Year’s best meteors are linked to a future extinction impact

American astronomers Lewis Swift (pictured above) and Horace Tuttle, working independently, discovered the comet in 1862. Three years later, Giovanni Schiaparelli realized it was the source of the Perseid meteors.

American astronomers Lewis Swift (pictured above) and Horace Tuttle, working independently, discovered the comet in 1862. Three years later, Giovanni Schiaparelli realized it was the source of the Perseid meteors.

Everyone loves to see dramatic “shooting stars” rip across the sky. Well, the game is on: Each night there will be more and more. The peak intensity happens over two nights, on Thursday, August 11 and the following night. Whichever is clearest and least hazy, that’s your night.

The Moon will be annoying, but not a game-ruiner. You always see more meteors when the background sky is dark. That means getting away from city lights, or even town lights if you can. If you’re serious about this, start watching after the Moon sets – meaning after 1 a.m. next Thursday/Friday night, or after 2 a.m. on Friday/Saturday. You’ll then get a double-boost: The meteors ramp up their intensity in the hours before dawn, and the Moon is absent.

If you can, join us on Thursday night, August 11, at the Mohonk Mountain House for our annual Night of the Shooting Stars, a popular program that we’ve featured for the past 35 years. We go to a special dark meadow there, and have several hundred people spread out on the blankets that we provide. But your own lawn is perfect if you turn off all your house lights.

Be comfortable. Spread out blankets or lounge chairs. You need a big swath of unobstructed sky. Don’t stare through little breaks between trees. If your home won’t work, get in the car and find an unlit track or soccer field, cemetery, “Magic Meadow” or lakeside. They all do the job. Get into the open.

If it’s mostly clear and not too hazy, you’ll see 15 meteors an hour before 11 p.m., when northeast is slightly favored as the best direction. From 1 a.m. onward, the sky explodes with 60 an hour, and now any part of the heavens works equally well.

You can easily go five minutes seeing none at all, so don’t get discouraged and quit. During another random five-minute period you might catch ten of them. The trick is to keep your eyes glued skyward. Don’t merely glance up now and then.

More information? These meteors are mostly the size of appleseeds. All travel at 37 miles a second, or 80 times faster than a bullet. Their distance from you is always between 60 and 100 miles. One in three leave behind glowing trains that linger for a second or two. And they have an interesting history.

In 1862, two American astronomers, Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, discovered a new comet that orbits the Sun every 133 years. Soon called Comet Swift-Tuttle, it proved to travel on an identical path of each of these meteoroids that strike us this week. Therefore, all these meteors are icy fragments from that comet.

That comet’s large 15-mile-wide nucleus, its super-high speed and the fact that it periodically passes near us make it the most hazardous object in the known universe. Unlike earlier fears, we now know that during its very close approach in 4479, it will miss us by over a million miles. But sooner or later we’ll probably collide with Swift-Tuttle – with an impact 27 times more explosive than the event that killed the dinosaurs.

 

Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.

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