The night sky has always fascinated me. There’s something magical about the silvery moonlight filtering through trees, giving an other-worldly appearance to anything it touches. There’s something magical about the twinkling of the stars or the sight of a meteor streaking across an inky canvas, like a chalk mark on an infinite blackboard.
When I was a child, I’d go outside at night, stand beside the barn and look up at the moon and stars and let my imagination wander. What was really up there? Were there worlds such as the “Space Family Robinson” discovered on the show “Lost in Space,” or places the crew of the Starship Enterprise explored on “Star Trek?”
To try and get a closer look, I took binoculars that had been a Christmas gift one year and gazed upward. The moon’s craters were a little more pronounced, more tiny pinpricks of faraway stars were visible, but that was all. My curiosity was not satisfied, but I still continued to watch the night sky.
I was 14 years old when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins successfully reached the moon in Apollo 11. For the first time, this exploration was televised — what a feat of technology! — and I watched as Armstrong and Aldrin, in the lunar module The Eagle, landed on the surface of the moon as Collins continued to orbit in Apollo 11. I watched as Armstrong took those historic first steps on the moon and heard him say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The date was July 20, 1969.
I still remember the thrill of watching Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon’s surface, walking and hopping along as they gathered data and explored this new world. I remember seeing the American flag erected and how it stood straight out from the pole. How odd to think that I was the age my granddaughter is right now when this technological marvel came to pass. How odd to think that now, we can hold a combination computer, entertainment device and communications device rolled into one in the palms of our hands. The world has definitely changed since then.
Something that hasn’t changed is my fascination with the night sky, and this month, one of the best shows, the annual Perseids meteor shower, is coming up for all to see.
According to the NASA website (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov), “With very fast and bright meteors, Perseids frequently leave long ‘wakes’ of light and color behind them as they streak through Earth’s atmosphere. The Perseids are one of the most plentiful showers (50-100 meteors seen per hour) and occur with warm summer nighttime weather, allowing sky watchers to easily view them. … Perseids are also known for their fireballs. Fireballs are larger explosions of light and color that can persist longer than an average meteor streak. This is due to the fact that fireballs originate from larger particles of cometary material. Fireballs are also brighter, with apparent magnitudes greater than -3.”
The website also gives information about where meteors originate: “Meteors come from leftover comet particles and bits from broken asteroids. When comets come around the sun, they leave a dusty trail behind them. Every year Earth passes through these debris trails, which allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere and disintegrate to create fiery and colorful streaks in the sky.”
The pieces of space debris that create the Perseids originate from Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which takes 133 years to orbit the sun once. Also from the website: “Giovanni Schiaparelli was the person who realized in 1865 that this comet was the source of the Perseids. Comet Swift-Tuttle was discovered in 1862 by Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle. Swift-Tuttle is a large comet: its nucleus is 16 miles(26 kilometers) across. (This is almost twice the size of the object hypothesized to have led to the demise of the dinosaurs.)”
NASA says the Perseids are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere during the predawn hours, though at times it is possible to view meteors from this shower as early as 10 p.m. A clear night, a blanket and a spot away from light pollution are all you need to enjoy the show. The peak of the action is in mid-August, but we can catch glimpses of the shooting stars all month long.
We can even watch a livestream via the Virtual Telescope Project (www.virtualtelescope.eu) online, for free, starting at 00:00 UT (midnight) on Aug. 11; this converts to 8 p.m. EDT on Aug. 10.
Watching online will be great, but you just can’t beat lying on the grass or leaning back in a lawn chair in the dark, counting shooting stars on an inky canvas right above your head.