Counting the Falling Stars

“OOOOOOH !  There’s one !” the wife exclaimed pointing behind me.  As I began to turn, another one caught my eye as it streaked across the sky behind her.  “Heay, I thought they were all supposed to come out of the north-west” I whined while spinning on my heels trying to view all 4 horizons.   Then came the waiting, the seemingly endless hours of gazing skyward (OK just moments gazing skyward, but it feels longer). Suddenly a great scratch appeared in the black velvet canvas.  Just for a fraction of a second.  Then, it’s gone, leaving me wondering if I really saw it at all.  Until the wife says “OOOOOH !  D’ja see how bright that one was ?” The first rule of meteor shower gazing … take a partner.

It was around 3:00 a.m. on a warm August night as I wandered about a backroad I knew better than my own driveway.  In a few hours, I would appear insane to observers as I danced down the middle of the road singing Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song”.  But here, in the darkness, I could do whatever I wanted and no one would ever know, except the wife of course.  But she knew she’d married an idiot decades ago, and she still loves me … go figure eh ?  Our anniversary is on the day before the night of, one of the best annual meteor showers on Earth.

Meteor showers are something not many people are aware of.  Hence, they’re not something many people see, except on the news, next day (providing it’s a slow news day, and Timmy hasn’t fallen down a well.)  Or, more sobering, the February 15, 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor which exploded over south-western Russia injuring 1300 people in 6 cities.

As you know, 2 Old Guys Walking like to stop and look around as they walk.  Well, this is about the wife and I stopping to look up, as we walk.  Meteor showers, being a nocturnal phenomenon, are rarely given due regard.  Unlike Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) displays, meteor showers are predictable on an annual basis.  There are 11 major occurrences per annum, and many are well worth marking on your calendars.

Sure you have to get up early (or stay up late) to see them, but the wife and I used to see meteors on our morning commutes back in the day.  We still get up early or stay up late, to catch them since we’re both retired now.  Their names are based on the constellations they appear to fall out of, though sometimes it seems no one told the meteors that, as we’ve seen them fall from every direction without much regard for the rules.  The eleven showers are the result of Earth passing through debris left by comets in their independent orbit of our Sun.  As our planet slams into the beach-sand sized particle trail at 108,000 km/h the friction with the molecules that make up our atmosphere makes them burst into flame for a fleeting fraction of a second.  Most showers last a few days with some running across a week or so.  The dates listed below are the peak dates with the maximum concentration/hour.  For many nights before and after, some meteors will still be seen.

January 3 Quadrantids   – You didn’t miss anything this year due to weather.  This shower is typically a very short display of a few hours or so anyway, which are usually weathered out, or just too damned cold to bother with.  If you can catch it just right, it can be impressive, but … why ?  The debris trail of asteroid 2003 EH1 is the cause.

April 21-22, Lyrids – Lyrid meteors tend to be bright and often leave trails. About 15 meteors per hour can be expected at their peak.  These sometimes surge to 100 per hour, but it’s rare.  The meteors are from the debris of a “long term” comet (comet Thatcher).  That’s a comet that has only been seen once in the last 200 years and might be 415 years before it’s seen again. Best viewed in the early morning hours, Lyrid meteor showers have been recorded for 26 centuries.

May 5-6 Eta Aquarids – The result of debris from Halley’s Comet (last seen in 1986) incoming to the Sun.  However, they’re best seen from the southern hemisphere, but are still worthwhile from the Northern. The Orionids in October are caused by the same comet.  We collide with Halley’s trash on its out-going route then too.  It’s presently just past the orbital path of Uranus and won’t be back until 2061.

July 29-30 Delta Aquarids – Another one favouring the Southern Hemisphere and what little is visible from up here is rather faint.  Debris from a comet just discovered in 1986 is the cause.

August 10-13 Perseids – My personal favourite as it falls on our anniversary, it’s in the warm part of the year, AND it favours the northern hemisphere.  It’s caused by debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet with a 133 year orbit. You can expect 1 meteor per minute in the early hours of the morning (I mean after midnight).   The shower was first recorded in Chinese annals in 36 AD, though the showers were recognized as an annual occurrence in 1865.  Swift – Tuttle got a lot of attention back in 1992 when calculations indicated that upon its return on August 14, 2126, it would quite likely collide with Earth.  Considering it’s over 2.5 times larger than the comet that probably finished off the dinosaurs, there was good cause for concern.  But not to worry, heavy research was carried out and the calculations were re-done.  We’re good for a coupla thousand years now.  Well, from Swift-Tuttle anyway.

October 7 Draconids – Another northern hemisphere favouring shower.  You’ll see more meteors before midnight than after, for this one.  Though it’s usually a rather uneventful and sparse shower.  On rare occasion the Draconids have surprised everyone with hundreds of meteors per hour, but I wouldn’t turn down a round at the Pub to chance seeing one.

October 21 Orionids –  See the Eta Aquarids (May 5) above.  They’re best seen in the early morning hours.  These ones can be quite spectacular as fireballs with tails, but they’re fast moving so watch quick.  The occurrence has an irregular peak so watch in the early morning hours on the day before and after the 21st  as well.

November 4-5 South Taurids

November 11-12 North Taurids

Both are caused by Encke, a once huge comet.  It has disintegrated over the last 25,000 years, leaving pebble sized pieces in an unusually wide stream.  The stream is so wide it actually takes Earth a couple of weeks to pass through it.  That’s why there’s 2 showers so close together, and, that’s why they’re known for spectacular fireballs with smokey tails.  Even (usually straight-laced) astronomers have taken to calling them “Hallowe’en Fireballs”.  As well, they’re very slow moving in comparison to most.  However, like everything else in Life, there is a trade-off.  There aren’t many to be seen at any particular time, but when you do sight one … it’s breath-taking.  There are also 2 more showers in June/July which are caused by the same debris stream, but Earth crosses that path in daylight so no one sees them.

November 17-18 Leonids – Caused by passing through the debris trail of the Tempel-Tuttle comet.  It orbits the sun every 33 years, releasing fresh debris on each pass.  The Leonids are famous for producing meteor storms.  A meteor storm is defined as a minimum of 1,000 meteors per hour.  In 1966 the Leonids threw 3,000 meteors per minute, at observers for a period of 15 minutes. The storms occur about every 33 years (coinciding of course with fresh material from the comet’s passage).  I’ve already done the math for you, it’s gonna be 2032 before the next possible storm, so put the calculator down and pour yourself a drink.  Regardless, even a Leonid meteor shower is bound to be impressive.  They’re best seen between midnight and dawn.

December 13-14 Geminids – Caused by debris from Phaethon 3200, a mysterious object that might well be an asteroid, not a comet.  The debate is still raging over it.  That’s one thing I can attest to from personal experience, scientists looooove to argue over things no one could possibly know for certain. Phaethon 3200 is a 5 km wide rock that swings around the sun at 1/3 Mercury’s orbital distance before spinning out beyond Mars. This orbital path takes 1.4 years.  During it’s orbit, it passes close enough for the Sun’s heat to fracture the rock and release chunks of it for Earth to plow into.   The Geminids are possibly the most reliably spectacular meteor shower of the year.  They even rival the warmer weather August Perseids.  They’re regularly plentiful and bright, and so, worth dressing up warmly to observe.  They also favour the Northern Hemisphere.  They’re best seen after midnight, but are often good any time after dark.

I won’t insult your intelligence by making the obvious yet obligatory suggestion to “view from as dark a location as possible”.  I will however, assure you that you’ll see a whole lot more meteors, the darker your location is.  I’ve simply held my hand at arm’s length to block out a distant farmhouse porch light, and doubled my observation frequency.  It makes that much difference.

Give yourself awhile for your eyes to truly adjust.  It can take up to 20 minutes for some folks.  At first sit, stand or whatever, back-to-back with someone to cover as much sky as possible.  You might even determine it worthwhile to turn and both observe the same direction.  It’s surprising how chilly even an August night can be sometimes.  Bring something warm to wrap yourself in and for that matter, something warm to drink.  A foldout chair or a blanket to lie back on would be nice too.  The wife and I like to wrap ourselves up together in a blanket and lean back against the car fender.

And remember that singing a silly song and dancing like an idiot in the middle of a country road, in the dark … is 10 kinds of fun at any stage in Life.

I wonder if I’ll ever decide what I wanna be when I grow up.

Bushwhacker

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