Monday, August 13, 2007

Small Things, Big Energy

Location: Edinburg, VA

The Perseid Meteor Shower was last night, so I jumped in the truck and went to visit Ed and Kathy at Mt. Meadows -- a dark site at the top of a mountain near Lost River. From where I am in Edinburg, Mt. Meadows is only about 28 miles away, but that only applies if you are a crow and in flight. Driving is a bit longer, and takes a little over an hour because there is no road from here to there. North-south, yes. East-west, no, not even twisy-turny-uppy-downy mountain roads.

Dark mountain tops are ideal for watching meteor showers, because the darker the sky, the more meteors you will see. Watching a meteor show is about as low-tech as it gets. You get a reclining chair, sit in it, look up. Repeat as necessary. Bathroom and snack breaks ARE allowed, but you will be sure to miss the best ones if you dawdle.

Smaller meteors look like streaking points of light that can span a few degrees or cover half the sky (your fist held at arms length will cover about ten degrees in the sky). Sometimes they are blue, sometimes yellow or red, but most are white. Sometimes you can even see fireballs. The date and even the time of the meteor shower can be predicted because the meteors are actually left over comet particles just sitting there in space, and we know when the earth will travel through them. When the particles collide with the atmosphere, we see a meteor trail. Here is the amazing part: most of the particles are smaller than a grain of sand! The meteor trail we see is created because an enormous amount of heat and energy is released when the particle strikes the atmosphere. And, FYI, if the piece of debris is large enough to survive entry without vaporizing (most aren't) it is then called a meteorite.

Last night's "shower" was a bit disappointing because the number of meteors was fairly low compared to other years. But the ones I saw were quite nice, and many streaked halfway across the sky. I was not able to capture any photos of meteors, but the one above is at Mountain Meadows, with Jupiter, the Constellation Scorpius, and the Milky Way. Jupiter is the brightest object in the photo, a little less than half way down, and to the right of the vertical center line. To find Scorpius, start at Jupiter. You should see five stars that form an arc going from Jupiter to the right. This is the Scorpion's head. Midway through the arc, follow the line of stars that curves gently to the left, then down, then back up into a circular curve near the tree line. This is the scorpion's stinger. The Milky Way is the "clouds" running up the left side of the photo. In sky legend, Scorpius is the killer of Orion, so the gods placed the two constellations exactly opposite in the sky so they could never again meet (or even be seen at the same time by Earthly observers).

While waiting for sunset, we watched several Ruby Throated Hummingbirds visit a hummingbird feeder on the porch. Talk about small things with big energy! You hear them before you see them -- a low, droning, buzz is first -- this is the sound of their wings beating around 50 times a second as they zip through the air. They dart into the feeder, hover in the air, grab a sip of sugar-water, and flit off for the safety of a nearby tree. An ant, also attracted to the sugar water, got caught inside the feeder and wound up swimming, literally in circles, for at least 18 hours. When finally released, he seemed none worse for the workout. AntBuns of Steel now, I'm sure.

Monday morning I walked out to the balcony, and was "checked out" by one of the hummingbirds who hovered right in front of my face for several seconds. Why? I had a red shirt on! But he left quickly for the feeder -- guess I didn't pass the "sweetness" test!

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