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Telescope The Perseid Meteors

by Colin Ebdon

August is the time for the annual show of shooting stars called 'The Perseid Meteor Shower'.

Meteors get their name from the fact that they were originally thought to arise from within the earth's atmosphere, as with the weather itself (Metoer-ology). In fact, as we know, they come from space. Despite the popular term 'shooting star' they are not stars. In reality they are are caused by dust and other small particles - the debris left behind by a passing comet. Some of this debris will enter the atmosphere at tremendous speed and burn up, causing the glow we see as a 'shooting star'.

Watching for meteors is a notoriously unreliable pursuit and it is difficult to predict with any certainty whether you will see just one or two meteors, or a rather more dramatic event. In very extreme cases they can fall like flakes of snow!

The Perseids often provide one of the better displays of the year. They are associated with debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle, as it orbits the sun every 130 years. For those who wish to pass on the information to their great-grandchildren, the Comet will next be visible in the night sky in the year 2122!

The later you can observe the meteor shower - the better - preferably from 11 pm onwards on August 11th or 12th. The region from which they seem to 'radiate' will be in the North East, but you don't need to look in that direction as the meteors whizz across any part of the sky from that point.

Meteor watching is best undertaken lying prone on a garden chair, or from a low-slung deckchair if you want to get the widest possible viewpoint - and avoid a stiff neck in the morning! Wear sufficiently warm clothing, as even the August nights can be chilly, and make sure there are no bright lights to blot out the view. After 15 minutes or so, you will either be getting very bored, or, weather permitting, you will see your first shooting star.



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  2006 G. Bradley. All Rights Reserved