Wednesday, 8 August 2007

PERSEID METEORS: FALLING STARS - or SHOOTING STARS ?

The annual celestial fireworks show provided by the Perseid Meteors is now under way! Meteors are popularly known as 'falling stars' or 'shooting stars'. Of course they are not stars at all, but they just look like a star shooting across the sky, or sometimes appearing to 'fall' from it. They are caused by tiny little bits of material given off by a comet, in this case Comet Swift-Tuttle, colliding with our atmosphere at very high speed, and burning away in the streak or flash of light which we see as a meteor.
There are some already visible each night, but the numbers seen will increase noticeably from about 8/9 August until the night of maximum on 12/13 (Sun-Mon) August. In excellent sky conditions one might see up to about 60-70 meteors per hour just before dawn when the radiant is highest.
Observers in Ireland are slightly better favoured than those in GB, as the dawn occurs later here, giving up to about 30 minutes of extra observing time.
Perseid meteors are quite fast, with a fairly high proportion of bright meteors. As the name implies they appear to come from the constellation of Perseus, which will be rising higher in the North East part of the sky as the night progresses. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but most will appear to come from the NE part of the sky. And there will be no moonlight this year, giving excellent observing conditions - if we get clear skies, of course!
To see them at their best, choose as dark a location as possible from which to observe: a really dark site will more than double the number of meteors you will see! Also, allow time for your eyes to adapt to the dark - allow at least 10 minutes after exposure to white light before you can expect to see many meteors, and after about 30 minutes you'll be able to see as many as sky conditions allow. You don't need any optical aid - just your eyes, a comfortable lounger or reclining chair, and some warm clothes or a rug.
Most meteors will be seen after midnight, up to the start of local dawn twilight, but you should see at least some soon after the sky gets dark on Sunday evening.
If you are lucky, you may see some much brighter than any of the stars in the sky!
The number of meteors drops away after August 12/13, but some should still be seen up to about August 15/16.

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