When you wish upon a shooting star…it’s probably a meteoroid

Perseid Meteor 8/12/08
Creative Commons License photo credit: aresauburn™

The Perseid Meteor Showers, which occur every year around this date, are caused by the comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet itself was discovered in 1862, and could be seen again with binoculars in 1992. Calculations have shown that the comets witnessed in China in 188 A.D. and 69 B.C. were most likely the same comet. It is suspected that the comet should pass close enough to the Earth in 2126 to be visible to the naked eye (looking forward to that!) The comet should pass with in one million miles of the Earth in 3044 (a near miss.) The comet is approximately six miles across, which is the estimated size of the comet that killed off the dinosaurs millions of years ago.

Although the comet itself is currently far away, the Earth passes through the comet’s debris every year. The majority of the debris (meteoroids) is pea- or marble-sized and enters Earth’s atmosphere at roughly 133,200 mph (which is roughly 2,220 times faster than a car on the freeway, and 12,100 times as fast as I can run at top speed.) As the particle enters the atmosphere, it compresses the air in front of it, which heats it up. The temperature rises to about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which vaporizes the meteorite, creating the effect known as a “shooting star.”

Although a few of the meteorites could be seen last night and a few more tomorrow night, the best viewing time is in the predawn hours following tonight. In honor of such a spectacular natural occurance, the George Observatory in Brazos Bend Park will stay open from 9 p.m. tonight until 5 a.m. tomorrow morning

 This informational video was made for the 2008 Perseid Meteor Shower
The dates are slightly off, but all the other information is correct

Wherever you’re watching, you can use Twitter hashtag #meteorwatch to follow the action and ask questions!

Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.12.08)

African Elephant
Creative Commons License photo credit: Martin Pettitt

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

What gives jalapenos their kick? Fungus. Yum.

Robots with skin? Japanese scientists have developed a stretchy, rubber covering for robots that allows them to detect heat and pressure.

Elephants never forget – really. A new study has shown that herd matriarchs have exceptional memory for distant sources of food and water which can be the key to their herd’s survival.

Just one restaurant can produce 490 tons of CO2 every year – and there are 940,000 of them just in the US. So, how do you feel about “green cuisine?”

Have you been following the “case of the missing viper” at Moody Gardens? It sounds like something out of Encyclopedia Brownbut It’s escaped for real - twice. And now, investigators are pulling out the polygraph.

Did you stay up to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower? What did you think? Leave us a comment and let us all know what the experience was like.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (8.11.08)

Galaxie d Andromède
Creative Commons License photo credit: índio

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Tonight is the best time to view the annual Perseid Meteor Shower - check it out at the George Observatory, open all night, starting at 9 p.m. In the hours just before dawn, it’s possible to see a meteor every minute.

Your mother was right (about the solar system) – we are special.

In an effort to understand their contribution to global warming, 21 US cities will measure and disclose their carbon emissions as part of a global effort run by the Carbon Disclosure Project.

Proof that magic is often science in disguise: scientists have created an Invisibility Cloak that bends light to make objects invisible. Currently, it works on a nano-scale, but could soon be enlarged.

China’s massive cutbacks in pollution-producing industries in advance of the Olympic Games was intended to help athletes compete at their best – but it’s also giving scientists an opportunity to study what happens when “a heavily populated region substantially curbs everyday industrial emissions.”

Catch a Falling Star!

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.