Saturday, August 14, 2010

On Perseids

When Beth and I were living in Boston, we were broke. The most economical vacation there is a camping trip. Note to future couples: when getting married consider a gift registry at a camping store. Our wedding gifts (lantern, cooking stove, collapsible water jug etc.) came in very handy. For us, the weekend meant to a road trip to the White Mountains or to Mt. Greylocke in the Berkshires. Vacations meant the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, Acadia National Park or Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. These were were great vacations. They had down time, alone time, great books, scenery and memories galore.

Camping in mid-August was a requirement. We needed to be away from the light pollution of the big city so that we could view Perseid's meteor showers in north end of the sky sans telescope. A cloudy weekend was a tragedy. A clear weekend, a victory for geekdom. Now that we live in Vermont, it is only a matter of pulling out a blanket, turning off all the lights and going out in the yard. Our local public radio station throws a star party just for this occasion. Peak time was over last night but you can still catch some if you are patient. I suggest watching the skies tonight, if you are the northern hemisphere, and listen to this show if you can, just follow the link.

Perseid is named for the constellation, Perseus, which it appears near in the sky. It is nowhere near these stars, obviously, because it is passing close to the Earth. The meteors that we see are only tiny stones that are the remnants from a huge comet, the Swift-Tuttle. Some of the meteors, also called shooting stars by some, are as small as sand pebbles on the beach. It is hard to believe something so small can be seen from six miles away on the Earth. When it enters the atmosphere it burns up. We are seeing that burning explosion of gases.

Swift-Tuttle was named for two astronomers that first identified the comet separately in 1862, Americans Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle. They identified it, independently, three days apart. Pisser that they had to share the naming rights. It is an estimated to be close to 17 miles across and almost twice as large as the comet that we believe contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. This is one bad-ass comet.

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