Catch a Falling Star!

August 7, 2008

Our guest blogger today is Barbara Wilson. She is an astronomer at the museum’s satellite facility, The George Observatory. Today she is writing about the Perseid Meteor Shower, which can best be seen the night of August 11 through the dawn of August 12.

Looking at the summer meteor showers are an all time favorite hobby of mine.  For the past few years I have always planned on being somewhere away from the city lights so I can fully enjoy the “Night of Falling Stars” in August.  Some years the meteors are sparse, but sometimes there are so many that you can’t possibly see them all. Part of the fun is just not knowing what to expect.  But I think that this will be the best meteor shower of 2008.  On the morning of August 12, just before dawn on Tuesday is when we should see the most meteors.

The George Observatory, a satellite facility of the Houston Museum of Natural Science located in Brazos Bend State Park, will host an all-night viewing of the annual Perseid meteor shower on the observing deck from 9 p.m. on Monday evening, Aug. 11 through dawn on Tuesday, Aug 12.

Here are some common questions about the shower.

What time will we see the falling stars?

Creative Commons License photo credit: twinxamot

The meteors (also known as “falling stars”) should become visible as early as 10 p.m. Monday evening, Aug. 11.  We should see many more per hour after midnight when the “radiant” gets higher by each passing hour.  The moon will set around 2 a.m., leaving a darker sky for meteors, and I hope we will see as many as 60 to 90 meteors per hour between 2 a.m.  and dawn on Tuesday. The peak of the shower is estimated to happen close to dawn for us here in Houston.

Where do I look?

A quick answer: the northeastern sky. 

Perseus With the Head of Medusa
Creative Commons License photo credit: storem

Meteor showers are named for the constellation where the meteors appear to be falling from.  This spot in the sky is called the “radiant” by astronomers. So the Perseids appear to come from the constellation “Perseus the King,” hence the name.

Perseus rises in the northeastern sky. But you will notice meteors all over the sky, not just in the north.  In fact, if you face south, west, or look overhead, you will see the longest meteors.  The closer you look to the radiant the shorter the meteors are. It is a perspective effect.

Where should I be to see the most meteors?

Quick answer: Away from the city.
Many more meteors are seen when you travel away from city lights.  Bright lights affect the amount of meteors seen.  A few of the meteors are very bright and visible, even in big cities, but most are not.

Meteors are bits of dust and debris left in space by comets that have passed through our solar system. Here’s a bit of science on meteors from Dr. Phil Plait’s book, “A meteoroid, moving at 33,500 mph (15 kilometers a second) or more compresses the air in front of it violently. The air itself gets very hot, which is what heats the meteoroid, as a result we see the light from the meteor.” Despite the heated air and bright streaks, the meteor light is still much dimmer than the lights of the city around us.

As a result only the very brightest meteors can be seen from cities. So we invite people to join us at the George Observatory as the skies are many times darker than in Houston or surrounding cities.
What should I bring to be comfortable?

Star Gazing in Toronto
Creative Commons License photo credit: wwfcanada

It should be loads of fun, so bring your lawn chairs, blankets to lie on, mosquito repellant, a late night snack, and hope for clear skies!  You can bring a red filtered flashlight, but please do not bring bright white flashlights, as the bulbs are just too bright and will interfere with seeing the meteors. Binoculars are not necessary, your eyes are all you really need.

The state park will charge a $5.00 per person entry fee, with children under 12 free of charge.

Please note: There was a date misprint in Museum News, (Vol 13, # 4 Ice Worlds) the George Observatory will not be open on the night of August 12/13th.

Authored By Steven Cowan

Steven never dreamed his first job out of college would be in public relations, and on top of that working for one of the top museums in the country. After all, he majored in History at Vassar College. Within three months of graduation, he landed a spot in the PR department and has not looked back since. He is fast becoming a communications fanatic, spending a tremendous amount of his time promoting the museum and all it has to offer.

2 responses to “Catch a Falling Star!”

  1. Barbara says:

    When is the peak? First I heard Thursday, than Tuesday and now I’m hearing tonight…Monday.

  2. James Wooten says:

    The peak is Thursday night and Friday morning, August 12-13. Since Earth is essentially plowing through a debris field, the leading edge-the side going from night to day-sees more meteors. So we’ll see more meteors Friday morning in the pre-dawn hours.

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