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In Pursuit of Perseids

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Story and photos by Brendan Bane

Strangers are gathering atop a 3,100-foot peak, looking down over the tops of redwoods and clouds blanketing the Santa Clara Valley. They are experts, novices, enthusiasts, academics. But most importantly, they are stargazers. And they are assembled at Fremont Peak State Park for the Fremont Peak Observatory Association’s 28th annual Star-B-Q.

I’ve never visited Fremont Peak, nor have I ever peered through a telescope that was bigger than a paper towel roll. But as I make my way toward the mountain on an August night that marks the start of the Perseid meteor shower—and with little moonlight to interfere with prime viewing—I’m determined to see some flying rocks.

The park lies just outside San Juan Bautista, at the summit of the Gabilan Range. A meandering, canyon-splitting road leads up to the peak. My (not so) trusty smart phone directs me up an especially windy road leading not to the peak but to hillside and dirt. Lost but not alone, I spot three vultures circling above. Perhaps they suspect I won’t last the trip down the mountain. But the dour birds are proven wrong, and I find my way back to the main road.

A half hour later, I pull into a small lot where amateur astronomers are removing cannon-like telescopes from the trunks of their cars. I park and begin walking toward the sound of acoustic guitars and social chatter. Within moments I’m munching on M&Ms and looking through Marcia Chelanskis’ optical equipment. “I saw the Perseids in Honolulu,” she explains as she doles out candy. “So I’m looking forward to seeing another fiery show!”

Friendly and generous, Chelanskis embodies the spirit of the event, ensuring I have food in my hands and an eyepiece below my brow. In fact, everyone with an instrument is more than happy to offer glances to telescope noobs like myself.

The Big Gun
As if the enthusiasts’ tools aren’t enough, the observatory has its own fleet of telescopes, complete with interns to guide guests around various astronomical bodies. The shining star of the suite is the 30-inch-diameter Challenger, which occupies a classroom-sized building atop a hill. At night, the roof is lifted clear off the building, and guests can climb a stepladder to meet the eyepiece.

Intern Edwin Levin introduces me to the Challenger and runs through its specs. “This is a 2,000-pound telescope,” he tells me. “The mirror itself weighs 250 pounds. It’s bolted into solid concrete, straight through the mountain, down to bedrock. A little motor, which matches the speed of the earth’s rotation, keeps the telescope centered on the object we’re looking at.”

Levin and I are soon drawn outside by the sound of applause and laughter. Fremont Peak Observatory Association members are raffling prizes to a crowd of eager enthusiasts. Kids walk away with Orion gift certificates and Richard Feynman books. Just as I find a seat, a young boy wins the grand prize: a $360, minifridge-sized Orion telescope. The crowd coos. The boy grins.

Mapping The Meteors
Once the raffle ends, NASA scientist and meteor astronomer Peter Jenniskens takes the stage. With the Santa Clara Valley behind him and a projector screen fastened to redwood poles, Jenniskens begins discussing his most recent project: Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance (CAMS). “Fremont Peak Observatory is taking part in a NASA program, CAMS, which is aimed at mapping meteor showers,” he explains. “In two years we’ve filmed 101,240 meteors. Since we passed our first 100,000 meteors, we had a cake. I hope you all had a slice!”

At Fremont Peak, at Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton and at a third, secluded site, Jenniskens set up 180 surveillance cameras to monitor the evening sky for shooting stars. Through laborious observation, he’s documented thousands of meteors triangulated between the three sites and pinpointed the exact location of every shower. There, in the cool summer evening, he debuts a moving map of the blanket of meteors that orbit our planet.

The sky darkens as Jenniskens lectures. Fluttering bat silhouettes on the horizon vanish as the crescendo hum of a thousand insects grows. I glance up between slides, noticing each time that another layer of starry detail has been added to the night sky. At first a few, then countless, luminous spheres shine down upon us. When the lecture concludes, many have already lined up for a glimpse through the Challenger.

Seeing The Light
Someone offers to hold my place in line so I can peer through a scope focused on Saturn. Although the planet I see appears white, I learn that the gas giant’s color is given off by its outer clouds, which are mostly composed of ammonia crystals. Saturn is actually a mix of orange and white.

The person who offers to hold my spot is Margaret Hau. She and her husband attended the Star-B-Q 20 years ago. Not much has changed, apparently. “It was this big communal experience where everybody was sharing what they were seeing,” she says. “You could go up to anyone’s telescope and take a look. Everyone was alive with the night sky, like they are tonight!”

And then, amid the twinkling but still stars, streaking flashes fly by at over 100,000 miles per hour. The Perseids have arrived. The meteors show up minutes apart, but are always marked by the crowd’s oohs and aahs. I watch the flying rocks with Jenniskens’s colored meteor maps fresh in my mind, recalling that one such image showed the asteroid belt. “This whole green band is made of more than 100,000 tiny little dots. Each dot is one asteroid—one such rock," Jenniskens said. "There are that many interesting places out there to one day go and visit.”

Hau’s right. Despite not having enough light to see their own shoelaces, everyone is alive with excitement at the sight of flying meteors and the Milky Way.

Back under the fog, it’s all too easy to forget to look up and notice how small we really are. But up at the peak, our place in the universe couldn’t appear clearer.

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