Dec 21-22 Ursid meteor shower

Cosmic Fireball Falling Over ALMA

Credit: ESO/C. Malin

One of the most surprising public programs that I conducted was simply entitled “A Night Walk under the Stars.”  It was surprising to me because I didn’t think I would have too many people attend a program with such an insipid title—but boy was I wrong–the parking lot was full! I chose this program for our mid-summer schedule in order to avoid the Mississippi heat, which can put a real damper on attendance. So I designed an evening program when it was a bit cooler.

I was traveling to give a lecture in another town that day and really didn’t have time to prepare for the program (yeah, I know you’ve never done that before). So I pulled into the gravel parking lot, arranged a few plastic chairs into a circle, and collected some firewood in case anyone would show. At the appointed hour a few cars pulled in, then more, until there were over 60 adults and children sitting around the circle. Curious about this, I began to ask where the folks were from and why they came. There were some locals, but quite a few had traveled up to 90 miles to come to this program. They said they just never went on night walks or sat around a fire at home and decided to bring the kids. I was stunned and concerned equally.

So as night fell we did the usual campfire things like roast marshmallows and tell stories. Then it came time for the hike. Luckily we had a full moon and the gravel paths were easy to see, but dark enough to see the luminescent critters living in the gravel. Owls hooted, there were plenty of scary dark paths, and long shadows reached from the trees. The kids had a hushed excitement as we came around every bend and we followed our ears to find the frog chorus in the pond. To me it was an evening hike that every scout knows well, to these urban children it was a magical time.

Scheduling an evening watch during a meteor event can be another fun public event. Yes, the best times to see these fireballs are in the wee morning hours, but just like getting up early to go fishing it can become part of the experience. Many cities are too brightly lit to see meteors well, so if your facility is in a rural dark place it could be a real program opportunity. And like fishing, waiting for meteors can be a slow process and offers plenty of time to discuss what meteors are, how they emit light, and how we encounter them at certain times of the year. Add to that some folklore about celestial events and borrow an extraterrestrial rock from a local science museum, and ta da—you have an instant program.

The Ursid meteor shower will best be seen in the northern hemisphere on Dec. 21 and 22 during the winter solstice. Just look for the meteors coming from the direction of the Little Dipper in the Ursa Minor constellation, hence the name Ursids. Tell folks to bring lawn chairs, a blanket and some hot chocolate to keep warm, and a flashlight. And happy stargazing!

09dec19_430 from Earthsky.org

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