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Celestial News: Here come the Perseid meteors

Jimmy Westlake
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Forty years of Perseid meteors. (Courtesy)

August has arrived, and with it, our annual Perseid meteor shower. This summertime spectacle is anticipated by sky watchers all over the world when upwards of 90 “shooting stars” per hour can be seen on the night of the peak. This year, the peak of activity is expected in the predawn hours of Aug. 12. Lots of meteors, although fewer in number, can be seen before dawn for several mornings surrounding the peak.

It’s a perfect year for watching the Perseid meteor shower because the moon is just three days old on the night of the peak and will set shortly after 10 p.m. That leaves hours and hours of dark sky conditions for watching and counting Perseid meteors. The action will start around 10 p.m. on the night of Aug. 11 and pick up more and more in the hours after midnight.

Here are some tidbits of information about meteor showers in general and the Perseid meteor shower in particular that you might find interesting:



• A meteor is a bright streak of light across the sky caused by a bit of high-speed space dust burning up in our atmosphere. Before entering our atmosphere, a particle of space dust is referred to as a meteoroid. If a meteoroid survives its meteoric plunge through the atmosphere and lands on the ground, it then is called a meteorite. The meteoroids that cause most visible meteors are so tiny that you could easily hold 1,000 of them in the cupped palm of your hand.

• Our word meteor comes from the Greek word meaning “heavenly thing.” Meteorology began as the study of “heavenly things,” which originally included rain, snow, hailstones, clouds, lightning, auroras and rainbows, in addition to “shooting stars.” Nowadays, the term meteor only refers to those “shooting stars,” and meteorology is the study of weather-related phenomena.

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• In general, meteor showers are named for the constellation from which they appear to spring, but you don’t need to know anything about the constellations to enjoy meteor watching. The meteors will be visible streaking across all parts of the sky. You might notice that some meteors shoot upward, some downward, some to the left and some to the right. Regardless of the direction they shoot, all Perseid meteors trace backwards to the constellation of Perseus, named for the mythological Greek hero who succeeded in killing the Medusa.

• Most meteoroids burn up about 60 miles over our heads. The speck of dust creating a meteor would be invisible from that distance. When you see the bright streak of a meteor, you are not seeing the tiny speck of dust itself, but the wide column of air surrounding it that is heated white hot by the speeding particle. Perseid meteoroids are moving at 130,000 mph when they hit the atmosphere.

• Perseid meteors have long been known as St. Lawrence’s Tears, named for the Christian deacon Laurentius who was martyred on a hot gridiron by the Romans in August of the year 258 AD. The bright streaks of light across the night sky every August were thought to be the red-hot tears of St. Lawrence falling from heaven.

• In 1862, American astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle co-discovered a comet that now bears their names. Four years later, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered that the particles that produce our Perseid meteors orbit the sun in the same path as Comet Swift-Tuttle. That was the first indication that comets could be the source of our annual meteor showers.

• Comet Swift-Tuttle follows a 133-year orbit around the sun. Its elongated orbit carries it from just inside of Earth’s orbit to far out beyond Pluto. It was last seen when it swung around the sun in December 1992, becoming visible in binoculars. Its next pass, in July 2126, will be much closer and brighter. Each time Comet Swift-Tuttle comes around the sun, it leaves a trail of dusty debris in its wake. Every August, Earth plows through this dust river, giving us our Perseid meteor shower.

• You’ll always see more Perseids after midnight than before for the same reason that you see more bugs splatter on your car’s front windshield than on its back windshield. Before midnight, we are peering out of the Earth’s rear windshield, as it speeds through space at 19 miles per second. Any meteors that you see before midnight must be traveling fast enough to catch up with the speeding Earth. After midnight, Earth’s rotation turns us such that we are facing the direction that it is traveling, so we peer out of the front windshield as it collides with lots of meteoroids.

A shower of meteors is a sight to behold, and the annual Perseid meteor shower is arguably the best meteor shower of the year, what with it coming during the warm evenings of summer. Perseus rises in the northeastern sky around 10 p.m., so meteor watching can start anytime after that. Just remember that more meteors will be seen in the hours after midnight. Roll out your sleeping bag, tilt back that reclining lawn chair and give it a watch this summer.

For information about astronomy-related events in Steamboat Springs, including public star parties at CMC’s Ball Observatory, contact physics and astronomy instructor Paul McCudden, at pmccudden@coloradomtn.edu or 970-870-4537 or visit the SKY Club web page at ColoradoMTN.edu/skyclub.

Jimmy Westlake is the former full-time professor of physical sciences at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and former director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College in Georgia and the St. Charles Parish Planetarium in Louisiana. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Visit his website at JWestlake.com.


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