Perseid Meteor Shower: Astronomical Events Don't Have to Be Flashy to Be Worthwhile by Melissa Vickers
Every summer you likely see reports of the upcoming Perseid Meteor Shower that typically peaks around August 11 or 12, but meteors are generally visible on just about any night from one meteor shower or another. The Perseids are one of the most well-known of the yearly meteor showers, and some years it provides a pretty spectacular light show, especially if the moon isn’t up. This year’s show falls on a full-moon night, so only the biggest and brightest will be visible through the moon’s glow. Is it worth a look? Sure! Grab the kids and a big blanket to lay on, and go see what you can see!
You may have seen the news reports a few weeks ago about the Tau Herculid meteor shower expected as the earth traveled through the debris field of the 1995 breakup of Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3. The hope was that the skies would light up with the amazing astronomical display of a meteor “storm.” Most of the reports also included an easily missed caveat that it might end up being nothing.
My husband is an avid amateur astronomer, and we’ve spent many nights meteor watching in the past. This one was projected to be a short window opportunity, from midnight to 1 a.m. (CT), and given that it was also a moonless night, and the skies were clear, and the temperatures were pleasant, we decided to stay up and see what we could see.
We set up our lawn chairs in the front yard and faced south and watched. We saw one fairly good “fireball” that streaked across the sky, leaving a visible trail for a bit, and we saw 22 smaller, fainter, faster streaks in that hour we watched. We saw many more light streaks – the hillside was busy with our usual May lightning bug display. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the bugs and the shooting stars, but the meteors don’t generally flash off and on in their travels!
Was it the “storm” that media hype predicted? No, not by a long shot. Were we disappointed? No, also not by a long shot.
We spent a lovely hour under a beautiful sky, enjoying the game of watch and wait. Getting the occasional “I see one!” offered a little reward, but the big reward was just looking up.
The night sky is a beautiful thing to behold, and here in rural west Tennessee, we are fortunate to have pretty dark skies, compared to most of the eastern half of the U.S. Light pollution has really destroyed so much of what used to be easily visible in the night sky. We can still see the Milky Way here, but many places miss the beauty of that faint cloudy stretch across the sky. In the time of Galileo, 400 years ago, the skies were so dark that the Milky Way produced enough light to read by! There are so many lights today, and so many are the kind that light up the heavens more than the area they are trying to provide safety for below.*
I hope people who were looking for that once-in-a-lifetime meteor storm didn’t end up being disappointed and miss the beauty of the night sky. Astronomical events are almost always predicted with a grain of salt – their certainty of happening can usually be pretty accurately pinpointed, but the flashiness isn’t always so easily predicted. And there’s always the weather to factor in there – if a big astronomical event is predicted for a night you have clouds or rain, then you are out of luck! If the moon is shining brightly, you may see little else. But what a beauty to behold is the moon in all its glory!
Deep space photos from the Hubble Telescope, and what we are starting to see from the new James Webb Telescope, are not what any of us will see from our own backyard. Those pictures are amazingly beautiful and hard to fathom the scope of what we’re really looking at. But those shouldn’t be our standard for what is beautiful or fascinating about the night sky.
“The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
For more information on how to protect the night sky from light pollution, check out the International Dark-Sky Association.
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