June 30 is National Meteor Watch Day, which means absolutely nothing to most folks and barely registers for serious stargazers, but it does serve as a reminder that this is the time of year when many people look to the heavens for some awe and inspiration.
California, of course, is blessed with a number of fantastic places to enjoy the night sky—Yosemite National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and Death Valley National Park are all popular destinations—and Borrego Springs is recognized as one of the best stargazing spots in the world.
If you'd like to catch a falling star and perhaps even put it in your pocket, now is a particularly good time to plan a trip.
"Meteor showers are huge," says Dennis Mamanna, owner of Borrego Night Sky Tours in Borrego Springs. "Most people don't really have a clue what meteors are, but they're really fascinating to watch."
For years Mamanna has led small groups out to a remote spot in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park where he sets up his 14-inch Dobsonian telescope and takes them on a guided tour of the universe. The skies are so clear in this corner of San Diego County that meteors are regular guests on his tour.
"They'll see what is called a shooting star, a falling star," Mamanna explains, "it looks like a star zipping across the sky, disappearing in no time. These are little specs of interplanetary dust. Most of these little specs are about the size of a grain of sand, and they've been tumbling through our solar system for five billion years. When they get a little bit too close to the earth, the gravitational pull of the earth pulls them in. They fall into the upper atmosphere and burn up. That's exactly what we see when we watch a meteor. "
Summer isn't necessarily any better than winter when it comes to seeing the most meteors, but it is a time of year when people take time off from their busy schedules and spend more time outdoors. It's also warmer at night during the summer months, which makes for a better experience.
Timing is key to planning a successful night sky venture. You should try to go when there is a new moon so that our closest neighbor in the solar system doesn't create so much light that it will overwhelm any passing meteors or the Milky Way Galaxy. If you can coordinate your trip during a meteor shower, you're in for a real treat.
"The Perseid meteor shower, in mid-August, is everyone's favorite," Mammana notes. "I think that's probably because it's in the middle of the summer, and people can get out to see things. The best meteor shower, I think, is in mid-December. That's the Geminid meteor shower, but people don't want to go out in the middle of the winter. It's a shame because the Geminid shower, I think, blows the Perseids completely out of the sky."