Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Quadrantid Stargazing at Berryessa

I made it a mission to go out in the dead of the night tonight and go stargazing, so long as the sky was clear. And it was!

Now, Napa Valley itself is pretty good for seeing the night sky... it does get nice and dark here, being pretty much rural and agricultural with small towns (which are few and far between). The biggest, baddest fireball I ever saw streak across the sky was a random occurrence while driving home one night on Silverado Trail.

However, even in the valley there is a little bit of light pollution (from...? Napa? Vallejo? Wineries? I'm not quite sure), so to really get an eyeful of stars, I like to wind my way northeast up to the hills around Lake Berryessa. Lake Berryessa is a large man-made reservoir in Napa County, created by a dam which provides water and hydroelectric power. The lake is also a popular recreation area for boaters, etc.

So... why tonight? Well, right now is smack dab in the throes of one of the best annual meteor showers, the Quadrantids. I did not realize this until recently purchasing a glow-in-the-dark star chart calendar which marks all of the meteor showers on it. This one is less well-known than others like the Leonids, probably because winter weather is not conducive to stargazing.

In fact, this was somewhat true tonight, unbeknownst to me. It was crystal clear in Napa, but after winding up the jagged mountain roads toward Berryessa, there was suddenly long patches of dense fog. Perhaps this was caused by the lake itself, combined with the extra-cold (for these parts) temperatures -- it dropped down to 28 degrees tonight!

When we got to Berryessa itself, we nestled the car into a little parking cove on the side of the road and pointed it toward the Big Dipper (near the source of the meteors) and just watched. It was too cold to get out, but the sky was beautiful and the isolation was pretty serene (I've never seen so few cars on the road around heere -- we saw a total of 5 on the journey there and back). We only saw a handful of shooting stars before the fog started rolling in and obscuring things. So we headed north to come back down the road into Rutherford, and there is a smaller lake there with some parking and there was no fog there. Saw a few more shooting stars, for a total of about a dozen, and then decided it was time to head home.

But the moral of the story is... stargazing is definitely one fun activity to do here on a clear night! Especially if you can wind up the roads off the beaten path a little bit, into the mountains.

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