The star-strewn Milky Way hung across August night during my childhood on an Iowa farm, and a curtain of other stars stretched all the way to the horizon–the amphitheater for my favorite meteor show.
I keep watch for the return of the Perseids the second week of every August. Catching the flash of a meteor still sparks anticipation and awe in me, even though I know that these mysteries of the heavens are just spaceborn grains of rock or metal. As they are swept up in the earth’s orbit around the sun, they burn up in our atmosphere, beckoning silently as they dart across the darkness.
As a child, charmed by these falling or shooting stars, as we called them, I did not realize that the Perseids have been a favorite of other night sky watchers throughout the decades. Generations of my ancestors probably saw them and pondered the marvels of the universe.
Any night of the year, meteors can be seen on a dark night–up to half a dozen in an hour. But several predictable times during the year, we can see meteor showers, even dozens of them in an hour, when the earth looms near the orbit of a comet or asteroid.
This silent summer show is named for Perseus, the constellation where the “radiant,” or streaks, seem to begin, and the performance is due to debris of a comet’s path. The earth’s orbit takes us nearest the path of the comet, Swift-Tuttle, the second week of August.
Comet Swift-Tuttle is the largest object (16 miles wide) to regularly swish nearby the Earth on its oblong path around the sun. It passed by us in 1992, and will swing by next in 2126. But we orbit right through the comet’s debris every August.
Many Perseids have “trains,” or dimly glowing tails, and they are visible in all areas of the country.
I stay up past midnight to scan the sky. The streetlights of civilization make modern meteor watching more difficult, but I have seen dozens in an hour from my suburban back yard, away from those lights. I just wear a layer of bug spray and take a blanket to lie on, let my eyes get accustomed to the dark as I listen to crickets and tree frogs.
Then watch and anticipate.
Meteors shoot out about one per minute during a Perseid shower. Once I witnessed a bright fireball with a flame-shaped tail, a sight I will long remember.
Perhaps I’ll behold a bolide breaking up at the end of its path, or even hear its thunder.
A meteor shower on a summer night is one of life’s delights.
Watching the fires of these tiny, far-away transients tends to put my own path in perspective, and also takes me back to those wondrous summer nights of my childhood.