Last night before going to bed I contemplated whether I should set the alarm for a midnight look at the Orionid meteors. A news piece from ABC News reporting how folks from the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Cruz heard a loud boom and saw streaks of light racing through last night’s sky reminded me of the annual Orionid Meteor Shower. I’ve got to get up early one morning this weekend and watch them.
Years ago, I stayed up late one night to watch space junk from Comet Swift Tuttle. I was not disappointed. In one instance I witnessed about 6-8 giant fireballs flying in formation from the constellation Perseus in a graceful slow arc across the night sky. Bright fireballs leaving a greenish smoke trail which could still be seen for about a minute after the show. Almost as if Swift Tuttle knew what I was asking for.
Well, I didn’t set the alarm clock. But I didn’t need to. At about 3:30 I woke up to frantic conversation at the bedroom door. Frightened tones of “mama, there was a huge explosion just outside our window” type of talk. Of course this woke me up. Instead of hitting the snooze button I hit wide awake and knew at the speed of light that I just missed out on a huge fireball from Halley’s comet. I could kick myself.
I quickly hopped out of bed and joined the conversation at the door. “I know exactly what it was, boys. Don’t worry. There’s no man with a bang stick outside, it’s just a sonic boom from a large Halley meteor. They heard the same thing last night in California. Yea, that’s all. Let’s go out and watch them a while. Maybe we’ll see another one.”
Here my wife, -who was also woke by the loud boom and quite unsupportive of husband’s sudden cosmic explanations-, tells the boys, “Dad is still sleeping.”
“No I’m not. Serious honey, they heard the same things last night in California.”
By this time we were out in the living room. Ivan and Lynford couldn’t believe that a meteor in the sky could cause such a loud bang, and furthermore, -“Dad, that explosion like hit the window real hard.”
“Yes, boys.” Then turning to my wife I asked, “Don’t you remember that morning when the Shuttle exploded over Texas early in the morning? Don’t you remember the loud boom and how our windows rattled?”
Then I explained that these windows being old, single pane windows, they rattle like crazy at sonic booms, like if they were hit directly. No one was buying my story yet. They were sure there was a gunman or something outside and couldn’t figure out why I calmly opened the door and stood there in my shorts looking out at the clear starry night. “C’mon boys, we got to go outside and watch the meteor shower.”
I rushed to get dressed, donned a jacket and went outside with the boys. I never pass on an opportunity to teach astronomy to my kids. I had their full attention now. This is my kind of stuff. I love being woke from the earthly routine of animal habit to cosmic reminders of our true circumstance!
“Look boys, see that bright star straight over head. That’s not a star, it’s Jupiter. Now, the Sun is about there,” I said, pointing East at a shallow angle on the ground. “And Mercury would be about there and Venus about there,” I continued, still pointing on the ground, but closer to the horizon.
Then I traced a wide arc with my hand from where I guestimated the Sun was, through Mercury, Venus, Earth, -which, I was careful to point out, we are standing on-, then my arm finished the giant arc at the planet Jupiter, almost straight overhead.
“Do you see, boys…can you get an idea of how we are oriented to the plane of the Solar System? “Ya, Dad, Ya.”
“Well, see, right now we are going around the sun, -and I again pointed under the ground where the sun should be this time of the night,- and the approximate direction we are going is almost straight up.”
“Now comet Halley also goes around the Sun, but it’s orbit is not round like the Earth’s rather long like a stretched egg. It so happens that around this time every year, our orbit around the Sun intersects with Comet Haley’s orbit.”
“Now comets are dirty balls of frozen leftovers from the Creation of our Solar System. They spend most of their time in the outer fringes of the Solar System. But when they come in close to the sun, as Haley does every 70 some years, the heat from the Sun breaks big chunks loose and they often get scattered away from the exact speed and orbit that their parent comet has. Over millions of years, Comet Haley has left it’s trail around the Sun littered with debris.”
“As we are speeding in our own orbit around the Sun, once a year we run into Halley’s trail and bang, bang, bang, we smack right into Haley’s junk which then creates these bright fireballs and sonic booms.”
The boys still don’t believe me. “But Dad, that explosion wasn’t like far away, it was like right outside the window and sounded like it hit the window.”
“Yes son, see, those window panes are kinda loose and a sonic boom would make them sound like they got hit directly.”
Fortunately the boys started seeing meteors streaking through the sky. They were starting to believe my story but with a different twist. “Hey Dad, this sounded like just outside our window, is it possible that a meteor landed in our yard?”
Not very likely, but I consented to a flashlight and I started shining around the yard. Deep inside, I was a little worried too, that my boy’s strong sense of the window being hit, might be a little hard to explain. Meteors don’t have that kind of aim, and we don’t have that kind of luck. Anyway, I kept shining around looking for any possible clues.
I was pointing my flashlight at the Garden Shed roof when in the faintest whisper my mind started wondering about something. I pointed my flashlight down a little and suddenly I was staring right at the night’s mystery.
“Boys,” I said, feeling about twenty of Sherlock Holmes’ goose bumps as I looked at the obvious geometric configuration of the explosion. “This is what you heard,” I said, shining the flashlight beam straight at a large exploded hole in the side of the car tire. It was aimed, -straight at the window!
For a brief moment my boys were awed at the night sky. But alas, they will never again believe my stories about Suns and Comets. Shucks!
Almost, Halley, almost, you came through for me tonight. Good night! May my grandkids believe in you when they see you march through their skies in 2061. And then one night when they in awe are gazing at your majesty, may one of their car tires go off and totally blow their socks off.
And may their kids believe their Grandpa’s star stories!