Perseids, past and present


From dark, rural skies, meteor observers, myself included, often report as many as 100 meteors per hour at the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, which is by many considered to be the best meteor shower of the year. Unfortunately, this year, the peak occurs at 1 p.m. on Aug. 12, which you may have noticed is during broad daylight.

Still, the Perseids last a long time. You might see as many as 40 per hour if you observe it the night before and the night after — the nights of Aug. 11-12 and Aug. 12-13.

If that seems like an odd way of listing the dates, consider that the best meteor observing time always comes after local midnight, which is for Ohio about 1:30 a.m. when you factor in Daylight Saving Time and where we are in our time zone.

It’s best to observe meteors after midnight when our part of the Earth turns into the path of Earth’s orbit. You’ll tend to see more meteors then for the same reason that you see more insects smashing into your car’s front windshield than your rear one as you drive on the highway. The meteoric bugs don’t have to play catch-up with Earth’s considerable velocity through space as it orbits the sun at 67,000 mph.

This year, even 40 per hour during the last hour before morning twilight is a stretch. A bright waxing-crescent moon — the “Big Streetlight in the Sky,” as some call it ­ — will pretty much spoil the view of all but the brightest meteors.

But take heart. There’s always next year. Besides, any clear, moonless night is a good time to go meteor observing. It’s best to get out of town if you can, away from the “sky glow” caused by the streetlights that brighten the sky and render invisible these often-faint streaks of light. From dark, rural skies, you will see several meteors an hour on any night of the year.

You might even see a bolide, a meteor so bright that it breaks into parts and explodes at the end of its path. A bolide often leaves a glowing ion trail that hangs in the sky for several seconds after the bright streak has disappeared.

Take along a lawn chair and a blanket and look in the direction least affected by the glow of city lights. You don’t need a telescope or binoculars. The binoculars you were born with, your own two eyes, give the best view.

Meteors are brief streaks of light that streak across the sky. They often last for only a second or so.

They are happen when a piece of space debris burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere and makes the air around them glow. The “meteoroid” that causes the streak of light is often no larger than a speck of dust or a pebble.

A meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through the trail of debris left by a passing comet. The Perseids are caused by the junk left by Comet Swift-Tuttle.

Even a single bright bolide can make a memory, especially for children. So pick a clear, moonless night and drive toward Middle-of-Nowhere, Ohio. A night under the stars will do your spirit some good. And, as Forest Gump’s mom said, “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

In fact, my most memorable Perseid meteor shower was also one of my worst.

Perhaps 750 people were gathered together at the Columbus Astronomical Society’s Perseid meteor watch at Highbanks Metro Park on Aug. 11, 1986.

By 11 p.m., we had seen only a few meteors. Despite my entreaties to stick around at least until 2 a.m., many people were already heading toward their cars. Abruptly, someone yelled, “What in the heck is THAT!!” (Actually, “heck” wasn’t the word she used — this is a family newspaper.)

We all turned toward the east, the direction her trembling hand was pointing.

At first, it looked like a bright, glowing jet contrail, an odd event for so late at night. But the bright point from which it was emanating must have been spinning, because a few seconds later, it formed into a large spiral, like a child’s pinwheel.

The ghostly vortex drifted slowly to the south for the next few minutes, eventually dissolving into a glowing blob of light before it disappeared behind the trees along the southeastern horizon.

The discussion about what the pinwheel was went on for several days after the event. It turned out to be the result of a Japanese rocket that was dumping fuel as it prepared to shoot into a higher orbit.

It was the most memorable Perseid meteor shower in my memory, even if the meteors were a disappointment.

Every night has that kind of potential. Or you might see nothing at all, except for the glowing Milky Way and the planet Saturn shining brightly in the south — your grand universe spread out before you, waiting to be explored with your eyes and your heart.

I know that people like me often over-sell events like this one. Often, astronomical events don’t live up to expectations, and many an eclipse or meteor shower is washed out by clouds or the ubiquitous summer haze.

We didn’t see many meteors that night in 1986. Instead we got a glowing Japanese rocket — and a memory that will stay with me all the rest of my days.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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