Meteor showers provide a magnificent show in the late-night Tahoe sky. A few years back, I hiked Mount Judah Loop at 1 a.m. to witness a lunar eclipse and was blown away by the multitude of shooting stars.
Each August offers the spectacular Perseids showers, and Alyssa Ganong and I adventured out for a late-night hike during the recent Perseids show. This shower is the brightest of summer showers producing hundreds of meteors per hour. The trail of particles from the comet forms meteors, or shooting stars, which heat up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere creating trails of light across the sky. These meteors travel at a speed of 132,000 miles per hour.
Oct. 7 | The Draconids
Oct. 20-21 | The Orionids
Nov. 4-5 | The South Taurids
Nov. 11-12 | The North Taurids
Nov. 16-17 | The Leonids
Dec. 13-14 | The Geminids
We decided on an easy trek and chose the Donner Rim Trail off Glacier Way in Tahoe Donner. It was 11 p.m. and the waxing moon was a little brighter than we hoped as we got underway. We didn’t need our headlamps on the trail. Halfway into our 1-mile hike a large animal thundered across our path. It took a minute and we realized there was a herd of deer in the trees nearby. We continued on our path looking up to see if we could catch a falling star.
Ganong pointed out Cassiopeia, but the constellation Perseus had not yet risen. The shower is called Perseids due to the fact the meteors appear to emanate from Perseus. Perseid meteors are tiny pieces of the Swift-Tuttle comet, which orbits the sun every 133 years. The shower occurs when Earth passes through Swift-Tuttle’s trail of debris and pieces of the comet hit the atmosphere and fall to pieces with flashes of light.
“Saturn and Mars were bright in the sky. The Big Dipper was hanging low.
The night sky darkened and more stars became visible.”
We reached the picnic table that overlooked Donner Lake (it only takes about 20 minutes) and found a dark place to lay our blanket down to begin the viewing ritual. Saturn and Mars were bright in the sky. The Big Dipper was hanging low. The night sky darkened and more stars became visible. I pulled out my phone and turned on my Star Tracker app to see what constellations were in the sky. We swept the phone across the sky and saw Perseus was rising. It was near midnight when Ganong saw the first meteor streak across the sky. We laid back waiting. A few more darted across the sky and then a few more; even with the moon still shining we had a taste of this magnificent occurrence.
While waiting for more stars to graze across the sky we discussed Greek mythology and the story of Cassiopeia and Perseus. Both constellations are part of 48 constellations cataloged by the 2nd Century Greek astronomer Ptolemy.
We stayed for a while staring up at the sky. While on my back, witnessing the vastness of our universe and the beauty of light streaking across the sky, I was reminded how small and infinitesimal we are, as we float through space on a large piece of rock for a blink of an eye. I realized the importance of staying present, living each day to its fullest, being grateful and sharing the abundance of love each of us possess.
There are a number of meteor showers still left to view this year. Find a dark spot, brew some hot tea or bring a flask of bourbon, put on the puffy, pull out a blanket and take some time to explore the universe.
For more information on meteor showers, visit earthsky.org