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Shooting Stars

 

By Ranger Steve

 

There is joy in the quiet solitude of the night sky. It has taken millions of years for light from some stars to reach Earth. We see light that has been traveling for an extended time and enjoy it during our short presence. Travel time of light is immense while our own lives are brief. 

A shooting star’s existence persists for only seconds. August is the time to lean back to enjoy the sky slowly moving. Stars appear locked in position relative to others. We rely on them to be in the same arrangement nightly. Ancient cultures mapped them and gave names to clusters called constellations. Familiar are the Big and Little Dippers, and the zodiac. Twelve zodiac constellations lie in the plane of the sun’s apparent movement. 

This is the month my sign is said to be “in the sun.” The constellation Leo the lion cannot be seen because it is “in the sun.” Well, not really. It is behind the sun. The stars nightly rise four minutes earlier and creep closer toward the sun. We can observe zodiac constellations a few months prior to them working their way to the sun. 

It will take a year for each Zodiac constellation to make the circuit from being “in the sun” to return to be “in the sun” again. There is a peace and reliability in the sky compared to the frenetic world surrounding us daily. Year after year, expect old friends from billions of miles and light years away to signal all is well. A distant star might burn out millions of years before we discover it is no longer sending light our way. 

Light beams sent before a star burns-out continue the journey long after the star’s life extinguishes. Camp by a dark wilderness lake to experience the brilliance of darkness and contemplate. Will our own existence extend long after we depart? Are we like a distant star that provides stability and reliability that will transcend us?

In the quiet night solitude find life’s meaning and joy while watching stars advance. Pick a star near the edge of a tree’s dark nighttime canopy to the east and one to west. Relax in a comfortable location and gaze into the skies blackness perforated by a couple thousand pricks of light. After several minutes try to locate the selected stars. The one to east will have moved away from the tree. The one to the west will have drifted behind the tree. 

At this time of year, the Milky Way can be seen extending from the constellation Cassiopeia in the northeast toward the southwest. It looks like a ribbon of dim light draped across the sky. The haze of light is comprised of stars but most are too distant to distinguish individually. The galaxy’s flattened arms create a spiral disk. 

When looking at the Milky Way, it is like looking across the broad expanse of a pancake with curved fan blades. Imagine yourself in the flapjack looking up or down through the thin portion from top to bottom. Stars we see above or below are comparable to those we see outside the Milky Way. 

We live in a tiny section of the plate-like galaxy toward its outer edge. Comets orbit the sun and leave behind scattered debris in space. A comet crossed the Earth’s path thousands of years ago. Each August where the two crossroads intersect, the Earth collides with fragments left by the comet. 

The bits of rubble are mostly sand sized. When the atmosphere comes in contact with them, they are drawn by gravity and glow as they heat. Briefly, they produce light as they “fall” toward Earth. They are not shooting or falling stars but that is how they appear. Depending on the size of the object, some glow brighter.  

The peak Perseid meteor shower display concluded on my birthday this week but continues. Its “shooting stars” can be seen nightly. I consider the annual fireworks a birthday celebration. The quiet solitude of night with flashing streams of light brings peace like the rhythmic lapping of waves to our campsite shoreline.

Shooting stars can be seen any night of year but more are seen where a comet left debris drifting in Earth’s orbital path around the sun. It is all part of our nature niche to enjoy.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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