When I was young, I thought seeing a shooting star in the night sky was good luck. Like finding a four leaf clover, you could make a wish on the blazing light and it would come true. Fast forward a decade and one more myth of childhood was dispelled when I learned meteors are merely bits of planetary dirt, burning up as they enter Earth’s atmosphere.
Even if it is fiction, gazing at the night sky for shooting stars on a summer evening still elicits feelings of excitement and wonder. The night skies are putting on a meteor show currently as we are in the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Every year between late July and August, earth passes through a cloud of debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle comet.
These bits of ice and dust are no bigger than a grain of sand to the size of a pea. They make a tail of fire as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of 134,000 miles per hour. They don’t pose any threat as they burn up before reaching the Earth’s surface, a distance of about 60 miles.
On any given night, you may spot five meteors per hour. Most years during the peak of the Perseid Meteor you may see about 80 meteors in an hour. This year the show will be extraordinary. The gravity from Jupiter has pulled the most dense portion of the cloud closer to earth. Astronomers expect to see as many as 200 meteors an hour during the early morning hours of Friday, Aug. 12.
The meteors can be seen without the aid of a telescope or binoculars. Take a chair or blanket outdoors to a dark area away from lights and large trees. Give your eyes 15-30 minutes to adjust to the dark and watch the light show appear. Look to the north. The Perseus Constellation, from which the meteors radiate, appears on the northern horizon shortly after 10 p.m. The largest number of meteors will be visible after midnight or 1 a.m. when the moon sets and the sky is darkest.
If it’s been a while since you have gazed at the night sky, don’t be fooled by the slower moving blinking lights. Those are most likely satellites or possibly even the International Space Station. Can you spot Polaris, the northern star, or any other constellations? Several apps like Google Sky, Star Walk, and Sky Map are available for smartphone or iPad. They use your device’s GPS to identify what you are looking at in the sky.
Don’t worry if you miss seeing the peak of the Perseids in the early hours of Aug. 12. You still have a good chance of spotting meteors up to Aug. 24. Whether you believe in a little magic and make a wish on a shooting star, or just experience the awe inspiring wonder of the universe, I hope you take time to enjoy the night sky.