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The Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower Observation Camp in Tanay is Not for the Weak

Endurance is key in watching the stars
IMAGE Courtesy of Philippine Astronomical Society / MJ Magallon
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The forecast looked bleak.

Last weekend was the peak of the Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower, but the conditions were supposed to be less than perfect. The waning gibbous moon was predicted to drown the night sky with its brilliance while clouds and haze would obscure the show that was set to peak a couple of hours before dawn. But as announced by organizers Philippine Astronomical Society on their Facebook page, the observation camp would push through come rain or shine. So last Saturday afternoon, under an overcast sky, our three-bus-strong group wove our way across the hills of Tanay to Big Handy’s Ground for some serious stargazing.

Named after the constellation Aquarius, the Eta Aquarids is one of two meteor showers caused by the debris from Halley’s Comet. This annual meteor shower is usually seen from April 19 to May 28 and peaks around May 6. The other one is said to be seen later in the year from October 2 to November 7 and is called the Orionids, derived from the constellation Orion.

Just a little over an hour from the edges of the metro, Big Handy’s Grounds sits on top of a hill while being surrounded by lush mountains. Not a sign of civilization was in sight—no houses, roads nor streetlamp—except for a satellite dish on top of the mountain right across from our spot. It was the perfect vantage point to observe the night sky—private, elevated, and clear of light pollution.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Philippine Astronomical Society

There was no cellular service, either, which meant no texting, calling, and going online. Cut-off we were from the routine of the everyday and the stress that comes with it. In fact, I felt it melting away at the sight of all that natural beauty and my mind starting to connect to something larger than the metropolis we left behind.

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Setting up camp was rather easy, even lugging gear and supplies, as there was only a fifteen-minute hike to contend with. Pitching a tent felt less of a chore with other campers turning on their music and laughing at their own errors. When done, we took advantage of the unobstructed view. Some took selfies, groupies, close-ups, and jumpshots—undoubtedly going up on social media the next day. Others sat down, took out their snacks, and just stared at the mountains which took on a more romantic sheen when the sun started to set on the horizon. 

More than being able to stay awake throughout the night, an observation camp takes a lot of patience and grit.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Philippine Astronomical Society

But what started out to feel like a lazy holiday turned out to be an endurance challenge. The next twelve hours were marked by windows to see planets, constellations, and meteors with short seminars on astronomy and astrophotography thrown in between. Apparently, sleep was for the weak.

More than being able to stay awake throughout the night, however, an observation camp takes a lot of patience and grit. A true test of one’s character was to keep a positive spirit when things didn’t go as hoped. Throughout the night, only patches of the sky cleared up so we were presented with just swatches of constellations. When it was time for them to show up in the sky, the Milky Way Galaxy was covered by the clouds, while the planet Mars was hidden from us by a tree. And to cap it all off, the night took a cold wet turn when it drizzled a little after midnight.

But the night was not a complete disaster. Through the five telescopes set up by the PAS, we were able to see Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and several constellations. Viewing them with my own eyes brought home the fact that beyond the night sky there are other things that exist. We know that the universe is out there, science has proven that. But to personally see parts of it for myself, it reignited that sense of wonder for the vastness of space.

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IMAGE: Courtesy of Philippine Astronomical Society

There was also the glorious moonrise that took me by surprise. In that pitch-black night, the moon bathed the land with its ethereal light. Our surroundings became enchanting, a place where magic could be real. It was no wonder that people in the olden days worshipped the moon, too.

And of course, the main show—the Eta Aquarids—didn’t disappoint. The sky had cleared those early hours of the morning and so we were able to take out our mats and sleeping bags out of our tents and enjoy the show. Countless meteors streaked the sky, affording the romantics in us numerous chances to wish for anything and everything. 

IMAGE: Courtesy of Philippine Astronomical Society

And all this, while a small herd of cows joined in on the party. The cows would walk around the campsite, amidst tents and people. They’d also sit down next to some. There were even times when the cows would decide to pop their heads in tents to say “Hi!” And to make sure that we were all safe, the guys from PAS would follow these cows around, shouting warnings that cows are slowly heading their way and that they shouldn’t panic.

After sunrise, we were able to see both the sun and the moon. The PAS attached a solar filter lens to the telescope for us to view the sun which was a big ball of orange. On the other hand, the moon looked quite like how it is in books—with craters and their shadows. It was quite a fitting end to a night of heavenly bodies.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Philippine Astronomical Society

A photo of the Milky Way taken at the 2018 Lyrids meteor shower observation camp

But if there’s one thing to be learned from this weekend, it is this: we may plan out our lives to the last detail but the heavens will still have a say on our fate. The only thing we can control is our reaction to it.

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You can find the Philippine Astronomical Society on Facebook.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Philippine Astronomical Society

A group photo taken at the 2018 Lyrids meteor shower observation camp

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