"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/
When a new planet swims into his ken;"
--From John Keats, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer"
This article © Leigh Ramsey, August 2010, for 1Woman Wordsmith. All rights reserved.
What can I say? I love mythology, and I love the stars. Ad astra per aspera!
Both interests have hitched their wagons to me since girlhood.
This week, I am sincerely hoping a heroic Perseus will brandish sword & shield in the sky to provide a magical, mystical skywatching experience, minus that whole bit about decapitating Medusa.
So far, earlier last evening (Aug. 11, approx. 9 p.m.), I could not see any streaking stars from the grand Perseids meteor shower promised to be at its height this week.
However, I did get a good gander at an extra-bright and beautiful triune of planets just reverberating, no doubt, toward a perfect alignment.
According to NASA's Science News, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and the crescent Moon are poised to "pop out of the western twilight in tight conjunction" on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010.
That's today, skywatching friends and fiends alike!
Planetary Alignment is Only a Part of the Sky-Show for Early Morn, Aug. 13
Not only am I hoping to have some none-too-sophisticated video and photographs--bear with me, as my equipment is a point-and-click digital camera and a simple HD videocamera--to add in the next couple days, but, like you, I am following multiple media about the aurorae created by the solar tsunami of the last couple weeks and other astronomical happenings.
I hope to be bringing you further details from the media that I read, as well as my own observational reports and art and, for that matter, I fully welcome your observations and pointers to your own art of the impending Perseids shower.
I must admit, I am atingle. No, not with Spidey sense, but with a busy buzziness about the, I hope, Brobdingnagian conjunctive planetary and sky-based bang just crackling down the wires toward Earth for its denouement on Aug. 12 and 13, 2010.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is similarly enthusiastic. In its handy guide, "How to See the Best Meteor Showers of the Year: Tools, Tips and 'Save the Dates'," which you can view in its excellent entirety here, they effuse: "The Perseid meteor shower is one of the most consistent performers and considered by many as 2010's best shower. The meteors they produce are among the brightest of all meteor showers."
The Perseids, as their name implies, originate in the constellation Perseus and, as such, are the hoped-for bang to the evening of Aug. 12 and the early morning (dawn hours) of Aug. 13.
The planetary alignment is viewable with the naked eye; to that end, NASA's Science News again provides the accompanying skymap.
One need only look to the western sky and note the three planets hugged together within an approximate 10-degree (diameter) circle until about 10 p.m. Let's call these planets The Graces, in keeping with the mythology theme! (But kindly note that the Graces do not correspond to Venus, Saturn, & Mars in Greco-Roman myth.)
Comet Swift-Tuttle Touted as Perseids Enter Sky Scene
The Perseids, fascinatingly, are remnants, or ice-and-dust crumbs if you will, of the comet 109P Swift-Tuttle and most debris bits are "over 1,000 years old" (NASA). Think of it this way: The Earth swashbuckles through the pesky debris trail left behind by Swift-Tuttle. So, in this sense, the sword is brandished, except it's in the form of our planet.
Space.com Skywatching Columnist Joe Rao aptly summarizes thusly: "The Perseid meteor shower 'shooting stars' are the remnants of Comet Swift-Tuttle, which last visited the inner solar system in 1992. Every August, like clockwork, our planet Earth cuts through the 'river of rubble" left behind along the orbit of the comet."
Cosmic Log's Alan Boyle, yet another science writer who should be in your RSS feed or, at the very least, your Facebook Friend, also illustrates it well--"meteor showers occur when our planet plows through a trail of space grit left behind by a comet. Those bits of grit zip through the upper atmosphere at speeds of more than 125,000 miles per hour, lighting up a trail of ionized air." Do make sure to see MSNBC's interactive graphic accompanying Mr. Boyle's article to whet your appetite for a plateful of Perseids.
No Risk from Perseids Shower Aug. 12 & 13, 2010
Never fear, skywatchers, for there is no risk from these seeming shooting stars in a planetwide pinball-like atmosphere. Bill Cooke, director of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and who is quoted in Mr. Boyle's article, more than a week ago snapped a bright fireball from his laboratory that demonstrates the burning up of this comet "grit." And what of that "gritty" experience of raging against the dying of the light? This shooting star burned up some 56 miles above Earth, far from harming us, as the sparkleshooter "self-destructed" with brightness many times the brightest planet (Cosmic Log).
"If you want comfort, this is the shower to see": NASA
I cannot promote enough Cosmic Log's helpful tips for meteor-viewing, including Cooke's, erm, recipe for meteor-viewing success and comfort all folded into one scrumptious experience. And even if you can't view the meteor shower because of time constraints, foul weather or clouds, or being too close to the city, you needn't fear.
That's because you and your ears and eyes can feast on live video feeds or recorded audio of the meteor show. Now, aren't you sorry you're a Neo-Luddite?
Live feeds can be found many places, but I'm going with Cosmic "logger" Alan Boyle's recommendations to watch the cameras of NASA's own Cooke, whose equipment should be cooking up--sorry; I couldn't resist--images aplenty here. Mr. Boyle also generously points readers to some haunting audio of meteor crumbs passing in the night, sounding every bit like sonar blips.
But seriously, dear readers, people around the globe are chiming in with their amazing astrophotographic treasures, such as Tamas Ladanyi of Taliandorogd, Hungary, who shared a photo that I'm reproducing here on a small scale thanks to Space Weather's gallery. You can visit Space Weather, which is an excellent site that I've found as a sometime-skywatcher who is just now learning the physics and astronomy-laden lexicon, here.
Mr. Ladanyi reports to Space Weather that he took the shot, for those photography or travel buffs among you, "over the ruins of St. Andrew church. I used three frames in order to align this panorama image ... [of] Jupiter, M31 and Milky Way. Canon 500D, Sigma 2,8/10 objective at ISO 3200, 45 sec."
Into this arena, I hope to make my own humble Perseid-vid entry. As for our camera, I am much less hopeful. Readers, care to share your galleries; you can point us to them in the comments section. And much obliged in advance, astronomy amigos!
How Do I Positively Punctuate My Viewing Pleasure with Perseids Aplenty?
Several experienced sources offer handy tips in this regard. I will summarize them briefly so you can be off--no binoculars, telescopes, or other sensitive equipment should be needed, unless you count bug spray or a towel or chair--to see the wizardry the cosmos has to offer.
NASA's Science News:
1. The year 2010 offers good views of the "Perseids because the Moon won't be up during the midnight-to-dawn hours of greatest activity."
2. "As Perseus rises and the night deepens, meteor rates will increase. For sheer numbers, the best time to look is during the darkest hours before dawn on Friday morning, Aug. 13th, when most observers will see dozens of Perseids per hour.
3. This NASA Skymap is "Looking northeast around midnight on August 12th-13th. The red dot is the Perseid radiant. Although Perseid meteors can appear in any part of the sky, all of their tails will point back to the radiant." Thank goodness for NASA!
4. For best results, take a trip to the countryside, far from the madding crowd of city lights. "The darkness of the countryside multiplies the visible meteor rate 3- to 10-fold. A good dark sky will even improve the planetary alignment, allowing faint Mars and Saturn to make their full contribution to the display."
Cosmic Log's advice:
1. Nota bene that "Higher elevations are usually better than lower elevations. ..."
2. "For help in site selection, you can check out the Clear Sky Chart website, which provides weather conditions for skywatching ... and links to popular viewing locations" [including star parties!] from state to state.
3. Bring a towel, blanket, or chaise lounge; cold [nonalcoholic] drink; bug spray--and a friend!
4. If you're easily bored, you can bring tunes.
5. Be patient and persistent for prime planetary and Perseids perspectives!
6. Who-who said night owls don't have it good? The later you stay up, the more you reap the spoils of viewing! You might begin to see some streaking Perseids at approximately 9:30 p.m. where you are, "and those 'Earth-grazers' tend to leave the longest, most impressive trails. But the show doesn't get good until after midnight, and the peak usually comes just before morning twilight begins."
7. "To get a better sense of what to expect at which time, use NASA's Fluxtimator," not to be confused with the "flux capacitor" of the Back to the Future movie franchise. You can use a pull-down menu to enter the correct coordinates for meteor shower, date, your location and viewing conditions (such as city or countryside), and then "the Java-based calculator charts what the estimated meteor flux will be at different times." Thanks again, Cosmic Log and Mr. Boyle!
8. View other tips and tricks of the seasoned scientists and skywatchers at Cosmic Log.
To See, Perchance to Dream
As we all pause and persist to view the Perseids' splendorous fusion of sky and stars, let us also remember science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein's cogent rejoinder: "The Earth is too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in."*
*Disclaimer: I also blog at Gather.com on matters of science, medicine/health, frugality, ecology, Shakespeare, books, politics, and parenting (among others).