The Fireworks of Heaven
August’s beautiful meteor showers are free for the watching – and you don’t even need binoculars
If you happen to be out away from city lights during the second week of August, look up one night and watch a multitude of meteors streak across the sky.
Each year between August 8th and 16th as many as 50 or 60 bright “falling stars” an hour appear to shoot from the constellation Perseus. These Perseid meteors, as they’re called, tend to be long and brilliant – like planets or brilliant stars streaking half-way across the sky in a matter of seconds.
The meteors are utterly silent – and eerie. But they provide one of the most beautiful shows the night sky stages for us, right on schedule each year and visible to everyone in all areas of the North America.
In spite of its name, a falling star is not really a star, like our Sun, dropping from its positions in the heavens. It is actually a terrestrial phenomenon produced when a sandlike grain of interplanetary dust speeds into our atmosphere at 10 to 30 miles a second and incinerates from the heat of friction with the air 50 miles above us.
The Perseid meteor shower is a whole collection of these dust grains floating in an orbit around the Sun that astronomers believe to be the debris left behind by a disintegrated comet. The orbit of this interplanetary matter intercepts the orbit of the Earth in one place – the place where the Earth happens to be each August.
Of course, these few days in August are not the only time of year when you can see falling stars. Particles of interplanetary dust are bombarding the atmosphere all year long, which is why you can see a sporadic meteor almost every night.
However, the Perseid meteors are travelling together in a concentrated stream, and during the second week of August when the Earth is passing through that stream, you can suddenly see 10 times the usual number of falling stars each hour.
And unlike the sporadic meteors which whiz from every direction, the Perseids seem to be radiating from one small area of the sky. By locating the constellation Perseus – using the Big Dipper and the Milky Way, as guides, - you can spot them easily.
The very best time to watch for meteors is from around midnight to 2 a.m. The Perseids shower reaches its peak when the Earth is right in the middle of the stream of particles, and on that night the meteors fly at their thickest and fastest. If it happens to be cloudy, the show should still be good for about four nights both before and after – especially after, when the Moon is approaching last quarter.
You don’t need binoculars or any other special equipment to watch a meteor shower – only a clear, dark sky and a little watchful patience. If you’re vacationing in the mountains or at the beach, - or anywhere else away from lights and smog, - you are all set. Find a clearing away from tall trees and buildings for an unobstructed view of the starry sky. Set up a beach chair or lie back on a blanket and just wait a few minutes.
You won’t see a meteor every minute. In fact, you’ll probably see nothing for the first several minutes, then a burst of three or four in quick succession. Many will be short and faint. But chances are that just as your mind begins to wander, a brilliant yellowish flash will streak across the sky, leaving behind a faint train of smoke. Once in a while a meteor will silently explode at the end of its path in a display of celestial fireworks that never fails to win exclamations of delight.
If you’re something of a shutterbug and you would like to capture the meteor shower on video, nothing could be simpler. Lay the camera on the ground or on a rock shaded from the moonlight, set the shutter, lock it open and forget about it for half an hour or so.
Between meteors, you’ll find that identifying the constellations or simply stargazing is a peaceful and enjoyable activity.
Other objects in the sky that you might enjoy trying to spot are Mercury, Venus and Mars, which will be very low on the western horizon and setting shortly after the Sun. Jupiter, in the constellation Taurus, just south of Perseus, will rise late in the evening and will be the single brightest starlike point of light in the sky.
So invite your friends, wake up your kids – enjoy a moonlit midnight supper, lie back with a thermos of coffee and watch the fireworks of heaven.
Fireworks of Heaven. The Perseides