Viewing meteor shower requires patience


The Perseid meteor shower is the most reliable of the 30 or so meteor showers that repeat every year.

This year, hundreds of thousands of Americans will stay up all night tomorrow (Aug. 11-12) to see the peak of the annual show. Luckily, the waxing crescent moon will set early, so its glare will not interfere with the view.

Let’s hope for a clear, dark sky in central Ohio. This pandemic year has been a frustrating one for amateur stargazers. Many public programs have been canceled to reduce the spread of the dreaded disease.

But people have still gone out on their own, and for some, it was worth the trouble.

On June 18 at 6 p.m., observers in New Caledonia and Vanuatu saw and photographed a strange glowing spiral floating above the Pacific Ocean. Speculation about the origins of the ghostly pinwheels was, shall we say, all over the map. No, it wasn’t an extraterrestrial signal or any other kind of alien visitation.

To a lucky few of us, the spiral was instantly recognizable. Yes, I’ve seen one. Coincidentally, the stunning apparition happened during a Perseid meteor watch 35 years ago.

What causes such weird pinwheels to appear without warning?

To find out, you’ll have to wait for the details of this year’s Perseids.

This year’s shower has the potential to be a good one. Even if it isn’t, you just might get lucky and see something extraordinary, but only if you observe the shower under the right conditions.

When to observe

If it’s cloudy, you won’t see any meteors, of course.

If the sky is clear, start observing around 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 11 and continue until morning twilight on Aug. 12. During those five hours, the number of meteors should increase each hour, culminating in the best show around 4:30 a.m. After that, morning twilight begins to spoil the view.

If you can’t get out tomorrow, don’t despair. If you can get out tonight and for a day or two after the peak, you’ll see a few meteors.

Many people make the mistake of observing too early in the evening. They see only a few meteors and head home by midnight. Please be patient. You’ll see many more meteors in the morning before sunrise than you will right after sunset.

Why Aug. 11-12?

Comets are chunks of ice mixed with dust and rock. They travel around the sun in long orbits that take them to the outer edges of our solar system and then back near the sun, where Earth is located.

As they get near the sun, the sun’s heat and energy evaporate part of their icy surface, leaving a long trail of small debris.

Meteor showers like the Perseids happen when Earth makes a yearly pass through the cloud of dust and debris left by a passing comet called Swift-Tuttle. When Swift-Tuttle last passed our neck of the solar system in 1992, it left a fresh trail of rocky detritus.

Earth passes through the densest part of the trail during the evening and early morning of Aug. 11-12.

What to look for

A meteor is a brief streak of light in the sky. Mostly it lasts for only a second or two. Meteors are caused by pieces of space debris burning up in Earth’s atmosphere as they travel at thousands of miles per hour.

The “meteoroid” that causes any given streak of light is often no larger than a speck of dust or a pebble.

How many

Nobody knows since we can’t predict the number of meteoroids in the part of the debris cloud through which we’ll be passing. Typically, meteor mavens see 60 or more meteors per hour during the predawn hours near the shower’s peak. However, you’ll need a dark, rural sky to see that many.

The absence of the moon from the sky on the peak nights should help us see more meteors than some previous years. However, smoke from western forest fires may create a haze that blocks the view of fainter meteors.

Where to go

Listen to me now. The following is critical. Go away from cities and towns to a dark, rural location. Try to get at least 45 minutes from Columbus and Delaware or any other large urban area to a place on the map that is as empty as possible. Position yourself facing away from any local lighting.

You won’t see many meteors from an urban or suburban backyard. Also — and it pains me to say this — you won’t see many meteors at places like Perkins Observatory. The sky isn’t dark enough there.

I’ll be in the wilds of rural Virginia. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Where in the sky to look

Look away from any nearby security lights or the horizon glow from local towns.

The meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus (hence the name). However, before local midnight (about 1:30 a.m. EDT), Perseus will be below the horizon. So before midnight, consider looking east toward the place where Perseus will rise. You’ll see a few meteors that seem to rise from the horizon.

After local midnight, I like to observe straight overhead because I see more of the sky that way. Use your peripheral vision. Because meteors appear all over the sky, you’ll see many meteors out of the corner of your eye.

What to take along

A lawn chair or chaise lounge is helpful. Don’t use a telescope or binoculars because they restrict your field of view. Use the binoculars you were born with — your own two eyes.

Don’t forget bug repellent. You’ll be lying there for hours like a resplendent mosquito buffet. Also, take some warm clothing. It gets chilly at 3:30 a.m.

Above all, be patient. You never know what you might see or when you will see it. Perhaps, a ghostly spiral will appear.

Patience was the key to that memorable moment in 1986.

Up to that point, it had been a rotten night. Perhaps 750 people were gathered together at the Columbus Astronomical Society’s Perseid meteor watch at Highbanks Metro Parks.

We had seen only a few meteors. When it comes to meteor showers, you never know what to expect, but Highbanks was too close to Columbus and Delaware to afford a decent view.

Many people were already heading toward their cars when someone yelled, “what in the heck is that!” (Actually, “heck” wasn’t the word she used — this is, after all, 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. A few minutes later, it dissolved into a glowing blob of light before it disappeared behind the trees along the southeastern horizon.

The discussion about what the pinwheel 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 lift itself into a higher orbit.

The June 18 spiral turned out to be a second-stage rocket venting fuel as well. Having delivered six satellites into orbit, the second stage of a Chinese Long March 2C rocket released its excess fuel to prevent it from exploding in orbit.

The 1986 spiral made my Perseid experience indelibly memorable, even if the meteors were a disappointment.

And that’s the point, I guess. Any clear, moonless night is a good time to go stargazing all night.

You might even see a few bolides, meteors that are so bright that they break into parts and explode at the end of their path. They often leave a glowing ion trail that hangs in the sky for several seconds after the bright streak has disappeared.

Or you might see nothing at all, except for the glowing Milky Way and the planets Saturn and Jupiter shining brightly in the south — your grand universe spread out before you, waiting to be explored with your eyes and your heart.

When it comes to stargazing, you never know what to expect. Often, astronomical events don’t live up to expectations, and clouds or the ubiquitous summer haze washes out many an eclipse or meteor shower. Smoke from western forest fires might add to that haze.

On the other hand, something gloriously unexpected might happen.

We didn’t see many meteors that night in 1986. Instead, we got a glowing Japanese rocket —and a lingering memory.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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