Wish Upon a Meteor
If you're a wish-upon-a-star kind of guy, start wishing.
The Perseid meteor shower is expected to peak Thursday and, according to astronomer and Appalachian State University professor Dan Caton, the sky's about to light up.
"The basic situation is that there are a lot of old comets that broke up a long time ago, and the debris from those is all strung out and still in an orbit around the sun," he said. "Periodically, Earth and its orbit cross one of these strains of debris, and that material flies into our atmosphere at high speed, and all these little tiny rocks burn up, and that's what we call shooting stars or meteors."
August is the time of year when our orbit collides with the remains of the comet Swift-Tuttle (so named for the astronomers that discovered it).
It's shooting star season, and Thursday, Aug. 12, is the perfect time to see an estimated 90 meteors per hour.
While the star streaking will continue Friday, Thursday's the peak, and, in order to maximize your experience, Caton recommends getting out of town.
"Get somewhere where there's not much light pollution," he said, like the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The rest is easy.
"It's a naked eye kind of thing, so you don't need any equipment," he said. "Just lie back and watch what can happen."
Meteors are part of the reason Caton got hooked on space.
"My older brother took an astronomy course in college," he said. "We went home and went out and looked at the stars."
A friend had a telescope, and eventually the pair made an even larger telescope, spending nights with the sky stargazing. "He became a geologist, and I became an astronomer," he said.
If you miss out on the stargazing Thursday, check it out Friday at a remote, streetlight-free location near you.
Glancing with the Stars
What are meteor showers?
An increase in the number of meteors at a particular time of year is called a meteor shower.
Meteor showers are named by the constellation from which meteors appear to fall, a spot in the sky astronomers call the radiant. For instance, the radiant for the Leonid meteor shower is located in the constellation Leo. The Perseid meteor shower is so named because meteors appear to fall from a point in the constellation Perseus.
How can I best view a meteor shower?
If you live near a brightly lit city, drive away from the glow of city lights and toward the constellation from which the meteors will appear to radiate.
For example, drive north to view the Leonids. Driving south may lead you to darker skies, but the glow will dominate the northern horizon, where Leo rises. Perseid meteors will appear to "rain" into the atmosphere from the constellation Perseus, which rises in the northeast around 11 p.m. in mid-August.
After you've escaped the city glow, find a dark, secluded spot where oncoming car headlights will not periodically ruin your sensitive night vision. Look for state or city parks or other safe, dark sites.
Once you have settled at your observing spot, lie back or position yourself so the horizon appears at the edge of your peripheral vision, with the stars and sky filling your field of view. Meteors will instantly grab your attention as they streak by.
How do I know the sky is dark enough to see meteors?
If you can see each star of the Little Dipper, your eyes have "dark adapted," and your chosen site is probably dark enough. Under these conditions, you will see plenty of meteors.
What should I pack for meteor watching?
Treat meteor watching like you would the 4th of July fireworks. Pack comfortable chairs, bug spray, food and drinks, blankets, plus a red-filtered flashlight for reading maps and charts without ruining your night vision. Binoculars are not necessary. Your eyes will do just fine.
Orionids, night of Oct. 21, full moon
Leonids, night of Nov. 17, moon sets around 4 a.m.
Geminids, night of Dec. 13, moon sets around midnight
(Note: These are approximate times for the lower 48 states; actual shower times can vary. Bright moonlight makes it difficult to see all but the brightest meteors.)
Source: StarDate Online ( http://www.stardate.org)