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Astronomy: Things That Go Bump in the Night

8-12-11 Perseid Meteor Chumack A Perseid meteor soars over a house in 2010. Credit: John Chumack

When you stand outside your house for an hour in the dark, you become the unofficial neighborhood watch. On a recent night I lugged my telescope outside and set it up on the sidewalk not far from my front door. I had all the lights off, as is required to actually stargaze. When I first got outside I heard voices coming from my next door neighbor’s, but it soon became quiet and all I could hear was my cat meowing through the screen door and the very strange and persistent cry of a bird in the meadow across the street.

As I was gazing at Saturn and the moon, my cell phone rang. My friend was calling to ask if I saw my next door neighbor’s post on Facebook alerting our subdivision that a strange man had just frightened her daughter when he walked into their garage asking for a certain girl by name. No one knew that I had been outside but I was able to tell them that no one had passed me (we live on a dead end street and they would have had to go by me to leave). We soon found out it was an innocent case of another neighbor looking for his daughter.

Now, I spend a lot of time alone outside, standing in the dark looking through my telescope. In general I feel rather safe. Because I’m in the dark, I can usually see better than other people who have wandered outside from their house lights or are driving by in their cars. My eyes are already dark-adapted and I’m standing in the shadows, and most of the time no one knows I’m out there. Plus, stargazing is not exactly a noisy activity. I’m happy to keep my eye out for cars cruising down the street or night walkers, especially because their lights interfere with my gazing and photography. But it’s true that I can get rather involved in my observing, focusing on the eyepiece and the sky above, and it wouldn’t be impossible for someone to sneak up on me, if that’s what they were wanting to do. But I think that, for the most part, all I really have to fear from the dark is a cranky raccoon or wandering skunk.

If you’re out stargazing this weekend, the full moon will provide you with natural night light to keep you from being completely in the dark. August’s full moon is on Saturday the 13th and is sometimes called the Sturgeon Moon. The peak of meteor activity from the Perseids is scheduled to occur on August 12, but with the moon being nearly full on Friday, many of the meteors will be lost in the light of the moon. Expect some beautiful moonrises over the coming week as the slowly waning moon appears above the eastern horizon early in the evening.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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