Lessons from a missed meteor shower

October 27, 2009

Back in August, I made a family appointment. We’d just seen the Perseids, the annual mid-August meteor shower, on our summer vacation. Writing about them here, I learned about other annual showers, like the Orionids, which appear to originate from within the Orion constellation on their annual late-fall swing past Earth. We wrote “meteor showers” over the dates October 20-22 on our calendar.

It isn’t exactly that we forgot about the showers. But last week was cold, wet, dreary. We didn’t see the sun, much less the stars. The marks from August on our calendar seemed out of season, irrelevant.

Last night, Ursula got stuck on a math problem. Jim and I were no help. Her small universe started to spiral. I reached for something to change her course, and I came out with this: “Let’s go outside and look for meteors.”

Ursula knows some of the constellations: Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the Big Dipper and Little Dipper) for obvious reasons and because they are so wonderfully obvious in the night sky. She can also pick out Orion, the Hunter, the constellation that accompanies us from the end of autumn to the fullness of spring, brightening our winter nights. So we walked out into the yard, far enough from the house for the dark to envelop us. It was colder than we expected, but also more clear. The stars sparkled above us.

But no Orion. Although Ursula was up past her bedtime, it was still too early to see the constellation in a form we recognized. The Pleiades, though, sat straight ahead of us. Ursula is studying Greek mythology in school and knew about the seven sisters, daughters of Atlas. Our night skies will soon re-enact one of their stories, in which they “flee mighty Orion and plunge into the misty deep.” Ursula told us more Greek myths while we watched. No meteors streaked across the sky. The small universe between us reformed into a tired but happy 11-year-old. Jim hoisted her onto his shoulders and carried her back inside, to repeating decimals and mixed numbers and then to bed.

Now we have another date on our calendar: November 17, when we may be lucky enough to see a “half-storm” — as many as 500 meteors an hour — in the Leonid meteor shower. More on that next month.

Learn more
About the Orionid meteor shower from National Geographic and Meteor Showers Online.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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Kristen Laine

In 2013, Kristen Laine won an EXCEL gold award for outstanding feature writing for her work in AMC Outdoors.