On Meteors

by / 0 Comments / 96 View / August 29, 2016

Early last Friday morning, I, as likely did some of you, rose and headed out to gaze at the sky. It was the peak night for viewing the Perseid meteor shower. My anticipation was high as I drove down to the end of my block to the open space provided by the large power lines that run through north Belton. I oriented my truck to block the streetlight and lay on my sleeping bag in the bed of the truck – ready for the show.
“Shooting stars” are meteors, which are ordinarily small pieces of space dust that are pulled toward Earth by gravity. The particles travel at a high rate of speed (approximately 100,000 miles per hour) and burn up as they hit the air molecules of our atmosphere. Occasionally, meteors might be larger bits of rock that create an extended light trail across the sky. Meteorites are the largest chunks that do not completely burn up and that strike the ground.
The meteors named Perseids come from a large dust cloud leftover in space by the comet Swift-Tuttle as it orbits the sun every 133 years. This year, as is true for every August at this time, Earth passes through the debris left by the comet during its passes for the years 1079, 1479, and 1862. Astronomers say that, due to the gravitational pull by Jupiter, this year’s Perseid meteor shower was supposed to be usually dense.
My position in the bed of the truck faced north of the night sky’s zenith (center). From there, I had a clear view of the big dipper, the North Star, and the constellation Cassiopeia. I used the sky-map app on my phone to locate the constellation Perseus, which at that time of the morning, was just north of Cassiopeia. What we call Perseus is a collection of stars that are many light years away from Earth. The shower is named Perseid since the meteors appear to come out of the night sky from that direction. After a few minutes of watching, I was rewarded with a medium-sized meteor off to my left that traced about 15 degrees across the sky. I made a wish and kept watching.
In a bit, I heard a car pull up in front of my truck. Glancing over the edge of the truck bed, I saw a light rack and realized that a police vehicle had pulled up. Officer Torres was quite friendly and understanding of my need to ponder the secrets of the universe. He explained that, during his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, their nightly lightshows beat any meteors he ever saw. Seems the enemy had Russian-issued ammunition with red tracers, while our side had green. I told him a story of the resupply spacecraft I saw at night a few years ago that burned up during re-entry. As it broke apart in a fiery display, my first thought reaction was to head for the hills to escape the Martian attack. We watched the sky and chatted a bit more before he departed in search for those responsible for several recent car break-ins.
I continued to stare at the sky for another hour or so. Despite the continual drone from the Interstate, it was nice to be outside on a beautiful early-morning summer’s day. The cicadas were still very much awake and active. I ended up seeing just a half-dozen or so small meteors, and two of medium size. I guess I’ll have to wait until next August for the really big one!
Michael Brown is an education consultant and a former teacher. He can be contacted at michael.brown@utexas.edu.