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Flashes of brilliance in the High Sierra

There are a few times in one’s life when the planets align and something spectacular happens that you know you may never experience again.  In our case, the brightest of the planets literally aligned across the midnight sky during the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, and my friend Steve and I found ourselves fortuitously under a clear sky next to a mountain lake in the high Sierra on that exact night.  The Perseid is a phenomenon that occurs when the Earth passes annually through a stream of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle.  NASA’s Meteroid Environment Office had predicted meteor rates ‘as high as a hundred per hour’[1].    Steve was on the ball and knew that this would be a good one.    So what remained was for us to Seize the Day (or in this case, the night), get up and brave the chill to see the Show.

The extravaganza did not disappoint.    We worked our way downhill in the dewy grass from the campsite and situated ourselves head-to-head on our backs down by the lakeshore on our Therma-Rests (Squeeeeeak!  Creeeeeak!)  with a clear view of the sky at a few minutes after midnight.    The smoky-white smear of the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, one of the first times in my life I had seen its entirety.  Against the inky blackness behind, Billions and Billions of stars (thank you Carl Sagan!) and the bright reflections of the crescent moon between Jupiter and Venus.  Then, sometimes faster than we could turn our heads,  ZZZZIIIIPPPP!!!  “Wow, did you see THAT?!”   ZZZZIIIIPPPP…………….ZZZZIIIIPPPP- ZZZZIIIIPPPP!!!    Emanating from every quadrant, they sped across the void in multiple directions.  Within a half hour we easily saw a dozen, and then a dozen more over the next.   NASA’s forecast of a profligate night’s display was definitely delivered.  [See something similar to what we watched at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDEA2f9pDXs]).

Perseid Meteor Shower, 8/12/2012.  Photo by David Harpe.

Milky Way and Perseid Meteor Shower, 8/12/2012. Photo by David Harpe.

After an hour or so the flashes spread out leaving us feeling the chill in our extremities.  It was time to go back to our respective tents and down cocoons.   Still, the experience was an extraordinary reminder of the gifts that the universe can provide if only one stops to watch and be amazed.

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