“Shooting stars” are called meteors by astronomers and are caused by very small pieces of solar system debris – usually the size of a grain of sand – entering the Earth’s atmosphere at a very high speed. As they hit the atmosphere they burn up and leave behind a luminous trail of ionized gas – the wonderful streak we see in the sky and “ooh and ahhh” about.
Meteors occur all the time, even during daylight hours. But it takes clear and fairly dark skies to see them. During certain times of the year sky watchers gather to observe “meteor showers” – points in the sky where lots of meteors appear to emanate from. These showers are named for the constellation they are seen to “radiate” from – the constellation of Perseus is home to the Perseids.
There are about a dozen major meteor showers a year and the Perseids occur Aug. 11 to Aug. 13 each year. It is the lure of pleasant night time temperatures and families out on vacation that has made this meteor shower an annual favorite.
Meteor showers occur because our planet encounters streams of cometary dust left over from the passage of a comet near the vicinity of the Earth’s orbit some time in the past. Because the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is constant each year, we intersect, or pass through these individual streams and all of their dust particles at about the same time each year. Comet Swift-Tuttle generates the Perseids.
While it is best to observe the Perseids and other meteor showers from a dark sky location, you can see the brighter Perseids through typical suburban light pollution. The trick is to find a safe location that does not have any blinding street lights or other light sources in your immediate vicinity.
Lay out a blanket or a nice comfy chair on the nights Thursday, Aug. 11 and Friday, Aug. 12, after midnight, or preferably in the hours before dawn. The Perseids are bright, fast moving meteors so they really are pretty easy to see. You need no optical aid, just your eyes. I like to play music and have family watch with me – of course there are refreshments and snacks that are a part of the experience.
To see the Perseids, face northeast. Just look at the sky and you should see a meteor every couple of minutes. A dark sky site will produce an average of one Perseid a minute.
As an added bonus, here are two stes that you can tune in to listen to the Perseids – even during the day. These radar sites pick up the “ping” of meteors as they enter the atmosphere and leave their ionized trails behind. This is very cool to listen to. Here is a sample meteor ping first so you will know what to listen for.
As an added bonus while you are out watching the Perseids the planet Mars is visible. It is the brightest “star” in the sky and has a distinct orange-red color. Mars is going to get brighter over the months and peak in October. Take a peak while watching for the Perseids – I promise you will not miss any meteors by doing so.
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