Shooting Star Gazer

Here’s the good news. Every year, on the same night, give our take a leap year, something magical happens…

Our world, the Earth, is hurtling at ridiculous speeds through space around its star, the Sun. Space is mostly empty, of course, that’s what makes it space. But around the 12th of August every year, space gets kind of dirty.

It takes one year for the Earth to orbit the Sun. So after one year, the Earth comes back to where it started exactly a year ago. That’s what a year is. But not everything takes that long to orbit the sun. Jupiter only completes its orbit once every twelve Earth years. The comet Swift-Tuttle orbits the Sun once every 133 years.

Why am I going on about comets now? Well, comets are basically cold icy balls or rock. As they approach the Sun, the heat causes the ice and rock to break away, leaving a trail of dust and debris in its wake. That debris just hangs around in space then, waiting, waiting for us to come blundering into it. Because the orbit of Earth and the orbit of Swift-Tuttle cross. So every year, we arrive at the point where they cross, and all that rubbish it left behind slams into our atmosphere (or rather, our atmosphere slams into it!) and it burns up, creating an amazing meteor shower.

12th

This usually peaks on the night of the 11th or 12th of August, but it’s a big debris field and meteors should still be visible for a few days either side. This year astronomers are predicting 200 meteors an hour at its peak. It is an amazing spectacle and well worth seeing.

Here’s the bad news, if, like me, you live England. You live in England. The chances are, and the weather forecast bears me out on this, it’s going to be overcast all night tonight, tomorrow and on the 12th. And most nights, come to think of it. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope. Here is a blog I posted on a “Glorious 12th” some years back on an old blog of mine:

“It’s the glorious 12th! Or it was a little over four ago. About this time every year the Earth passes through the tail of the pleasingly named comet, Swift-Tuttle. As our planet collides with the rocks and dust that Swift has left behind they burn up in the atmosphere, creating the year’s most spectacular meteor shower. At its peak, the Perseid meteor shower (named after the constellation Perseus, as this is where the comets appear to originate from) boast 100 visible shooting stars every hour, some as bright as the skies most dazzling stars.

Now, it is no secret that England is one of the worst countries for observational astronomy. Both the met office and the BBC however, assured me that by one o’clock in the morning the thick blanket of cloud that loomed over Nottingham like a shroud would have completely dissipated and the shower would be visible for all to see. It did not. In fact, it wasn’t until half past two that the first breaks in the cloud started to appear.

At the sight of this ever hopeful chink in the vaporous armour of the sky, I donned hoodie and jacket and headed out to the darkest spot on campus I could find. By the time I got there, the gap had past, but the cloud was breaking and the odd star could be seen shining through. I decided to wait it out. I waited. I waited some more. I waited until twenty past three and decided it was unlikely that any further opportunity for meteor hunting would occur tonight. I left for home bitterly disappointed.

I kept my eyes on the sky all the way home, and noticed as I passed over the field in front of the campus sports hall that once again the clouds seemed to be parting and I had also managed to stumble upon an even darker viewing spot. I pondered for a moment before finally falling on the decision to stay put. So I lay down on the ground and looked up at the sky in the one spot where there was a sizeable break in the cloudscape. Within five minutes I saw a streak of white flash across the sky, a minute later another. Two of the brightest shooting stars I had ever seen shot straight across my field of view. I was elated and stayed lying in wait for more until the clouds finally closed up again. Unfortunately this took only another five minutes and in that time I saw no more meteors.

I got to my feet and headed home, this time satisfied! Two is not the most meteors I have seen on an outing on the 12th, but they were spectacular, and for an astronomer such as myself, even being able to witness such a small part of the calendars best astronomical event was well worth the wait. And then, on my way home, I saw a fox! Best night ever!”

So there you have it. Clouds or not, wrap up warm, make a thermos of your favourite hot beverage, find a dark, clear patch of sky and look up. You might get lucky, and trust me, it’s worth it!


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