It’s prime time to look at sky

  • A meteor is seen sparking along the Milky Way while entering the Earth’s atmosphere on Aug. 13, 2010. AP

  • This long exposure shows stars in the night sky during the Perseid meteor shower near Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev Desert, southern Israel, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012. The annual Perseid meteor shower peaked early Monday. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) Ariel Schalit—AP

  • Stars and meteor streaks are seen above the lake, near Tuzla, Bosnia, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. The annual Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak during month of August. (AP Photo/Amel Emric). Amel Emric—AP

  • Stars streak across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower above a bull billboard on Aug. 12, 2016. AP

  • In this long exposure photo, a streak appears in the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower at the Guadarrama mountains, near Madrid, in the early hours of Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco) Francisco Seco—AP

  • In this 20-second exposure, a meteor streaks across the night sky above trees near Moscow, Idaho in the early hours of Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 during the Perseid Meteor Shower. The annual event can produce dozens of meteors an hour. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) Ted S. Warren—AP

  • In this 10-second exposure a meteor streaks across the sky near palm trees, early Monday during the Perseid meteor shower, Aug. 13, 2018, in Bal Harbour, Fla. The meteors are pieces of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 8/5/2019 10:34:16 AM

The recent commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first lunar landing caused many people to look back in time, but I also found myself looking up into the sky. Gazing at the full moon and picturing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on its surface is truly awe-inspiring. Yet there are other reasons to explore the celestial dome above us.

Each year in mid-August the night sky is punctuated by streaks of light from the Perseid meteor showers. It is always fun to see a “shooting star” and make a wish, but what causes that blip of light?

Meteors are bits of dust and rock which burn up when they enter Earth’s atmosphere. Most of the bits of debris are the size of a grain of sand, the largest ones may be as large as a pea. Traveling at speeds of 20 to 45 miles per second, these tiny specks build up enough kinetic energy and friction to produce heat, thus burning up as they enter the upper atmosphere. As they ignite, they leave the tell-tale streak of light that we call a meteor. The name comes from the Greek word meteoros, which means “high in the air,” a fitting term for objects that are 50 to 75 miles above the earth.

Many meteors are made of debris left by passing comets. In the case of the Perseid meteors, the comet Swift-Tuttle is the source. Discovered in 1862 by astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Parrell-Tuttle, the comet most recently passed through our inner solar system in 1992. It won’t be back this way again until 2126. But we don’t have to wait that long to see the comet’s “footprint.” Plenty of dust was left from former visits. When the Earth travels through that dust cloud, the burning specks give us a show at a regular time each year.

Visibility varies depending on the phase of the moon. This year, we’ll pass through a peak volume of the meteors from late evening Aug. 12 until dawn on Aug. 13. Unfortunately, the moon will wash out much of the light show at that time. Instead, try to catch meteors during the first full week of August (5 to 8) after the moon has set, between mid-night and pre-dawn. The volume of meteors won’t be as high but you will actually be able to see more of them because it will be darker. It also helps to be away from lights or urban glow.

When you find a good spot with an unobstructed view of the sky, sit back and just watch. These showers mostly radiate from near the constellation Perseus, in the northeast part of the sky, but they can be seen throughout the sky. Once your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, you will begin to see meteors whizzing above you. It is fun to keep a count of how many you see. Invite friends along to help with the tally and each pick a different part of the sky to watch. Pay attention to whether they are long or short, bright or faint. Just like with fireworks, oooh’s and ahhh’s are encouraged. Don’t be looking for brilliant colors or a grand finale though. Nature’s fireworks are a bit more subtle but in their own way just as spectacular.

While you are out enjoying the celestial sights, take a look at the stars and planets. Even if you don’t know the names of different constellations, check out the patterns, colors, sizes and crispness of what is out there in space. If you’re familiar with some of the common shapes, see if you can find the Big Dipper, Cepheus the King (the shape of a house), Cassiopeia the Queen (the shape of a W) or Bootes the Herdsman (like an ice cream cone). There are plenty of books, internet resources and our own local McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center that can provide resources for budding astronomers or casual observers.

Stargazing always makes me feel very small and insignificant, and gives me a sense of awe at how vast our universe really is. It also makes me feel really grounded and glad to be living on planet Earth. Enjoy the show.

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