Driftless Dark Skies

So many stargazers have their list of rare astronomical events they hope to see at least once while life is in them. I am grateful to have seen an all-sky aurora, several naked-eye comets, two transits of Venus and a total solar eclipse. Still hoping for a visible supernova (I’m looking at you, Betelgeuse!) and a meteor storm with hundreds of meteors per hour. I have come close a few times. There was an outburst of Leonids in November 2001 that happened as predicted, but I was at an education conference in Baltimore. When I woke up early to have a look, I could see the flashes through the clouds even with the bright lights of the Inner Harbor and wondered what it must have been like under the dark skies of the Driftless. In May 2013, I gathered with friends to wait on a predicted good showing of the Camelopardalids that never appeared. There was an unexpected outburst of the Perseids last August about an hour after my friends and I decided to call it a night. Most recently, I was outside looking up at midnight on Memorial Day when there were predictions of a possible meteor storm.

John Heasley

We were at our Iowa County site by sunset and had a wonderful time watching the stars come out and the clouds passing through and wondering if we would have clear skies at midnight. It was almost 11 before twilight ended and the sky was fully dark. We turned our backs to the bright glow of Dodgeville so our eyes could be dark-adapted. And we got excited as we started seeing faint meteors well before the expected peak and the clouds clearing away. And then at midnight, the outburst did not happen. What might have been a meteor storm proved to be more of a meteor drizzle with a few dozen brief bright flashes.

So what did I love so much about the evening? I was in the good company of stargazers as we recalled all the events that happened and did not happen the last 15 years. I was hearing from many others by texts and messages as we looked up together apart. And I still get to anticipate experiencing my first meteor storm. I agree very much with the conclusion of Astronomy Picture of the Day: “It wasn’t the storm of the century — but it was a night to remember.”

I hope you get to see some meteors for yourself this summer. The nights around the July 28 new moon are an especially good time to look. The Aug. 11 full moon will make the Perseids more challenging to see this summer, but there are always meteors to awe us any clear night when we are outside looking up.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador, with the IAU as a Dark Skies Ambassador, and with International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.