So what happens when an earth-sized object moving at 64,000 miles an hour while wrapped inside a balloon of air crosses paths with rocky debris from an asteroid cranking along at about 34,000 miles an hour?
Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. Nope. It’s a lovely flash of streaking white lights called a meteor shower.
It was precisely to watch that show – titled “Catch a Falling Star” – that members of the Louisville Astronomical Society (LAS) set up shop at the PNC Achievement Center at Beckley Creek Park in mid-December. The only problem that night was a thickly clouded sky about four to five miles up prevented any live viewing of the streaking white lights another 40 to 60 miles up, limiting attendance.
But not to worry. The 109-member LAS has a regular run of sky watching events at The Parklands – and in many other areas around Louisville, including the Big Four Bridge, which have drawn a total of 12,000 heaven-gazers in recent years.
The gatherings are free. Most will come with a large, amiable man named Ken Alderson, who is past president of LAS and a member of the board of directors of U of L’s Rauch Planetarium. He also comes with a badge naming him an appointed Solar System Ambassador for NASA – no salute required – and an eagerness to explain astronomical things and events generally beyond easy understanding.
“I used to be a cave explorer,” said Alderson. “Then when I got outside and looked up at the heavens, I wanted to go up there.”
The December meteor showers include names and definitions both modern and ancient, Greek and Roman – with some possible horoscope predictions included. It’s called the Geminid shower because it seems to radiate from the Gemini constellation, a cluster of 85 visible stars; the brightest of them Castor and Pollux.
Add to that mix a rocky asteroid with the sexy name of 3200 Phaethon. It’s about 3.2 miles wide and travels our corner of the universe in a huge elliptical path that brings it close to the sun where its temperature might reach 1,385 degrees, creating a dry, brittle surface that sheds trailing particles into space. Then it flies off a few hundred million miles past Mars before heading back toward us.
Phaethon, by the way, is named in Greek mythology for Phaeton, the son of the god Helios. Phaeton had the bad habit of stealing his old man’s Chariot of the Sun, veering too high and chilling the earth’s poles, then veering too low and creating the deserts of Africa. The story goes Zeus put an end to that with one well-aimed lightning bolt.
But, lo, the story continued. Our earth is about 4.6 billion years old. The precise age of asteroid 3200 Phaethon is somewhat of a mystery; it was only discovered in 1983 by a NASA satellite. We do knows that every December – as regular as Santa Claus – planet Earth crosses its enormous trail of rocky dust, much of it as small as a grain of sand.
That combined 100,000 mile-an-hour collision releases chemicals that rarify the air around it and, SHAZAM, a white streak of light flares in the night sky – as many as 100 to 150 such flares an hour.
And on a clear night, those flares would be visible with the naked eye while sitting back on a lawn chair in the comfortable darkness of the Egg Lawn at The Parklands. It’s always good to lay back at such events, forget about the petty politics and disappointing basketball scores, and ponder the infinite wonders of the universe, the magic of such tiny particles of rock making such an enormous fuss in the night sky. We should all do it more often.
Alderson, who leads lectures on astronomy inside the PNC Achievement Center rain or shine, makes it all easier. He tells stories such as the Tunguska Event in 1908 when an exploding meteor leveled 80 million trees over 830 square miles in a remote area of Siberia.
“It was so huge,” said Alderson, “that people thought the world was coming to an end and killed themselves.”
He spoke of the Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over the Ural Mountains in Russia in 2013. It weighed an estimated 10,000 tons, was about 65 feet across, injured about 1,500 people and damaged thousands of buildings.
Its flash was three times brighter than the sun. It had the force of a 300-kiloton nuclear warhead and it rained shattered fragments across much of central Russia, including a 1,300-pound piece pulled from the bottom of a lake.
The vastness of Russia seems a perfect astrological target – although astrological time and space would seem to make all of us targets at some point. Alderson carries around with him in his pockets – and will show to any who wants to see it – a small, shiny piece of meteorite that fell in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains in southeastern Russia in 1947.
Composed of 220,000 pounds of iron, nickel and cobalt, the meteor’s bright flash and deafening sound was seen and felt for 200 miles. It left a smoke trail 20 miles long, created a crater 80 feet across and 16 feet deep, and a continual search for its pieces – which are now being sold online in prices ranging from $400 to $15,000.
An astronomer partner to Alderson at The Parklands was Roger Curry, who stood ready in the dark Egg Lawn area with his 9 ¼-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope. His path into astrology is as interesting as some of the star formations. He lives very close to The Parklands. He finds it an excellent place to observe the stars, especially when all the parks lights are turned off on event nights.
“I was born a chronic insomniac,” he said, “and I used to spend summers on my grandparents’ farm near Albany, Kentucky. I wasn’t able to sleep at night. There was not a lot to do, so I would drag a chair off my grandparents’ porch, look up at the sky and wonder what all those fuzzy patches were.”
The fascination stuck. During his sophomore year in high school he convinced his parents to buy him a telescope – and he still has it. He collected star charts and would study them by himself. He attended the University of Kentucky, took two semesters of astronomy, and made A’s in both classes without opening a book, and then moved on to a career in the world of computer programming, but never left his study of stars and the sky.
“I kept wondering,” he said, “what else could be out there?”
About the Author
Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system – all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill’s stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.