos doesn’t prepare you well for the real deal. Two meteors might strut their stuff within a few seconds of each other, only to be followed by a quarter hour of pretty much nothing. You might miss a few in a row because you’re not looking at that part of the sky. You might see nothing at all. Find other stuff to look at. And at the risk of sounding preachy, you’re far better filling those in-between moments without the help of your phone.
Every single person has a breathless, involuntary response to seeing a bright meteor blaze across the sky, and it’s worth discovering what yours is. Dixon’s, endearingly, was a pragmatic “There went one,” followed by a location: “right between Jupiter and Saturn,” or “right through Hercules.” Another member somewhere in the dark would say, “That was pretty.” Mine is “Whoa!”
The demands of watching a meteor shower — or even picking out constellations — are antithetical to the way we live in 2021, and it is simultaneously one of the most humanity-affirming things you can do in the middle of an abysmal year. Meteor shower watching is not, generally speaking, productive. In fact, staying up until 3 a.m. to do it might well wreck your next work day. It doesn’t produce any tangible commodity and it doesn’t grow the economy or create a lot of jobs or directly solve any of our current social ills. When I arrived at River Ridge, longtime member Bruce McMath was giving his family — and a couple of us within earshot — a “constellation tour” using a tiny laser pointer to point out stars in the sky. First, Lyra. Then, gargantuan Scorpio and Sagittarius’ little teapot, with the “steam” of the Milky Way emerging from its spout and spilling across the ether. Because it was dark, the laser pointer he held was imperceptible, and it seemed for all the world like his extended hand was connected to the sky itself by a thin, perfectly straight green string. He showed us the hazy M-13 and the Ring Nebula star clusters on a telescope and told us the story of Cassiopeia and Andromeda. One of the family’s younger subset asked earnestly, after an explanation of the life cycles of stars, “Why doesn’t the sun blow up, too?” “Because it’s not old enough,” McMath replied. If he knew how poetic that reply was, he didn’t show it (or, more accurately, his expression couldn’t be seen in the dark) but it was a dose of perspective that kid probably needed. (And by “that kid,” I mean me.) There’s still a chance to go and get some for yourself, too. The Perseids peaked on Aug. 12, but they’ll continue their nightly appearances until Aug. 18. Meteors or no, though, if you can find a time to recline on a blanket and stare at the night sky for a few hours — tonight, next week, two months from now — I doubt you’ll be sorry you did.
Keep up with the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society (and other skywatching groups across the state, linked under the “New Observers” page) at caasastro.org.