Meteor shower peaks Wednesday and Thursday

ESCANABA — I remember lying on my back on a dock at Higgins Lake one summer night when I was 11 or 12, gazing up at the sky overhead. As I watched the stars, a brilliant streak of light flashed down along the Milky Way from the northeast to the southwest, ending in a silent burst of orange and yellow. To my amazement, it left a ghostly, glowing, greenish-white trail in its wake that slowly faded away. I had just seen a bolide, the fiery death of a small chunk of a comet probably no larger than a baseball as it hit Earth’s upper atmosphere at 37-miles per second (about 133,000 miles per hour).

I had gone out to lie on the dock to watch the Perseid meteor shower which peaks between August 11 and 13 every year. This predictably strong display is caused by the Earth plowing into tiny bits of dust left in the path of the periodic comet 109P Swift-Tuttle. This large, frozen ball of dirt and ice orbits the Sun in an elongated ellipse that brings it past the Earth once every 133 years.

Abraham Lincoln was President when two American astronomers, Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle each independently discovered the comet in July of 1862.

Lewis Swift discovered 13 comets and 1,248 nebulae over his career, more than anyone except William Herschel, the 18th Century English astronomer and telescope maker. Horace Tuttle saw his first comet on his way to school one morning, inspiring him to become an astronomer. He discovered the “Great Comet of 1860,” and served on the staff of the US Naval Observatory, discovering several comets and at least two spiral galaxies, NGC 2655 and NGC 6643.

On its last visit to Earth’s neighborhood 29-years ago, Swift-Tuttle was found to have a large, 16-mile-wide, icy nucleus; about the size of a large city. With each pass by the sun it strews tens of thousands of tons of gas and dust particles in its wake. This debris creates the Perseid Meteor shower when the Earth plows through it at 67,000 miles per hour, the same time each August.

Viewing the Perseid Meteor Shower is easy and requires no special equipment, whatsoever. Most people just lie back on a comfortable lounge chair and simply look up at the night sky.

Find an open place such as a farm field, ballpark, golf course, small unlit airfield, or lakeshore; anywhere where there is an unobstructed view of the sky — especially toward the northeast. If possible get away from the city, where billboards and streetlights wash away the darkness. In Escanaba ok sites are along Water Plant Drive looking northeast over the bay, on the north side of the Municipal Dock looking away from the city, or out at the end of Portage Point Lane, facing northeast across the bay toward Stonington.

A pair of wide angle, 7×40 binoculars are good for scanning the Milky Way or watching satellites glide by, if you grow bored. Bring bug spray and a sleeping bag or warm blanket, in case it gets chilly. You may see a few bright bolides soon after skies darken around 10 p.m., but the best show will be after midnight, when the Earth’s night side is plowing right into the stream of comet dust. Then, if skies are clear, you should see from 60 to 90 quick, bright meteors streaking across the sky each hour; about 1 or 2 per minute. The average meteor is created by a tiny bit of gravel no more than the size of a BB or a pea. But don’t worry, no one has ever been struck by a Perseid meteorite in all of recorded history.

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Dan Young, Newsletter Editor, Delta Astronomical Society, DAS. (Find us on Facebook or email us at: dyoung@chartermi.net ).


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