Given all that’s happened in 2020, the notion of an asteroid smashing earth to smithereens is inevitable—and it is—except not any time soon, assures astronomer Ben Burress of Chabot Space & Science Center.
This is a relief, particularly since there’s a smorgasbord of sights to see in the season’s night skies that likewise won’t destroy civilization (well, any more than it already has been). Moreover, turning one’s eyes toward the heavens is inherently centering—not in a geocentric sort of way (sorry, Ptolemy)—but in a manner that is both humbling and literally puts things in perspective.
Burress puts it best when reflecting on his relationship with the Oakland-based Chabot, which he began visiting as a kid in the ’60s. The space and science center hooked him on astronomy, which eventually blossomed into a career in the stars. He taught physics and mathematics in Cameroon during a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center and was head observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory before working his way back to Chabot.
“For the first year, I ashamedly admit this, I didn’t go look through the telescopes because I had so much else to do,” he says about his return to the observatory. “And then one night, a year later, I went and they were looking at Saturn.”
Burress took a peek through the telescope and saw Saturn’s rings, vivid and beautiful.
“In that instant, I experienced this unexpected rush of all the awe I had felt in the past, for simple things, like looking through a telescope,” he says. “It’s something live and real. It was very unlike looking at an astronomical picture on a computer screen. Something about the quality of actually having the light from that object hit my eye directly through the telescope, connected me with a piece of the greater universe and just kind of reminded me that there’s a constant up there, whatever goes on down here on earth.”
Inasmuch as space is a dynamic place, Burress reminds us that there is also a sense of an “eternal constant from the perspective of a human life.”
“You can look at the sky and it remains constant,” he says. “It doesn’t change, it’s reliable, but it’s also very real and it has no end of amazing properties that can get you philosophical about distances and size. And where did it all come from? And the fact that we don’t know—though we are pursuing—we don’t know every last answer.”
This much we do know: Between 9 and 10:30pm every Saturday, Chabot’s astronomers guide viewers on Facebook Live through the night sky using Nellie, the center’s 36-inch reflector telescope, housed in a rolling roof observatory, which allows access to 180 degrees of sky. These “Virtual Telescope Viewings” will continue into the new year and are free (though donations to support the center’s STEM programming are greatly appreciated).
Also on the horizon, so to speak, are a couple of meteor showers this November and December.
“Meteor showers are mostly just little bits of dust shed by a comet as it passes close to the sun and heats it up and starts blowing out gases carrying dust with it,” Burress says. He adds that Earth’s orbit takes us through that trail of dust, which results in the fireworks we see as it encounters our atmosphere.
“The analogy I give people is that it’s like when you’re driving along on the freeway, in your car, and you drive through a cloud of insects—you only see streaks on the windshield and not the rear window,” he says. “So, you’re on the windshield side of the earth in the morning hours.”
The first meteor shower visible in our area in the coming weeks comes courtesy of the Leonids (so named because it appears to emerge from the constellation Leo). The showers will peak in our night sky between Nov. 16–17 as we pass through detritus from Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which takes about 33 years to orbit the Sun.
Next up are the Geminids, which will appear throughout the nights of Dec. 13–14 and could peak with 120 or so sightings per hour. “This one is actually produced by an object that’s called a ‘rock comet,’” Burress says. “It’s more like an asteroid that behaves like a comet. It’s called ‘3200 Phaeton’—think of it as an asteroid with a lot of volatile materials in it.”
On Dec. 21, the solstice, Jupiter and Saturn will appear to make a close approach, called an appulse, in which they will appear to be only 1/10th of a degree apart.
“You might not even notice that there’s two objects,” Burress says. “You’re gonna see one bright flare, but if you have a small telescope or even a pair of binoculars, that’ll be something spectacular to see,” says Burress who adds that, in a single view, there is the potential to see Jupiter and Saturn, Saturn’s rings and the larger moons of both gas giants. “They’ll be so close—if you hold a dime at arm’s length, it’ll be about 1/10th the size of that dime,” he says.
Mark your calendars, because this won’t happen again 2040.
“There’s just something about the sky and the things in it—especially when we could connect with them, like when a comet comes by, or even just watching a meteor shower—that is a real and present thing and a connection to the greater universe,” Burress says. “It kind of reminds us that, yeah, we have our problems here on earth, but there’s a touchstone in the sky that can kind of return us to that childlike sense of wonder and almost reassurance.”
To learn more about Chabot Space & Science Center and upcoming events, astronomical and otherwise, visit chabotspace.org.