Every year for one week, Earth passes through the Perseid Meteor Shower. It's a stream of space dust left behind by a comet in 1862.
One of the best places on the West Coast to see all the shooting stars is the University of Oregon's Pine Mountain Observatory in Central Oregon.
OPB's Ethan Lindsey joined a couple of hundred other adventurous stargazers over the weekend — one of whom, let's just say he knows rather well.
Debbie McDaniel: “Just 360 degrees of black sky and bright, bright stars. Something you don't see unless you get away from city lights.”
Debbie McDaniel is from Los Angeles. She says the drive to Pine Mountain isn't like driving down the Santa Monica Freeway.
From Bend, the directions are as follows: Drive twenty miles east. Make a right after the abandoned gas station at mile marker 26. Drive past three cattle guards and make a right at the dirt road. Five miles of uphill driving later, you arrive at a small campground.
Debbie McDaniel: “I came up to see the meteor shower and shooting stars and just seeing all the constellations.”
Ethan Lindsey: “But why are you really here, what dragged you up here?”
Debbie McDaniel: “Oh. My son…”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm the son. And I got her out here both because I wanted to show off my central Oregon home, and also I wanted to write this story. At the top of the road, next to the campsite, there are two small silo-sized observatory towers run by the University of Oregon.
Besides my mom and me, there were about 60 other people sitting around in the dark staring up at the sky that night. About 3 times as many showed up the night before. Most were families and young couples.
A few amateur astronomers had set up a cluster of home telescopes. Every couple of minutes, a shooting star would light up the sky.
Greg Hogue is a member of the Friends of Pine Mountain, a group of volunteer astronomers who help out at the observatory. He had one of the biggest telescopes and was helping kids up a ladder to look into it.
Greg Hogue: “They're up here tonight in particular for the Perseid Meteor Shower. We're moving through the debris trail of a comet called Swift-Tuttle. We have a really nice sky tonight, so you're going to see the Milky Way and lots of stars. And we're looking at galaxies and nebulae with the telescopes, but with the naked eye they're gonna see quite a good number of bright meteors from the meteor shower and some random meteors as well.”
The sky out at Pine Mountain is unbelievable. You look up and you feel as if you are swimming through stars. Rick Kang is the outreach director for the Friends of Pine Mountain — he also had his telescope set up and was answering all sorts of questions.
Rick Kang: “The big band across here is our own galaxy, the thick part of the Milky Way. [So, how can we see the Milky Way if we're in it?] Well, it's like being in the middle of a blueberry pancake and you're seeing all those blueberries, we're seeing out through the pancake — out through our galaxy. So actually everything you see with your unaided eye, is all in the Milky Way.”
By 10:30, some of the families were starting to trickle out. Even though the best meteors weren't expected until well past midnight, it was a Sunday night, and way past bedtime. Still, there were holdouts. Janet McCoy is from Springfield.
Janet McCoy: “I am gonna stay until the last shooting star is gone.”
Ethan Lindsey: “You may be up here a while, you may be the last one up here.”
Janet McCoy: “That's true. We're camped in the campground right over here. So we made a bed in the back of the pickup and said when we're tired we'll just go over and crawl into bed and sleep up here tonight.”
A bunch of the astronomers said they planned to pull all-nighters. And they may do it again in the next few days. Earth doesn't completely pass through the meteor debris until the middle of the week, so all those shooting stars will continue for the next couple of days.