Coming soon: Perseid meteor shower

  • Article by: LISA MEYERS MCCLINTICK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 2, 2013 - 1:18 AM

The curtain is opening on the best shooting star show of the year — the annual Perseid meteor shower.

 

When I look back on when my husband and I were dating, one of our most memorable summer nights was spent beneath shooting stars.

In need of free entertainment when money was tight, we drove out of town until we found a remote country road and necessary darkness. Climbing onto the hood of a 1977 Chevy Malibu, we adjusted our eyes to the skies above.

The Perseid meteor shower that has come every August for thousands of years gave us a spectacle that kept us pointing and nudging each other, “There! Look! There’s another!”

You may be able to see shooting stars as early as this weekend. Known as the Northern Hemisphere’s best meteor shower, the annual event typically stretches across two weeks. Best viewing will be Aug. 10-12 — the ultimate window for making a few wishes or planting a few kisses.

If you’re looking for a family outing and to learn more about night skies, presenters throughout Minnesota’s state park system will be telling stories, finding constellations, offering astronomy advice and looking for summer’s most famous meteors.

“You’ll see anywhere from 50 to 75 shooting stars an hour on a typical year,” says Rochester-based Don Borland, who has done state park astronomy talks for 30 years. “August is always a good time because it’s nice weather, and it doesn’t require any special equipment — just a chair and a dark sky.”

The meteors were named for the Perseus constellation that they seem to line up with each year, but they’re not actually stars, Borland explains. They’re a field of debris that Earth hits annually on its orbit around the sun. The debris was left over from the Swift-Tuttle Comet, discovered in 1862 and seen again in 1992 when it orbited back.

The debris can be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a walnut, barreling through space at 37 miles per second when it hits the atmosphere 75 miles above Earth.

“We’re not seeing the debris — just the gas trail of them burning up in the atmosphere,” says Borland.

You can think of it like a car windshield. You might not see the bugs as you’re zipping down the highway, but if there’s a mayfly hatch you can’t miss the big, messy splatters all across the glass.

Most public state park programs start at 8:30 or 9 p.m. with an introduction to the night skies, followed by going outdoors to look for meteors or using a telescope to check out the waxing crescent moon, which will be near Saturn.

Borland jokes about “meteor whiplash” as groups point out shooting stars. On his best night — which had at least two people confirming each of the 200 falling stars in one hour — there was one five-minute gap with no sightings.

“You just have to be patient,” he says. “Just keep looking up. You never know when you’ll see them.”

The best viewing usually runs from midnight to dawn. If you can’t stay up that late or you miss the peak nights, give yourself time to admire the sky anyway.

To know if you have a dark enough sky away from city lights, Borland says his rule of thumb is being able to spot all seven stars in the Little Dipper constellation. If you need help knowing what to look for, check out the free software at stellarium.org.

Most state parks are remote enough for viewing, with stargazing being the perfect complement to camping, adds Kacie Carlson, naturalist at Wild River State Park. Families love the magical fringe benefits such as watching for fireflies, and hearing the hoots of owls and chirps of night creatures.

“It’s a different world after dark,” she says. “You may go out for the stars, but be treated to so much more.”

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