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Stargazing the Perseid Meteor Shower

August 12th, 2008 · No Comments · Personal

A bit of history…

I used to be quite the backyard astronomer when I was a kid. When I was around 8 or 9 I would use my dad’s binoculars to scope out the sky, not caring that after a few minutes my head felt like it was going to fall off my neck from looking straight up into the sky. I collected books on stargazing and astronomy both from stores and the local library. I learned about stars and nebulae and galaxies, quasars and pulsars and black holes… the constellations and where they resided in the sky. Messier objects. I crammed tons of astrological knowledge into my head because the greatness of space brought much wonderment to my young imaginative mind.

Not long after I got my first refracting telescope, and that’s when the fun really began as I was able to study objects in much greater detail – from the Andromeda Galaxy to the Seven Sisters – and of course the Moon. Although I had always wanted a reflecting telescope as well, as they gather much more light (they are the short, wide ones while refracting telescopes are commonly long and narrow) they also were more expensive. My second telescope, also a refracting model, was actually one my father got and had azimuth controls that let me better “steer” the scope around the heavens and adjust for the movement of the stars and Moon.

Although I’m only just over 25 miles South from New York City, luckily about 18 miles of that distance is open water. 8 miles to the East over rural suburbs lies the Atlantic Ocean. South and West for a good 30-40 miles is nothing but small towns and farmland. So the skies over my head are generally dark enough to see the soft smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy out of the corner of your naked eye – if you know where to look. For my area of the US, it’s about the best viewing conditions you can ask for.

I don’t recall what meteor shower I saw first, although I have a good feeling that it was a Leonid shower, seeing that I’m a Leo and they’re usually pretty damn good. Several years ago in the late 90’s was supposed to be another memorable storm, and I sat outside and watched as the meteors streaked across the sky in pretty decent numbers, though I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere near the kind of storm darker places were. Still, watching the dust from comets streak across the night sky or sometimes burn slow and bright, leaving behind brief after-images of their trail – I was hooked. I watched several more storms over the years, including more Leonids, some Perseids and a Taurid.

The Perseids Today

There has been a gap of several years, about 4-5, since I’ve taken the time to check out another meteor shower, and I just happend to be checking my news feeds tonight when I stumbled upon the fact that the Perseids were due to peak at just that hour (2am) as the Moon set. We had been under some nasty stormy weather the past few days but when I poked my head outside my window and looked up, I was pleased to see relatively clear skies, with only some high cirrus that were barely visible. Encouraged, I checked for the location of Perseus thanks to Stellarium (wonderful stargazing app!) and seeing that it was rising to the East and would be initially occluded for some time behind trees and another house, clambered out one of my bedroom windows and onto the roof over my garage, which pointed directly East. I brought a folding chair with me and sat it astride the upside-down V of the roof, then sat down and leaned my head back.

Although I said it was fairly dark in my area, I knew better than to expect to see a normal stream of about 1 Perseid every 1-2 minutes as was predicted. In the total hour and a half I was out there, I only saw about 25 Perseids, which equates to around 1 every 3-5 minutes. That’s fairly reasonable. While I think I saw about a dozen more, they were so faint and quick it may have just been my eyes and mind playing tricks on me. However the benefit is that I see the biggest and the brightest as they streak through the atmosphere. The first one I spotted actually broke up and created two seperate streakes like -* -* along the same trajectory.

I forgot how much fun it is to just sit under the night sky and gaze up and the stars. In-between streaks of meteors I was casting my eyes about, picking out stars and constellations elsewhere in the sky, working hard to dredge up knowledge I hadn’t put to practical use in several years. I’ll have to take some time to see when the next big shower is supposed to be – this one was just its usual average faire. But it was still fun. If you haven’t been out to see a meteor shower yet I’d suggest doing it at least once – you too may end up drawn to the heavens

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