Friday May 17, 2019: One, Two, Three, Etc. – a Houston arts and craft company offering Peruvian jewelry, ornaments and accessories. Sip ‘N Stroll Art Market 3-10 PM 1250 Lake Plaza Dr. || Tomorrow –ECFM
Interstate 70 Rest Area Mile Marker 130, Licking (Yes, that’s what it’s called) County Ohio – November, 2016
To reduce chronological confusion, when I am writing “in real time” I will put that text in italics.
Normal font means I am describing something that happened a day or more ago.
At times, it seems that I don’t have a moment to spare. After Denver, I took a load of meat from Kansas to Maryland. I spent a lot of time in Maryland a while back while I was “Shipwrecked” at a Peterbilt Shop.
The delivery in Maryland was in three parts. The first was a big box chain distribution center that was no problem. The second was a Kafka Movie experience. I arrived an hour early at Three AM. I was left waiting for a door. That is to be expected for early arrival so I was not alarmed. I got a door about 90 minutes later, backed the open trailer in and turned in my paperwork – all as expected. After that, the driver waits for the green “docking light” to turn red. This indicates that the unloading has begun and the trailer is “latched” to the building to prevent the trailer from moving. All this would be normal.
But, after an hour, the light was still green. Not normal. I went back to the receiving office and to ask politely if there was some problem or misunderstanding. I was told to “just wait for the call”. On the way back to the truck I notice that eight of ten truck drivers near me are also still looking at green lights in their rear-views. I waited until it was obvious that I would miss my next appointed drop at Seven AM and called to re-schedule. I told the receiving office at stop #3 (a quarter mile away) that I would need at least another hour. She asked where I was. When I told her stop#2’s name and address, she gave me two and one half hours. That made me think she knew something I didn’t. 😉
Drivers generally don’t bother each other in loading docks because they are all busy with paperwork or sending reports or trying to get some sleep. But, I happened to catch a neighbor (also sitting at a green light for over an hour) and he told me that this is normal for Drop #2. At last the light went red and unloading began. They were through in time for me to barely make the new appointment at Drop #3. So, with paperwork in hand and a song in my heart I started the engine and made ready to leave. The light was still red. Again, my trailer was clamped to the building. I could not leave unless I dragged the building with me. A polite reminder call to the receiving office and I was assured I would be released momentarily. I called again fifteen minutes later and said, “I don’t mean to be a pest or anything, but…”
I was at last released to arrive double-late at Drop #3. By this time, my door had been given away and I had to wait another three hours for a door – not unusual for late arrivals.
During the early hours at Drop#2, I received a new load assignment. I reviewed the information and made a trip plan. This opportunity expired during the delay at the door. Another assignment went exactly the same way while delayed at Stop#3.
Above: I don’t have any pictures that relate to this post, so this is a photo of Jill’s recent directions at highway exits. As you see, Jill has gone all Schrodinger’s Cat on me – actually telling me to stay and go at the same time. This went away after a recent software upgrade.
Interstate 94 Rest Area at mile 161 near Ann Arbor, Michigan – 3 AM 11/13/16
I am on a tight schedule two loads in front of the narrative. I will find some time soon (another 34) to catch up. Meanwhile, I have these snippets of time to advance the story.
All told, I spent over ten hours in Maryland planning trips that were later cancelled, interacting with receiving personnel, filing reports, doing paperwork, moving the truck around, waiting for a door or waiting in the door. I might find that sort of activity more interesting and challenging if I were actually paid to do it.
From Maryland, I was sent out to the end of a Peninsula where truck stops are apparently not socially acceptable. There is a chicken plant down there where I was assigned a load. No fuel or parking so it requires preparation and lead time and back without running out of fuel or drive time. It is a lot like Free Diving where one holds their breath to descend to great depths and then return to the surface. This chicken plant is an ugly, unorganized place where they tell you to “drop the empty anywhere” and your full trailer is somewhere on that same lot. I walked around on foot through the muck on the parking lot that also includes thousands of feathers and other organic material from the hundreds of seagulls hanging out around the yard.
Exiting the yard when my load was ready was a choreography. I had to hook the trailer and drag it around to the scale, past all the randomly placed empties and loaded trailers. The scale exits back to the yard, so we do it again to get out the gate. I rehearsed the sequence on foot, making sweeping motions where I would swing wide to avoid collision. I’m sure the yard personnel thought I was some sort of latter day Mr. Monk and avoided me as a result.
Detroit Receiving Yard – 7 AM 11/13/16
Checking in at the guard shack here in Detroit left me with instructions to wait for someone to come find me. I parked where he told me and looked in vain for a receiving office. When my appointment time came I called that number we have for contact and sure enough, there was another door, outside the yard fence where I should have gone. The guard is just a guard and has nothing to do with Receiving. Now that someone in operations knows I am here, I should get a door soon.
Back to the chicken load from Virginia Shore to Iowa.
My work cycle was now reversed from what works. I was getting up in the late afternoon and driving until early morning. Arriving at truck stops and rest areas exactly when they can be expected to be overflowing into the streets and out onto the Interstate shoulders. The trick of passing up the rear-enders to find new vacancies works about half the time. If it fails, then there is the exit ramp. If that is full, the next stop may be only 30 to 50 miles away.
Now Westward bound, I was chasing the sunset instead of fleeing the dawn, as I would prefer. Jupiter appears above the sun and dominates the sky after dusk. When I turn around and head back East, I will see (low to high) Mercury, Saturn, Venus and Mars above the predawn Sun. Venus should be obvious, Mercury may be lost in the Sun. Saturn is faint, being on the far side of the Sun. Mars can always be recognized by its reddish color.
Delivering my Giant Containers of Chicken (one per pallet, 20 pallets – 39,000 pounds) was a pleasure. The Receiving staff was pleasant and informative. The lady of “mature” years who signed me in took me to a window to show me where to park and described what to expect from the loaders. She directed me to the “facilities” and offered me coffee. The doors had a half mile of run-out in front of them making the easiest docking in the world. After I left, I found no room at the inn at the local truck stop, but there was a Walmart down the street with other trucks parked. I joined them and spent about $90 re-stocking the ships’ galley before spending a restful 10 hour break in the same eight parking spaces.
From there to Ottomwa, Iowa to take on a load of pork. I dragged it to Michigan and I thought I was in the twilight zone when I pulled into the chosen area where I expected an 8 PM crowd and found only one other truck in the midst of about 30 pull-through diagonal spaces. A third truck arrived and I asked the driver about this phenomenon. She said it is like this every weekend.
Normally I fill up my water bottles at rest areas. I found the water fountains stained with mineral deposits and the water was not worth collecting. When stainless steel fountains are stained, be very afraid. Flint, Michigan is just down the road from here. You would think they might use water softeners and filters at rest stops and other very public places. Evidently not.
I called from Detroit Receiving again after an hour parked. I’m next, they tell me.
Vermillion Service Plaza exit 139, Interstate 80, Ohio – 1 PM 11/13/16
The Detroit drop is complete and I have moved to a place 20 miles from the Ohio drop. I’ll leave at 3:30 AM tomorrow to complete that one and drive 120 miles to another appointment at noon.
This brings us to the point where the two narratives merge into the present.
Some of you readers are aware that I have been working as a Telescope Operator at the George Observatory at Brazos Bend State Park. There are three domed instruments that are open to the public for viewing on Saturday nights – weather permitting. I get to operate the smallest to these — a 14 inch Schmidt Cassegrain instrument. For non-Astronomy Nerds, the 14 inch number refers to the diameter of the mirror that is inside the big, black tube.
We might have forty or more visitors on an average night, but even so there are occasional intervals when I can make some photographs. There was one night when the atmospheric conditions made the “seeing” miserable, but I still managed to catch some images of Saturn. Most detail of the planet and rings was lost, but a couple of satellites were captured in one long time-exposure where the planet and rings were overexposed. You might need to zoom to see the moons.
More recently, on a night with better seeing, the Orion Nebula was captured in a series of different exposure times. I include two below.
There are methods, these days, to stack (combine) multiple images and get far more impressive results. I am looking in to that.
Like many people, I have an interest in the idea that the Earth has been the victim of a multitude of asteroid impacts, over the Eons, and might become targeted again. Unlike many people, I have looked up the orbital parameters and mass for some near-Earth asteroids and applied Kepler’s Laws to estimate what effort might be necessary to change the path of a potential Earth-impacting planetoid.
What I found was that it would be extremely expensive, but within the realm of possibility. Well, damn the expense! If it can be done, we would do it or suffer the consequences. I used the Cassini Saturn-orbiting probe as my example of “current technology”, which tells other Space Nerds how long ago that activity occurred.
The scenario was that we should launch a mass the size of Cassini with that probe’s velocity to collide with the asteroid – not to blast it into pieces, because that would not be nearly enough. Rather it would be to change the orbit – to delay (or advance, works either way) the arrival by one Earth radius. The idea being that when the threatening asteroid got to its intercepting point, the Earth would not yet (or no longer) be there.
Figure 2: Cassini: Now, I don’t mean to ram billion-dollar space probes into asteroids. I just used this as an example of what mass has been launched before – at what velocity.
The truth is that I don’t remember* how many “Cassini masses” would be required, but I seem to remember that it was at least 20, so we will go with that. After all (and as I pointed out at the time) Boeing would be happy to launch 20 measly rockets, just to have the “Boeing Saves the World” press coverage. That choice of Boeing* is another indicator of the age of this calculation. Today, I reckon SpaceX would be the contractor of choice. Tell me Elon Musk wouldn’t be happy to get that media coverage!
There are a lot of details that make this far more complicated than I might have led you to believe. For example, Cassini only got out to Saturn by making “slingshot” passes of Venus (twice), the Earth and Jupiter. It is actually the velocity that is the critical element and a very great deal of that was gained by those encounters. I have assumed that we learn of impending doom long before the pending event, since Cassini was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004.
It also took a long time to engineer the craft and develop the mission but, we imagine that development of a simple impactor would be vigorously expedited, given the circumstances. It might be better to just send a big bag of sand. And one might entertain the idea of releasing the sand from the bag just before impact to spread it out some. See, you don’t want to make a lot of fragments, since those will undoubtedly have a variety of orbits, some of which might still intersect the Earth.
One complicating problem about all this was pointed out by Carl Sagan. If I change the orbit of the asteroid and don’t do the job in “one fell swoop”, the effect is to move the location of impact, not into space, but to another location on Earth. Sagan compared this to “walking” a very large Nuclear bomb across whatever countries are between the initial impact zone and the “edge of the planet”. Carl had in mind some kind of rocket placed on the asteroid that would gradually move the impact zone. I checked that idea and it requires a lot of “rocketry” and so lots of logistics and assembly and fueling. My simple-minded “throwing rocks” (or sandbags) scenario was a lot less complicated but still not in the “one fell swoop” category.
Now, I told you all that so I could tell you this:
I am currently attending the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. This is the 50th such conference and it is no coincidence that the moon landing was also 50 years ago. The Conference “proper” has yet to start. I have just finished the second of two sessions of what is called the Microsymposium 60 – a “preliminary” event, like the no-name band that opens for Pink Floyd*.
*Shall I just put an asterisk on these “tells” for how old I am?
Microsymposium 60 (Spellcheck fails miserably when they make up words like that, so I copy-and-paste these things) was all about how there is now a “Moon Rush” of private contractors and government effort to return to the moon. That sort of news is usually hyperbole*, but this time it might be different. Government will probably not come through anytime soon, but there is a moon lander by a private company that – if all goes well – will land on April 11…this year! I just learned that in Microsymposium 60.
Figure 4: Space IL Beresheet probe. This was a Lunar X-Prize entry, but the X-prize expired un-won. They went on anyway.
Other private companies have been making moon landers, too. They are ready to go and showing their wares (along with Instrument Makers) to eager planetary scientists today and throughout the Conference. In case you think these are lightweights, among the presenters were Lockheed Martin and SpaceX. Some of the lesser known companies have made equipment and whole probes before. A company called Masten has made over 600 flights, (many with landings) to date.
Microsymposium 60 will be the subject of yet another post (or magazine article). This post is to reveal where I am about to go listen to technical presentations for three hours this afternoon. Notice (below) that this is for “the media”. Yup, I am “credentialed” Working Press (it says so, right here on my plastic badge) for the entire Convention.
Workshop for the Media on Planetary Defense
at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference
Everything you’ve always wanted to know about near-Earth objects and planetary defense: a workshop for journalists and science writers. (that’s me! – Steve)
Sunday, March 17, 3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. EDT, GMT -5)
The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center
The workshop is free but places are limited, so registration is required.
In this three-hour workshop, experts will report on the methods and status of finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth objects (NEOs) and planning for planetary defense. Plenty of time will be provided for questions and discussion.
Journalists and science writers will have an opportunity to learn about such developments as:
Progress in ground-based optical and radar observations of near-Earth asteroids and comets.
Advances in modeling and understanding atmospheric, land, and water impacts of NEOs.
Current understanding of NEO characteristics.
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test, the first mission that will demonstrate an asteroid deflection technique (the kinetic impactor).
Functions of the Minor Planet Center, the International Asteroid Warning System, and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group.
The first test of the global asteroid-impact warning system and plans for a second test.
Interagency and international cooperation on planning for planetary defense.
The status of planning for a dedicated, space-based asteroid detection telescope.
Experts on hand will include:
NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson
NASA NEO Observations Program Manager Kelly Fast
NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office Program Executive Rob Landis
NASA NEO Observations Program Scientist Michael Kelley
University of Arizona Associate Professor, Small Bodies, Situational Awareness, Vishnu Reddy
Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCAM) Principal Investigator Amy Mainzer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Saturday March 15, 2019 8:30 AM to 1:30 PM One, Two, Three, Etc. is an arts and craft company in Houston that offers Peruvian jewelry, ornaments and accessories.
At the The Heights Epicurean Farmers Market 1245 Heights Blvd 77008
This is yet another post that was languishing over at the WordPress site.
September 27, 2016
“Stay away from Dallas”.
This sage advice is from me to myself. I am in Denton, Texas, “sitting in a door” awaiting the unloading of produce from California. A “preplan” has just come across the satellite link that tells me my next load will be picking up at the Coca Cola Syrup Plant in Dallas. The destination is Denver for 840 miles – a two day trip that will undoubtedly be stretched into four days, as we discussed in earlier Chapters. But, I accept the load because I really have no choice.
Now for the Rest of the Story: A note from someone named Billy says I should bring my load to the Yard. So, you see the lesson is clear: Stay away from Dallas.
I called my Driver Manager to Confirm this – since I have no idea who “Billy” is – and, yes I have to make an appearance in Purgatory (not the ski resort (NTSR)). One reason is a physical exam , after the third such in the last nine months. I passed them all, by the way. The first and third exams had a one year renewal. But, since my livelihood is apparently a low priority, I have to go in for a forth. Today is Friday. Since it its nearly 4 PM and the light is still red – meaning I cannot yet leave the door – there is no way I can get there during “office hours” – and I suspect the Doctors do not work on Weekends. So, unless I miss my guess, this will be three or possibly four more days of ungainful unemployment.
The unloaded message from Target has come. The light is still red but when it changes I can go to Coca Cola and then to Purgatory (NTSR). Meanwhile, my clock has run out completely and utterly. The Coca Cola Plant policy is – as I many times said as a bartender – “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”. I had told the shipping clerk that if I could not be loaded in two hours, I would come back in the morning. That particular clerk was not among the Polite and Helpful Shipping Personnel of whom I have written before. He ignored my advice completely.
While the clock was ticking down, – in anticipation of what finally did occur – I had called “Night Safety” and asked for advice. Their sage counsel was basically this: “Call me when you actually fall off the cliff.”
One thing I have learned in this occupation (maybe I should start a list) is: When you have an insoluble problem, ask the people in the plant because they have seen this a hundred times before,” The first choice is the Yard Tractor Guy, If he is unavailable (being very busy), ask the man who brings you your paperwork. That helpful and cheerful individual clued me in to some big parking lots to be found about a half mile away. I chose a Lowes lot, because, on the way in I had stopped there to confirm directions. There was an old trailer parked there that I could hide behind to avoid any questions from the Local Constabulary.
I was officially “off duty” and I creeping the truck at 10 MPH – flashers going – I manage to stay that way to find the Lowes. I also find another truck who has taken my hiding place behind the abandoned trailer. One look by the loading docks finds tow-away warnings with certain words in bold font. There was, however a string of about 10 conventional parking spots – off the side of the building, but in full view of the street.
Calling Night Safety is no longer useful since they may well tell me to move. And I have no confidence in their advice now anyway. So, I mentally prepare my defense for the sin of parking.
That sign that says no parking anytime (with emphasis) cannot possibly apply to me here because: What are these spaces between the eight lines that I am parked over? That’s right – “Parking Spaces!”
Yes, I have taken nine of them, but I can point to hundreds of empty spaces out in front of the store.
I have every right to park here, because I am a customer. I need to buy a screwdriver. I find that the store is closed now, but I don’t mind waiting.
I will be leaving at 4:30 AM. Please tell me if the other spaces fill up before then.
September 27, 2016 Pilot truck Stop outside Amarillo, Texas
Back in Purgatory
The “Yard” is a singularly depressing place. Every driver there is earning nothing. When I arrive, I am handed a list of tasks I must accomplish in order to escape Purgatory (NTSR). I find that I will be here at least three days between safety lectures and the physical exam. A few of the safety items are accomplished before the office staff goes home at noon, Saturday. The remainder must wait until Monday. With few exceptions, every driver here is trapped without transportation. You don’t just drive these trucks when you think you want to go somewhere – you must be “dispatched” and you won’t be, until your list is complete and signed off. There are two “loaner” cars for the untold hundreds of drivers. The waiting list is three hours long and the car must be returned within one hour. The entirety of Saturday afternoon was consumed with one trip to Walmart. This was urgent, since the truck’s food supply has dwindled to “Spam Rations”.
Sunday was shaping up to be especially dismal, having literally nothing to advance the cause of getting out of Purgatory (NTSR). I thought of my son Benjamin now attending college classes about 50 miles from Purgatory. I would like to visit him, but that would be a trip out of the one-hour-loaner-car range. A taxi is financially counter-indicated in my current circumstances. Fortunately, Dallas has an extensive mass-transit rail system that nobody seems to know about. I hatched a plot to make a Great Railway Journey to The University of Texas at Dallas (which is really in Richardson, Texas). Some research came up with this route:
Take the 597 bus that stops right in front of Purgatory (NTSR). That takes me to Lawn View train station. From there I take the Green line downtown and transfer to the Red Line which takes me almost to Plano. I get off at City Line/Bush station and take the 883 UTD shuttle. About two hours and fifteen minutes each way. Since the alternative was to cool my heals in Purgatory, I decided to make the journey. The price was right, being a five-dollar day pass. I noticed that it was good until Three AM the next day. I am quite sure this is because bars close at Two.
Above: The trip plan to UT Dallas. The Astute Reader will notice that this is actually a picture of the return route.
Above: The Green Line station at Lawn View
Above: Benjamin’s Dormitory Building. His window is third from the left on the second floor. Like almost every building on Campus, it is very new.
Above: The lobby at Benjamins Dorm.
So, instead of a depressing and lonely vigil of hopelessness, Sunday had become an interesting trip to spend some time with my beloved son. There is, after all a reason not to avoid Dallas. For this much-needed relief I was truly thankful.
Benjamin took me to lunch and then we went shopping at Walmart. That was yet another bus ride. The stop outside Walmart was littered with abandoned shopping carts. I, your humble narrator, pointed out (ostensibly to Benjamin, but meant to be overheard by the mass of scholars there assembled) that the arriving student-shoppers could choose a cart from this stash and take it in with them. I set them an example, but none of the “Future of America” saw fit to join me. They did select carts at the door, however. And no doubt they added to the collection at the bus stop on the way out.
Above: The bus stop at Walmart
Above: City Line / Bush Station, on the way back to Purgatory. The emergency equipment was there when I arrived for some poor commuter who somehow fell and was trapped between the bench and the partition that you see under the awning at left. I didn’t rush over and photograph him, since I am sure he was dying of embarrassment, in addition to the nasty bruises I noticed as they put him in the ambulance.
There is some good that comes of this unwilling visit to Purgatory. Mechanics replaced the duct taped improvised oil filler cap that I made from a fish oil pill bottle with a real oil cap and replaced the lost oil – five gallons of same. They also repaired the tractor suspension airbag that was leaking. While I was in safety class and getting my blood pressure checked, they replaced my cracked windshield. They transferred the EZ pass for tolls and the Prepass indicator for weigh stations to the new windshield. One particular windshield-mounted item did not make the transition and I won’t miss it one bit. (Update: Since I am no longer employed by Stevens Transport I can tell you that the item in question was the “1984 – Big Brother Camera” (84BBC) that watched over me for those months before the windshield was replaced. I did not mention it before because, in my Paranoia, I imagined that Stevens might read my blog and call me again to Purgatory for a replacement of the 84BBC.)
There was also a problem with the air-suspension seats, which tend to leak down while the engine is off and leave the driver looking eye-level at the steering wheel. They did not get to that problem of the leaking seats but I can live with those. When the engine is running the seats rise to comfortable height. It would have taken longer and I needed to get on the road to actually earn a living.
On Monday, after all my assigned tasks were complete, I received a load assignment to take bottled soft drinks to Denver.
(I was rummaging around on some thumb drives and found this from 2001. The Alert Reader will point out that USB drives were not around then. True. This was in a folder called “Floppy_Recovery”. I actually bought a 3 ½ inch floppy disk drive and copied a pile of floppies into this particular USB some years back. I added some “file photos” that would never have fit on a floppy, anyway). Homepage
The Leonids are neither a sixties group, nor a box of stronger breath mints, nor followers of a religion devoted to a deity named Leon , as you may have thought by the name but rather an event that takes place once a year around November 18th, when meteors rain down from the general direction of a point in the sky near the constellation Leo. Well, perhaps “rain” is a misleading choice of words since the normal Leonid meteor “shower” consists of one meteor every few minutes and I personally have sat out in the November damp chill and not seen a meteor for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. Only the most demented Astronomy Nerds (A.N.’s) would put up with the amount of inconvenience involved to see what, for the non-Astronomy Nerd is less interesting than counting the number of cars with one headlight at four in the morning on a dark stretch of country road.
It is especially taxing for the urban A.N. because it involves a trip out of town of at least an hour to an isolated dark spot. You might think that there are plenty of dark spots out there, but I dare you to find one! About anywhere you can drive to in an hour around here (here is Houston) is lit either by passing cars or billboard lights or gleaming florescent signs. In Texas, more than a few of the people who like to hang out in the country also like to mount a half dozen searchlights on their vehicles. The one hope is to find a State Park and even then the non-Astronomy Nerds will wander around all night with flashlights that could illuminate the Grand Canyon. They mean no harm, you understand, but these folks have never heard of the concept of night vision and routinely put their beam of light directly on your face as a sort of a greeting. and say “Hi! Whacha’ doin’?”
There is one exception, a state park that actually has made an effort to keep illumination off the sky and provided areas down twisting footpaths away from the roads where one can find uninterrupted darkness. It’s Brazos Bend State Park and there is a nice dark place get a wide angle view of the sky or to set up telescopes. If you go there, please keep the flashlight use to a minimum and never illuminate anyone’s face. I didn’t manage to reserve a campsite early enough because all the other Astronomy Nerds thought four months ahead as opposed to my three. I did find a spot in Stephen F. Austin State Historical Park. It’s located near San Felipe which was the capital of newly declared independent Texas before it was burned to prevent it from falling to the advancing Mexican Army, who wanted Texas to be dependent again. There are some reconstructed buildings (one’s a museum), statues and historical markers near the park entrance. (Trivia question: What does the F. in Stephen F. Austin stand for?)
Those unfamiliar with astronomical events always assume that you will be looking at a meteor shower with a telescope. As an exercise to prove how silly that is, extend your arm at the sky with your thumb up. That tiny piece of sky covered by your thumb is many times the field of view of an average telescope. You could see more of the sky by looking through a two-foot-long pipe than through a telescope! Meteors happen all over the sky, during a shower or otherwise. Why on earth would you limit your view to a tiny patch of sky?
It is obvious that hardly anyone bothers to look at the sky anymore. I’ve had people swear to me that they’ve seen the space station hovering overhead (turned out to be Jupiter). Others expect to see Venus always near the moon. A few are not even aware that the moon can be seen in the daytime. But, shoot, is there any real reason for your average person to look at the sky these days? Especially urban dwellers for whom the night sky is a brown haze, illuminated from below, at the best of times?
I go out to see these things because I find it fascinating but I am aware that some do not share my enthusiasm. Nevertheless, I dragged my wife and children along on this last expedition. When I make the journey with other A.N.’s we throw lawn chairs in the trunk and leave at midnight. Provisions such as beef jerky and Shiner Bock beer (with appropriate designated driver, of course) are to be found in fueling depots along the way. Stay up most of the night, doze off in the chairs and drive back with stiff necks in the morning. This will not do for a family outing, however. Especially with small children…who will only stay awake at night when you desperately want them to sleep.
It becomes a regular camping trip, then, complete with tent, sleeping bags, flashlights, blankets, pillow, portable propane stove and an ice chest with the entire contents of the kitchen refrigerator (as opposed to the garage refrigerator). Might as well take along the telescope (for looking at planets and stars, not meteors, you understand) and the bicycles because we’ll have some daylight hours to kill. Appropriate stuffed animals and annoying hand held electronic games to keep the offspring occupied. The target for leaving had been ten o’clock. It was eleven thirty when we left.
The first thing we found out at the campsite is that we have forgotten what to do on camp-outs. We rode bicycles, walked around for a while and played twenty questions. It was still only four o’clock in the afternoon and we were sitting around looking at each other. So we did what any bored campers would do, we went into town. Not really into town, but that peninsula of fast-food and big-box retail that grew up around the interstate. There we bought charcoal, which we’d forgotten. I’m not sure how we were planning to cook the hotdogs for dinner unless we boiled them on the propane stove…in a pot, which we also forgot. And while it might be possible to roast marshmallows over a propane flame, I doubt it would be much fun. Of course, any cooking would require matches, which we had also forgotten.
“So,” you are perhaps thinking, “Just when is he going to get to the part about the meteor shower?”
Meteor showers are best after midnight ’cause that’s when the Earth (the part of Earth where it’s after midnight, that is) is plowing “head-on” into this cloud of dust that makes meteors. The cloud itself has been spewed out along the orbit of a comet that crosses the Earth’s orbit. Now, I know what you’re thinking. It’s the same question reporters ask astronomers (in an urgent voice) every time the subject of comets and or near Earth asteroids comes up.
You’re thinking “Crosses the Earth’s orbit! But what if it hit the Earth?”
Relax, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning, hit by a bus and bitten by a shark, all simultaneously. The orbits don’t actually cross but just come close enough to where the Earth will run into that scattered dust cloud. And, even if they did cross exactly, then a collision would require that they both arrive at the same point in their orbits at the same time, which almost never happens neither.
So, there are times when there is a particularly thick cloud of dust that we happen upon. Not really thick, but just relatively thick, it’s still a dead ringer for absolute emptiness. That’s what’s called a meteor storm. Or the shower is said “to storm”.
Like this: “I understand that some predictions say the Leonids are going to storm this year”
This is a particularly cool thing to say around Astronomy Nerds because somebody is always predicting a “storm” and so you would sound like you actually know what you’re talking about. Of course you would be saying this to impress a bunch of people who hang out in the dark all night, staring up at the sky, so I’m not sure how useful this advice is.
The Leonids were supposed to storm last year, too – and the year before. I made the trip back then with the largest of my two sons and we saw a few good meteors. I always thought it would be cool if I could call them “My Three Sons” like the early sixties sitcom but I only have the two. I suppose I could say “three” if I count the cat who is indeed a male albeit a “repaired” one. (Fixed? Heck, I didn’t even know he was broken!) .
Yes, I know, you’d like to hear about the meteor shower. Well, I arose after a fitful few hours of sleep to look at the sky and was extremely disappointed to see a complete cloud cover. I wasn’t surprised because this sort of thing happens all the time with meteor showers ’round here. I sat down in my lawn chair to be miserable about it for a while.
While we are sitting here being miserable, let us discuss the difference between meteors, meteorites and meteoroids. Way out in space is the particle of dust or bit of rock or chunk of stone that is cruising along, unaware that it is about to run into a planet. That is a meteoroid. Anything that ends with “oid” is out in space and usually relatively small. I say relatively because a “planetoid” or “asteroid” can be the size of, say, North Dakota and still be small when compared to a planet or an asteroid like Ceres, which is bigger than Texas. When this unsuspecting meteoroid actually passes through the atmosphere it makes a streak of light that can be seen by all the Astronomy Nerds and anyone else foolish enough to be out in the cold, damp night, assuming its not completely clouded over like now. That is a meteor. Most of these streak-makers – the vast majority – burn up completely, but a meteorite is a chunk of rock that you can pick up off the ground that once was a meteoroid and made a meteoric flash of light before its arrival.
I used to say wait till it cools off before you pick it up, but a meteorite, (I find out) by the time it hits the ground, has slowed to mere “falling rock” speed and has cooled off considerably. I suppose it might still be warm, but it won’t be red hot. Small comfort to anyone who happens to be in its path. Relax! As far as I know, there is only one documented case of a meteorite hitting a person. Those who minds retain such useless information (yo!) remember seeing a black and white picture of a huge ugly bruise on the unfortunate lady’s abdomen. She recovered. These days meteors bring in big bucks from collectors so it might be worth the pain if it did happen. But it’s actually far more likely that you’ll win the state lottery so hope for that instead.
I sat there for a while thinking what a bummer it was that I had planned this for months and here I was going to miss the whole thing. I could have driven out to West Texas, maybe, where the climate tends to be drier. I noticed a small hole in the clouds with a few stars visible and decided that maybe a few meteors would pass across it. This is what is metaphorically called “grasping at straws”.
Over the next hour, to my great astonishment, the sky cleared off completely. I saw a meteor, then another, then more. It was about two A.M. with a peak expected around four. I’d seen enough to wake up the family. You have to be careful about waking up your family at two A.M. It is absolutely essential that you have something impressive to show them or the next time you try this silliness you’ll be out there alone. Nobody was disappointed. This was a major meteor storm to be sure. At first I’d counted for a minute and found about six firm meteors. That is to say, I’m sure they weren’t fireflies. That’s an hourly count of 360 – impressive enough. I don’t want you to think that I did this in any scientific way. In fact, I didn’t have my watch on. I counted, one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two. And since I can’t walk and chew gum, I kept a tally of meteors on my fingers. I belong to that group that prefers the one-thousand-one method to the more popular one-mississippi method.
Around three or three thirty or so (I didn’t have my watch, remember?) I counted 12 in a minute. Then, sometime after four there were 22 in a minute. I had my shoes off, you see, to count toes and used eyelids and was lucky that there weren’t more than 22, or I’d never have seen ’em.
(Since then, I have learned a new method of finger-counting, which I described in “On Zeno’s Swim Team”. It’s good up to 99. )
I didn’t have a clear view of the whole sky by any means and there was a bit of haze, but it was still an experience of a lifetime. A published “official” count in the newspaper the next day was 1250 for the peak. These are from people who count for an entire hour with stopwatches and click-counters. My 22 in a minute calculates out to 1320 per hour. Not bad for fingers and toes and “one-thousand-one”!
I kind of hated to call my friend who is a fellow Astronomy Nerd who was unable to make the trip and tell him what he missed. I already have a cousin who’s mad at me since I described the experience. She knew about the shower but didn’t go see it because I didn’t call up and tell her how good it would be. Truth is, I didn’t know how good it would be either.
Trivia answer: Stephen Fuller Austin
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