The Perseids peak
Stay up for a late shower
By Mark Davis
(CNN) – Sky-watchers, take note: The heavens should be streaked this weekend with a comet’s celestial calling card.
The Perseid meteor shower, an airborne display that passes by each August, is reaching its peak. Born from a comet’s dust, the shower will reign in the late-night skies all weekend, astronomers say.
“All you've got to do is go outside and look up,” said Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The institute, whose observatory atop its building in downtown Philadelphia has hosted everyone from schoolchildren to Albert Einstein, is holding a workshop Friday night to educate meteor fans about the Perseids, one of nature’s most reliable displays. Pitts, who has spent a quarter-century conducting workshops at the institute, will offer tips to the astronomically challenged.
Saturday, Sunday best
The showers have been occurring nightly since July, but should be most visible Saturday and Sunday, say experts. Some say an average of one meteor every two minutes should streak by in the hours before dawn; others predict an even greater flurry.
Walt Cooney of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is hoping for a show. The past president of the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, he helped organize the group’s eighth annual nocturnal outing to watch the Perseids. Meteor groupies will gather Saturday at a farm in the country about an hour’s drive north of Baton Rouge, settling down for what they trust will truly be a star-studded show.
“The plan is to set up lawn chairs, kick back and just watch meteors,” he said.
Watching the Perseids is hardly new. The Chinese were the first known civilization to observe the annual event, with one chronicler observing in 36 AD, “More than 100 meteors flew thither in the morning.” In subsequent centuries, others -- Japanese, Koreans, Europeans -- also recorded summertime meteor shows.
The showers received official recognition in the 1830s, when three different sky-watchers all arrived at the same conclusion at about the same time: A shower of meteors, appearing to emanate from the constellation Perseus, passed by every year. Thus was born the Perseids meteor shower.
The Perseids, which have varied in intensity and frequency over the years, are bits of space dust that enter the Earth’s atmosphere at 132,000 mph, creating eye-popping streaks of light in the night sky.
They originate from the tail of the comet Swift-Tuttle, a heavenly visitor that hurtles past our sun every 135 years, leaving a new trail of debris in its wake. The Earth, revolving around the sun, routinely approaches that celestial flotsam and jetsam every July. Astronomers note an increase in meteor activity almost immediately.
Astronomy buffs have learned to rely on the Perseids’ appearance, holding annual meteor parties, toasting the yearly passersby and pondering their path in the cosmos.
“You don't even need binoculars to see them,” said Jimmy Eaves, who has organized a Perseids party for the curious folks of La Vergne, Tennessee. They’ll be gathering at a city park in La Vergne, located about 25 miles southeast of Nashville, on Friday night. “We're all going to get out our chairs and blankets and check it out.”
A final word of warning, which isn't intended to rain on any shower parties: A quarter moon will be in the sky, meaning some fainter meteors may not be visible. Experts advise finding the darkest spot possible to watch.
And, if the Perseids are a bust, circle this date on your calendar: November 18. That’s the zero hour for the Leonids meteor shower. All signs – heavenly and otherwise – point to a spectacular show this year.
|Back to the top|