Yes, I know that the Dark Knight is pretty much the hottest thing this summer. It has been number one at the box office for four straight weeks and is on it’s way to shattering a slue of records.
Last week I mentioned on my Facebook that I had seen a shooting star. I live on the border of a small city and the country so finding stuff in the sky isn’t too much of a stretch on a clear night.
Apparently, according to NASA there is a heck of a meteor shower going on and it’s going to peak overnight tonight. It’s called the 2008 Perseid meteor shower and it peaks on August 12th .
“The time to look is during the dark hours before dawn on Tuesday, August 12th,” says Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center. “There should be plenty of meteors–perhaps one or two every minute.”
Right: A Perseid meteor over Joshua Tree National Park in California, August 11, 2007. Credit: Joe Westerberg.
The source of the shower is Comet Swift-Tuttle. Although the comet is far away, currently located beyond the orbit of Uranus, a trail of debris from the comet stretches all the way back to Earth. Crossing the trail in August, Earth will be pelted by specks of comet dust hitting the atmosphere at 132,000 mph. At that speed, even a flimsy speck of dust makes a vivid streak of light when it disintegrates–a meteor! Because, Swift-Tuttle’s meteors streak out of the constellation Perseus, they are called “Perseids.”
(Note: In the narrative that follows, all times are local. For instance, 9:00 pm means 9:00 pm in your time zone, where you live. )
Serious meteor hunters will begin their watch early, on Monday evening, August 11th, around 9 pm when Perseus first rises in the northeast. This is the time to look for Perseid Earthgrazers–meteors that approach from the horizon and skim the atmosphere overhead like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond.
“Earthgrazers are long, slow and colorful; they are among the most beautiful of meteors,” says Cooke. He cautions that an hour of watching may net only a few of these at most, but seeing even one can make the whole night worthwhile.
A warm summer night. Bright meteors skipping overhead. And the peak is yet to come. What could be better?
The answer lies halfway up the southern sky: Jupiter and the gibbous Moon converge on August 11th and 12th for a close encounter in the constellation Sagittarius: sky map. It’s a grand sight visible even from light-polluted cities.
For a while the beautiful Moon will interfere with the Perseids, lunar glare wiping out all but the brightest meteors. Yin-yang. The situation reverses itself at 2 am on Tuesday morning, August 12th, when the Moon sets and leaves behind a dark sky for the Perseids. The shower will surge into the darkness, peppering the sky with dozens and perhaps hundreds of meteors until dawn.
Above: The eastern sky viewed during the hours before sunrise on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008.
For maximum effect, “get away from city lights,” Cooke advises. The brightest Perseids can be seen from cities, he allows, but the greater flurry of faint, delicate meteors is visible only from the countryside. (Scouts, this is a good time to go camping.)
This morning while on my run, I actually saw people camped out watching the show. It was just before 5am and they had a fire going- which totally freaked out my dog. It wasn’t too hard to figure out why they were camped out. The sky was amazingly clear and there was a plethora of stars in the sky. A couple of them were shooting.