Something strange happened this week….I spent every night outside looking up at the sky. I was one of the many (I presume) that decided to take part in the annual Perseid meteor shower viewing. Every August, like clockwork, the Earth intersects with debris trains (comet dust that has been abandoned around its orbit) and creates a light show in the sky.
Who doesn’t love wishing upon a “falling star” with the tiny hope that some galactic higher being will wave a magic wand over you, making all your dreams come true! Fairytales aside, it really is fun to anticipate and watch. In the paper, I read that the best viewing time for the shower would be between one and two in the morning (though viewing could start earlier). I set up camp in my front yard with about six other friends around 10:30pm. Between Adirondack chairs (perfectly inclined for star gazing), blankets, a fire pit, Concha y Toro wine, beer, and an assortment of nibbles, we were set for a show.
We were originally positioned towards the north-east sky. I did see two or three meteors between 10:30-11:30p.m., but had I blinked (which most of my friends did), I would have easily missed them. Fortunately, good company encouraged us to remain diligent in our meteor gazing quest. Around 12:30 p.m. (re-positioned with our backs to the moon) the meteors started to fall with increased frequency. They came from all directions, leaving what looked like a jet stream in their wake. On a typical night, I can usually see one or two falling stars, but it was truly awesome to see 30 in the span of an hour. Unlike falling stars that are only visible for a couple milliseconds, these babies were larger, more substantial and seemed to be visible for at least a full second or two.
I had recently visited the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, so my astronomy knowledge was amped up a bit (which made the experience that much more significant and historic). I learned the dust comes from Comet Swift-Tuttle, whose remains appear to shower down from the constellation Perseus as it moves across the northern sky. This dust gets our attention because it moves so quickly through the atmosphere. My favorite nugget of knowledge: The dust mass is so small relative to its surface area, that small particles can actually fall all the way to the ground. As the New York Times nicely put it, “If you had lettuce for lunch, you probably ate a few.”
If you missed it this year, I highly recommend putting it on your calendar for next August. You’ll need to get out of the city and away from pollution and lights to actually see the meteors (make sure it's a clear night), but the experience is refreshing. Watching countless meteors stream across the night sky makes you feel small, introspective and a bit in awe of this world and galaxy we live in. Plus meteor shower observation is a tradition that has taken place for over 2000 years! It’s cool to be part of something that our ancestors have viewed, questioned, analyzed, and told stories about for centuries.
If you don’t have much patience, I recommend taking a nap and setting your alarm for 30 minutes before prime time viewing. When you are outside, let your eyes adjust to the darkness and keep them trained on the sky. You don't want to miss this show!
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The Perseids is the name of a prolific meteor shower associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle. The Perseids are so-called because the point they appear to come from, called the radiant, lies in the constellation Perseus. The name derives in part from the word Perseides (Περσείδες), a term found in Greek mythology referring to the descendants of Perseus. The stream of debris is called the Perseid cloud and stretches along the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle. The cloud consists of particles ejected by the comet as it travels on its 130-year orbit. Most of the dust in the cloud today is around a thousand years old. However, there is also a relatively young filament of dust in the stream that was pulled off the comet in 1862. The rate of meteors originating from this filament is much higher than for the older part of the stream.
The Perseid meteor shower has been observed for about 2000 years, with the earliest information on this meteor shower coming from the Far East. Some Catholics refer to the Perseids as the "tears of St. Lawrence", since August 10 is the date of that saint's martyrdom.
The shower is visible from mid-July each year, with the peak in activity being between August 9 and 14, depending on the particular location of the stream. During the peak, the rate of meteors reaches 60 or more per hour. They can be seen all across the sky, but because of the path of Swift-Tuttle's orbit, Perseids are primarily ...