By Derrick H. Pitts, Chief Astronomer, The Franklin Institute
Now that you’ve run through all the streaming movies you’ve ever wanted to watch and completed all your 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles at least twice, it’s a great time to reconnect with the night sky. Take some time to enjoy a sunset and then explore the universe as the sky darkens. While the night sky is full of great things to see all the time, August is extra special as it features one of the year’s premiere astronomical events, the Perseid meteor shower. It’s one you won’t want to miss!
While the Perseids typically appear in the night sky starting in late July through late August, the peak night of Aug. 11-12 is when they’re at their most spectacular with upwards of 80 – 150 meteors per hour streaking through the night sky (though this year the quarter moon might wash out a bit of the view). It’s a grand show as only Mother Nature can put on!
So what’s the best way to see this celestial event? Try to find a relatively dark area away from parking lots, shopping centers, auto dealerships, and other brightly lit areas. Dark backyards with wide views of the sky and without security lights or streetlights work well. Then turn your eyes skyward as soon as it gets dark and with a bit of patience the meteors just might appear all over the sky, so no telescope or special viewing equipment is needed.
Make it an outdoor summer evening, celestial-viewing event for the entire family. Bring out the chaise lounges or favorite picnic blanket and then lie back as the skies put on their nighttime show. While waiting for the meteors to appear, try to spot the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn. They’re the two bright, star-like objects easily visible in the southeast sky. Use binoculars to check them out – you’ll be amazed!
Looking to get away?! Here’s a list of several areas across Pennsylvania with some of the most breathtaking night sky viewing.
Known best for seeing the Northern Lights. On a clear night, see a sky ablaze with up to 30,000 twinkling stars is an unforgettable experience.
Offers over 305,400 acres of stargazing bliss. Gaze at the stars above with only the sounds of the woods.
Perfect place to stargaze on a clear summer night. Enjoy the park’s 1,200-foot sandy beach in the day and turn your eye to the skies at night.
Stars gleam off the dark waters of Raystown Lake. Stargaze under clear skies surrounded by 8,300 acres of clear waters.
Watch the sun set with blazing colors over Lake Erie then stay to watch the glow of stars and other celestial bodies take over the night sky.
French Creek State Park has the largest block of contiguous forest between New York City and Washington, D.C making it the perfect place to stargaze in southeastern PA.
Be sure to check each park website for information about hours of operation, details for nighttime observing protocols, current safety restrictions and more.
What Are Meteors and Meteor Showers?
Meteors are sand-grained-sized particles of space rock typically “melted” out of the icy nucleus of a comet. The melting occurs when the comet passes near the sun during its orbit around the solar system. Meteors are usually distributed along the orbital path of the comet and fall into the Earth’s atmosphere as it passes through the comet’s path. The comet associated with the Perseids is Comet Swift-Tuttle, first identified in 1862. It has an orbital period of about 120 years and was last seen in 1995.
Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the stream of meteor dust along the comet’s orbital path. It’s like walking through a stream in the woods: moist at the bank, shallow at the edge, deepest in the middle, shallow at the opposite edge, and moist again at the bank on the way out. The meteor shower is minimal at first, gradually increasing to peak intensity, then decreasing after the peak. The normal sighting rate for meteors on any given night is 10 per hour.
Meteors put on their display 35 to 40 miles above the Earth’s surface. Their glow is caused by the compression and heating of the air cushion built up just ahead of the meteor as it plunges into an ever-thickening atmosphere. The heated atmosphere then heats the meteor while the shock of high-speed collision with the atmosphere breaks off pieces of the particle. Traveling at 45,000 mph, it’s no wonder that they heat, glow and then break up as they streak through the atmosphere.
Meteors, Meteoroids, Meteorites, and More
In space, the particles are called meteoroids. If they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they’re called meteors and typically ‘burn up’. If they’re big enough to actually reach and hit the ground, only then do we call them meteorites. A meteor must be about the size of a grapefruit or softball to make the plunge through the atmosphere and survive all the way to the surface and become a meteorite.
While there are a dozen or so major meteor showers per year, only two really stand out as reliably impressive, depending of course on observing conditions - the August Perseid shower and the December Geminid shower. The shower name is derived from the constellation where the meteors seem to originate; in this case, the constellation Perseus.
For more information about viewing meteor showers, visit the American Meteor Society website. Or for an online starmap suitable for your laptop, try Stellarium web. Still craving out of this world Pennsylvania destinations, check out our stargazing webpage and be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more PA inspiration. Don’t forget to sign up for our monthly Happy Thoughts e-newsletter so you never miss an update.