A Star Party

Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night with your children? I mean, on purpose, when no one was barfing or crying or peeing the bed? To go stare at the sky, say, at one in the morning? That’s not a requirement, as far as I know, for being a good parent (though there may be some minor statute regarding homeschooling parents). But it is a delight, and not to be missed.

The first time I woke my children, it was just Eli and Aaron and they were very young. I coaxed them out of bed on a chilly winter’s night with the promise of meteors and hot cocoa in a thermos bottle. We tried to find a dark patch of sky under which to place our tarp and heavy blankets, but the lights of Clearwater, Tampa and St. Petersburg made for abysmal star viewing. We saw (maybe) one meteor, and that one was a long shot. There was just too much light. It was disappointing, though the fun of getting up in the middle of the night to drink hot cocoa makes for a good memory anyway. We always talk about that as the meteor shower that wasn’t.

This time, I planned ahead and came prepared. Every summer, the Earth’s orbit takes her through a field of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, and even sand-size particles can produce fireballs with long, streaking tails. I read up on the shower, studied the star chart so I would be able to easily find the constellation Perseus, for whom the shower is named. The meteors can be seen all over the sky, but if you trace their origins, they appear to be coming from the region Perseus inhabits. It’s well worth it, by the way, to find some illustrated Greek myths for children and read the story of Perseus defeating Medusa, the birth of Pegasus, and that celestial family including the easy-to-find Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Andromeda.

There is very little light to compete with the stars and planets here in Marathon, so I spent some time a few nights in a row, watching for meteors, to make sure we would have success. On the night they peaked (early a.m. August 13th), I woke everyone up at one, as planned, and we brought pillows and cushions to the top of our main cabin and stared at the sky. At two o’clock, we took a snack break, and went back to bed around three.

In that time, we saw, on average, a meteor a minute, or “shooting star” as Sam likes to say. Sam saw, on average, two each hour, but that is because he was so excitable and chatty that he didn’t actually lie still and look at the sky. Sarah would exclaim, “I just saw a fireball!” and Sam would reply dejectedly, “I didn’t see it!” We would then chant, in unison, “You have to look at the sky to see it.” It was more like a meteor trickle, to be more accurate with our metaphors, but it was marvelous all the same. In addition, we observed the Pleiades in all their beauty, up close, and Jupiter and his moons through the awesome binoculars Jay got me for my birthday last year. And we laughed about everything, because, evidently, everything is funny at two in the morning. Especially farts.

It was so successful that I got multiple requests to try again tonight, but I am too tired!  We decided to make it an annual tradition instead, and bake star-shaped cookies in preparation for the midnight snack and star party. Even if you don’t live where you can see the Milky Way on a nightly basis, it would be worth it to go out on a clear night and throw your own star party. I know I’m not the only one who gets these hair-brained ideas, but I am often handsomely rewarded for following through with them. Happy sky watching!