So I’m guessing there's a .0009 chance that Radiolab fans don't already know this, but I just learned that this weekend (peaking the night of August 11) is the summer's best meteor shower.
Yes. "Best" is a subjective opinion, and I'm sure many a Space Connoisseur would disagree. (Space Connoisseurs, please weigh in.) But if you're going by most visible shooting stars per hour in the summer months … the Perseids seem to take the cake.
That’s the meteor shower that's headed our way this weekend. Or actually, we’re headed its way. The Perseid meteor shower is the trail of debris (rocks, dust, ice, and sand) left in the wake of the comet Swift-Tuttle. And each year as we spin through the solar system, we get a glimpse of it.
If this is as confusing to you as it was to me (if the comet only comes by once every 133 years, how come we get to see the dust cloud every year?), here’s the deal. Imagine a pickup truck tearing off down a dirt road. Long after it drives by, a cloud of dust floats in the air. It’s the same with the comet: long after it’s gone, a trail of intergalactic space dust hangs in its wake (for over a hundred years) and each time we happen to pass by again, we see it. Make sense? (Maybe you already knew this, but fist bump to my fellow confused souls. Let’s keep going.)
This particular meteor shower got its name because, from our vantage point on Earth, it looks like the meteors are spurting out of the constellation Perseus (whose connect-the-dots pattern looks like an upside down, frolicking “Y” … but is supposed to be the Greek hero swinging his sword at you). In reality, the fountain of meteors is nowhere near Perseus -- the Perseids are much closer to Earth. Each and every “shooting star” is just a piece of debris igniting as it hits Earth’s upper atmosphere. In a sentence that’s still blowing my mind, MacDonald Observatory’s fantastic astronomy blog put it this way:
Traveling at tens of thousands of miles an hour, meteoroids quickly ignite from the searing friction with the atmosphere.
That makes me picture the Earth’s atmosphere like the business edge of a match box—so significant and real a thing it can literally light a rock on fire.
There’s something comforting in knowing that one of the galaxy’s most ethereal shows, a pulsating burst of shooting stars, is really just a big ol’ bonfire of trash in the sky.
Well, enough about the Perseids in general.
Let’s talk about this year. Because it turns out it’s going to be an especially epic showing this time around. Not only does the night of peak activity fall on a night when the moon is in a "waning crescent phase,"* making it dark enough that the meteors can really shine; not only are Venus and Jupiter poised to make an appearance in the early hours; but said night of peak activity falls on … what? A frickin’ Saturday.
So grab some friends, or call up that cutie, and make it a stargazing party. And, ya know what, maybe that cutie is simply yourself. All the better. Perseids don't care.
While the entire night should lend itself to irregularly sparkly skies, the 1AM to 4AM block should make for prime viewing -- with estimates of about 60 “shooting stars” an hour. Meaning basically one every minute. Meaning do I smell a drinking game coming on? Or perhaps just some really great odds for that wish at last coming true? Or maybe just a good excuse to make sound effects: pwwwwww, fwwwwoooosh, zzzz, pow for each one.
I'm a little space-giddy after the Mars Rover landing. Knowing Curiosity is up there, roaming around all confused and fresh-eyed, along with a whole fleet of other machines, satellites, old rovers, and (at the moment of writing) six humans, somehow makes looking up into space feel less lonely, less vast, and more ... festive. There’s a sense of camaraderie.
Them up there. Us down here. A whole lot of Earthy things, just trying their best to get by.
In any case, for anyone eager to stay up late in the name of science, we’re putting out a call for star counters. Sources on the topic of meteor activity have been quite varied in their predictions -- from up to 100 shoots an hour, to a hope-dashingly scant estimate of 25 an hour.
But who knows? Meteors have surprised us before. Take the Leonids shower of 1833 -- a veritable blizzard of meteors -- whose numbers were uncountable, but based on historical documents put it easily in the hundreds of thousands of shooting stars.
So get your clicker counter handy. Or keep a tally with pen and paper. Count in kisses. In wishes. In sips.
Then let us know what you find. Post here on how many stars you counted, your location, and what hours you counted between.
And if you’ve got a question about meteors or comets or anything else you see in the night sky, let us know. We’ll try to reach out to astronomers and get answers to the most interesting ones in a follow-up post.
Farewell star creatures.
Till next week.
*I couldn’t resist including this, for anyone who takes the time to read a footnote. Hi person who takes time to read a footnote! Um. You know you're in a Creative Writing Grad Program when … you make some offhand joke at a BBQ about how crazy people have been acting that day. “Must be a full moon coming tonight,” you say. And without missing a beat, three poets answer in unison: "No, it's a waxing gibbous." Yes, it’s great and funny and predictable that poets would know moon jargon, but what really gets me is the realization that they were each so privately aware of exactly where the moon was that day in the cycle of its phases. For me it conjures a late night image of each of them, in their various bedrooms scattered throughout town, night after night on our whirling Earth, overcome by the same kind of lonely moment I too feel, but actually bothering to do something with it—to find its echo in the moon’s lonely journey around us.