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Deluxe Meteor Shower

Thursday, August 09, 2012 - 06:45 PM

Perseid meteor Perseid meteor (Dominic's pics/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

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.


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Comments [13]


beautiful footnote

Aug. 16 2012 04:28 PM
allen ying from brooklyn, ny

on sunday night / monday morning around 1am, 2 ladies I'd just met at a bbq and I went up to one of their roofs, threw a beach sheet down, got under a blanket, and watched the sky. I would've never thought shooting stars would be visible from so close to manhattan, but we saw some amazing, long, quick, bright ones, just about 1 every 10-15 minutes. from a roof on the border of williamsburg and bushwick, it was epic!

Aug. 15 2012 11:43 AM
Andrea from Portland, OR

Was invited to go watch metor showers after tango dancing on Friday night. Figured, "Sure, what the heck!" We drove about 20 min. outside of Portland to try to avoid some light pollution. We saw maybe about 10-15 meteors in about 1.5 hours, but we saw about 4-5 large metors that were really amazing! They were so big that we could see colors as they burned up. One lasted about 4 seconds and eventually broke up into burning pieces! It was totally worth all the mosquito bites.

Aug. 15 2012 03:50 AM
Melanie from San Diego, CA

Hi all. Thanks for the updates! We ended up going out around midnight last night and staying out until 1 or so. We saw probably 10, which was great (our friend had never seen a shooting star before. Never! Can you believe it?!). The light pollution was still a little bit of a bother, even a half hour outside the city. But it was great, nonetheless. Definitely feeling a need to head to the wild, though!

Aug. 13 2012 07:28 PM
Katherine from near Hamilton, MT

I was out on Saturday night between ten and midnight MDT (some of our group had to be up early Sunday morning to work). We counted up to 30 meteors and then gave up counting. I'd estimate we probably saw close to 60 in two hours in our small patch of sky framed by pines and mountains. Lots of meteors with long t(r)ails. I've been viewing the Perseids (weather permitting)for over ten years and this was by far the best show I've seen!

Aug. 13 2012 03:48 PM
Lulu from Charlottesville, VA

Angela from Australia! Sorry I didn't see this earlier. Curious if you saw anything. Seems that Perseids isn't as robust from the Southern Hemisphere, although you should be able to catch some of it. A few extra shooting stars. And Melanie, my understanding was that the peak of activity was the early hours of the 12th (aka very late "Saturday night"). Curious if you saw any on the evening of the 12th. My report from Charlottesville was very hazy skies for most of the evening. I was trying hard not to pout, but I think I was. Luckily we too (like Ally) had a banjo picker by our side, who kept a few of us half-awake on picnic blankets. Right around 2AM the skies suddenly cleared... revealing first the beauty of thousands of bright clear stars. And then... about 5 minutes into the clear sky it came... the "sky cutter!"... as one of us shouted. A giant star with a huge tail that cut all the way across the sky. In the next 15 minutes or so, I saw 4 more. And then... I feel asleep. Not the sparkler show I had built up in my head, but some pretty amazing stars-- all seemed close by and with giant "tails". Trails? Goodness. Thanks for the updates and questions!

Aug. 13 2012 11:45 AM
Ally Tarwater from Accomac, VA

My husband, friends, and I had a "Pickin' and Stars" party last night on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. We all brought our instruments (me - ukulele, hubby - banjo, everyone else - guitars and voices) and played into the night until the show started. I must say, watching the stars over the ocean in a place with no light pollution was awe-inspiring. What a joy to experience the universe!

Aug. 13 2012 12:59 AM
Ally Tarwater from Accomac, VA

My husband, friends, and I had a "Pickin' and Stars" party on the Eastern Shore of Virginia last night. We all brought our instruments (me - ukulele, hubby - banjo, everyone else - a bunch of guitars and voices) and played into the night until the show started around midnight here! I must say, watching the stars over the ocean with no light pollution whatsoever was awe-inspiring. What a joy to experience the universe!

Aug. 13 2012 12:55 AM
Abby from Spain

I got to see 3 shooting stars from Spain on Saturday night

Aug. 12 2012 07:36 PM
chingachgook from Reno NV

@Melanie and Angela: there is still a show going on--look northeast.

Aug. 12 2012 02:36 PM
Angela from Punsand Bay Australia

I am staying in the middle of nowhere at the very northmost tip of Queensland Australia. Will we be able to see the meteor shower here? And what day/time is the best since we are a day ahead of the USA? I want to go out on and sit on the beach and watch it, we are a 16 hour drive from the nearest city so it is pretty dark at night.

Aug. 11 2012 09:48 PM
Melanie from San Diego, CA

Can anyone clarify something for me? I marked the Perseid meteor shower on my calendar like 6 months ago, but on the 12th (Sunday), NOT the 11th (Saturday). The accuweather video you linked to also says the 12th for the peak. Does anyone know which is correct?

Aug. 11 2012 08:35 PM
Steve Kelly from Portland Oregon

Thanks for the star juju Lulu!

Aug. 10 2012 05:43 PM

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