Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Perseid meteor shower is really just bugs on our windshield

Perseid meteors over the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile - Photo: S. Guisard
Nature is putting on a show and you are invited.  Every year at about this spot in the Earth's orbit, we run into some debris in space. We move through a cloud of rocks and ice (which are remnants left behind comet Swift-Tuttle long ago) much the same way that a car driving through a swarm of bugs on the highway may get a few on its windshield.  Fortunately for us, the splat made by this debris is much more interesting to look at and not something we need to clean off next time we stop at the service station.  Instead, these bits are vaporized as they hit the atmosphere, and they leave behind lovely trails that we call the Perseid meteor shower.  Don't worry, this space stuff is pretty small, so none of it will make it to the surface - there isn't anything to worry about - there is just a lovely view.

To see this light show best, find a dark place, away from city lights.  You don't need a telescope or binoculars.  The best tool for watching this show is just your naked eyes.  Lie on your back and look up (I like imagining that I'm floating in space and the entire Earth is my giant backpack, but that is just me).  It can take about 30 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness.  You should start to see shooting stars... as many as 50 per hour.  Go on and give it a try.  The peaks from August 11-13, so don't miss it.  ...and to all you space dust particles from Swift-Tuttle, watch out for that big blue marble headed toward you!