Famous meteor shower set to begin in August
MARQUETTE — Space.com calls it “the icy parent of the Perseid meteor shower.”
When Earth passes through the tail left by the Swift-Tuttle comet every summer, viewers can see the famous Perseids meteor shower.
The event, which is expected to peak Aug. 11-12, intrigues Marquette Astronomical Society members Scott Stobbelaar and Larry Buege.
Meteor showers come and go, but the Perseids are special.
“This one is the most popular one of the year,” Stobbelaar said. “One, probably because it’s summer, and it’s warm.”
A little education on the Perseids — and meteors in general — might be in order.
“Most people refer to meteors as shooting stars, which is a misnomer,” Stobbelaar said. “They’re not stars flying.”
Meteor showers are related to comets, which when they get close to the sun, create comas and tails, he said.
“The comet is made up of frozen ice and dust, so as the comet gets close to the sun, the ice is loose, and it blows back into the tail due to the solar wind,” Stobbelaar said.
He refers to comets as “litter bugs,” because all that dust is in their orbits.
This debris then enters Earth’s atmosphere.
“It doesn’t take much to make it look bright,” Stobbelaar said.
Meteors also are not necessarily large; meteors in showers like the Perseids are about the size of a grain of sand, he said.
He also stressed that meteors don’t “burn up” in the atmosphere but vaporize.
The Perseids have that name because it appears they’re radiating from that area of space, specifically the constellation Perseus.
“If you look at Perseus, you might see more meteors, but they’re not going to be as pretty because it’s like a car coming directly at you,” Buege said. “You don’t see much motion. Or a plane coming at you. If you go off to the side, then you see it shooting across. It’s prettier.”
Stobbelaar said viewers likely will see more meteors after midnight because the “leading edge of the earth” is “plowing” into them.
The big deal about this year’s Perseids are the circumstances: There will be a new moon, which is basically no moon.
“It doesn’t take much of a moon to wash out meteors,” Stobbelaar said.
He also noted the Perseids are a big shower, with about 60 meteors per hour.
However, this particular astronomical shower, in a way, can’t be predicted.
“You have to have patience,” Stobbelaar said. “They’re sporadic, and the best thing to do is to take a blanket and spread it out on the ground, lie down on the blanket and look straight up.”
That way, the viewer also will be able to see as much of the sky as possible, he said.
Buege stressed that watching the Perseids should be a family thing as well.
“My earliest remembrance of the sky is when my mother took myself and my older brother out,” Buege said. “We just laid on a blanket in our backyard. Back in the ’50s, every place was a dark sky park. There wasn’t a light on every corner.”
When he watched the sky that time, it was just one meteor after the other.
“I’ve been inspired by the sky ever since,” Buege said.
Buege provided another Perseid fact:
≤ Any evening during the week preceding the peak of Aug. 11-12 normally will produce a good show, but the number of meteors per hours drops dramatically two or three days after the peak.
≤ In “outburst” years, the rate can be between 150 and 200 meteors per hour.
≤ Perseids also are known for their fireballs, which are larger explosions of light and color that can persist longer than an average meteor streak. This is because fireballs originate from larger particles of comet material.
≤ The Delta Aquarid meteor shower overlaps the Perseid meteor shower, which runs from July 12 to Aug. 23 each year, peaking around July 27-28.
About 5 to 10 percent of the Delta Aquarid meteors leave persistent meteor trains — glowing ionized gas trails that last a second or two after the meteor has passed.
“Each meteor shower has its own personality,” Buege said of the Delta Aquarids.
On the other hand, the Perseids are known for the possibility of fireballs.
Buege also pointed out that if sky gazers see a meteor coming from the north, it’s probably part of the Perseids shower. If the meteor is coming from the south, it’s likely a Delta Aquarid.
Viewing, of course, is weather dependent.
Should the skies be clear, the city of Marquette’s trial Dark Sky Park, which is open from 11 p.m. to 1 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights through the end of October near the pavilion at Presque Isle Park, might be a good place to view the Perseids.
Buege said Sugarloaf Mountain could be another option, although he doesn’t recommend that site for little kids in the dark.
He also mentioned Lakenenland Sculpture Park as a possible viewing spot.
Both Sugarloaf and Lakenenland are open 24/7, although Sugarloaf has the advantage of being elevated.
“You get a complete view all the way around the sky, right down to the horizon,” Stobbelaar said. “Then you’re going to be able to see all meteors.”
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced that a “Meteors and ‘S’mores” event is scheduled for 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. Aug. 12 at Van Riper State Park, 851 County Road AKE, Champion. Explorer guides will talk about the night sky as visitors snack on s’mores around a campfire. The program will take place in the day-use area in the shelter building.
After the educational program, people can stroll down to the beach for self-guided viewing. This event is weather dependent and will be rescheduled to Aug. 13 if needed. Also, a Recreation Passport is required for vehicle entry into Michigan state parks.
The MAS recently won a drawing for a library telescope for the North Central Region at the Astronomical League Conference. The telescope is the same as the telescope MAS donated for patrons to check out at the Peter White Public Library: an Orion StarBlaster with a 4-inch diameter mirror.
Now, Stobbelaar said on Facebook, people won’t wait have to wait as long to check out a telescope.