I am out before dawn, marching a small dog through a meager park
Boulevards angle away, newspapers fly around like blind white birds
Two days in a row I have not seen the meteors
though the radio news says they are overhead
Leonid's brimstones are barred by clouds; I cannot read
the signs in heaven, I cannot see night rendered into fire
from The Mystery of Meteors by Eleanor Lerman
I thought of Lerman's hauntingly beautiful poem this morning at 4 a.m. when I considered going outside to try to catch the Orionids, the meteor dust spun by the passing of Halley's comet, that the Earth is passing through right now. I knew it would impossible to see any, not because of the moon's phase -- a waning crescent -- but because my new home is illuminated by innumerable lights. I pretend sometimes that I'm living in Manhattan instead of sleepy ol' Charlottesville -- it's so bright outside at night.
I was born during the Perseid meteor showers in mid-August, became aware of that fact when I was probably 13 or 14, and ever after have searched out meteor-watching opportunities. Even in my avidity to watch shooting stars, I only recently realized how many chances there are to see them. Besides the more heralded shows like the Geminids in December and the Leonids in November, there are, for instance, the South and North Taurids in November, the Quadrantids in January, and the Lyrids in April. For years I caught the Delta Aquarids in late July and mistook them for the Perseids, arriving early.
Professional star watchers advise that the best time to see meteor shower are in the hours between midnight and dawn. This is because the Earth is turned in a particular way toward the cosmic dust. But I've found that if you're patient and have a dark sky above, you are bound to see one or two anytime in any area of the sky, even on those days when no spectacular shower is forecasted. If you have the time and the perfect spot, grab a water-proof blanket/tarp and head out tonight (Friday 10/21) or early Saturday morning. If you're up for it, why not try Saturday night/Sunday morning to see this year's Orionids? There are worse things to do than spend a short while watching the heavens above, making small talk and sharing "oohs" and "aahs" with loved ones. And read Lerman's poem too. For me she catches the mysteries of meteors perfectly:
For this is our reward: Come Armageddon, come fire or flood,
come love, not love, millennia of portents —
there is a future in which the dog and I are laughing
Born into it, the mystery, I know we will be saved
A waning crescent moon clears the east horizon tonight around 2:30 am. That's Regulus, heart of the Lion, just to the left, and Mars, above, amid the faint stars of the Crab. The radiant of the Orionids -- the point in the sky where the meteors appear to come from -- is in the region of Gemini and Orion. The 'shooting stars' can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you trace the tail back it will point to that area. Viewing should be good all night long.