Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Perseid meteor shower

Last Sunday we went out to watch the Perseid meteor shower. This meteor shower occurs because the Earth passes through the debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle. The particles in the debris are very small, ranging from grains of sand to small pebbles. (Someone described them to be similar to the contents of a box of Grape-Nuts.) These particles travel through the Earth's atmosphere at speeds of up to 130,000 mph and instantly burn up and produce beautiful shooting stars in the sky.

Sunday night was the peak of this year's Perseids. We went to bed early and woke up at midnight. We joined a friend and her kids (so we were 3 adults and 4 kids in our party) and drove up Page Mill Road to the parking lot of the Monte Bello Open Space Preserve. I picked this location because it is relatively close and because it seems many amateur astronomers use it for star gazing parties. It turned out to be a pretty good location: it was very dark and while there was some light pollution from Bay Area lights, it wasn't too bad and mostly affected the eastern horizon. Once our eyes dark adapted, you could see the Milky Way overhead (though it wasn't as clear as the view I had from the remote rural location of the village of Bordi in Gujarat, India).

And then we started seeing meteors! They were great. They'd flash by in different parts of the sky at an enormous pace: before you could react they were gone. Not that it stopped us from reacting---we were with kids and they would excitedly yell out "There's one!" each time they saw a meteor. But, of course, if you missed it, there was no point looking to where they were pointing. We were probably the noisiest group there with their regular squeals of joy! The newspaper had suggested that one should go meteor watching with someone with whom you'd enjoy sitting in the dark. This is certainly good advice, but I'd add that it's even more fun to go with excited kids!

Each of us saw roughly a dozen meteors (some saw more, some less). But, of course, not everyone saw the same meteors, so there were at least two dozen meteors in the 30-45 minutes that we were there. That means meteors were showing up at the rate of about one every two minutes or so. It was lots of fun! If you've never seen a meteor shower, I highly recommend it. You can find information about other meteor showers here.

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