Celestial News: Perseid meteor shower early Saturday morning
I recently took my granddaughters up to Yellowstone National Park to experience the natural wonders there. They were captivated, of course, by the Old Faithful geyser that erupts with remarkable regularity. “Pappy, when will Old Feeful go off again?” Ava wanted to know. “In about 65 minutes,” I predicted. Of all the geysers in the park, Old Faithful is the most dependable.
This month, you can watch for the Old Faithful of the sky – the Perseid meteor shower. Of all the annual meteor showers, the Perseid meteor shower is the most dependable meteor shower of the year. Just like clockwork, this shower of “falling stars” delights millions of sky watchers each year with dozens of meteors per hour, when it reaches its peak on the morning of August 12. I’ve been a faithful Perseid meteor watcher since 1972.
We experience this shower of “falling stars” every August because the Earth plows head-on into a dust swarm left behind by a comet named Swift-Tuttle. If the sky is dark and clear on August 12, a single observer usually can count between 60-90 meteors per hour during the shower’s peak before dawn. Smaller numbers of meteors can be seen for about a week on either side of the peak.
The Perseids tend to shoot across the sky in brief flurries of two or three with several minutes of calm in between. The meteors will appear to spring out of the constellation of Perseus in the northeastern sky, just below the famous “W” shaped constellation of Cassiopeia. Bright Perseid meteors often leave persistent, glowing trails that can last for several seconds after the meteor is gone.
On the night of peak activity, August 11-12, the waning gibbous moon will rise around 10:30pm and shine all night long, but you shouldn’t have any trouble spotting dozens of bright Perseid meteors if you put that Moon to your back or behind the corner of a building.
Perseid meteor watching makes a great late summer family activity. Take the kids to a nice, dark location, roll out the sleeping bags, and have fun watching the Old Faithful of the sky. ***
Jimmy Westlake recently retired from Colorado Mountain College, after nineteen years as their Professor of Physical Sciences, and is looking forward to spending a lot more time under the starry sky. His “Celestial News” column appears in the Steamboat Today newspaper the first Friday of every month. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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