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ATLANTIC SKIES: Young astronomers and the Perseid meteors

An outburst of Perseid meteors lights up the sky in August 2009 in this time-lapse image. Stargazers expect a similar outburst during next week’s Perseid meteor shower, which will be visible overnight on Aug. 11 and 12.
An outburst of Perseid meteors lights up the sky in August 2009 in this time-lapse image. Stargazers expect a similar outburst during next week’s Perseid meteor shower, which will be visible overnight on Aug. 11 and 12. - NASA

If you are intrigued by the concept of space travel and exploration, no doubt you watched or read about the launch of NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance spacecraft on July 30. NASA's 29th mission to Mars (22 of which have been successful), Perseverance is slated to arrive at the Red Planet in February 2021, after a 7-month, 480-million-kilometre journey, to continue NASA's ongoing exploration of Mars in preparation for its ultimate goal: landing humans on the planet's surface in the next decade or two.

I remember, as a very young child (I was 5 at the time), my mother telling me that one day, when I was grown up, people would walk on the Moon. Sure enough, in 1969, when I was 21, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon's surface from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Perhaps my mother was prophetic to foresee this event, or perhaps, as I suspect, she was just intuitive enough to understand that humankind's destiny ultimately lies out there, beyond Earth, among the stars. 

Perhaps there is some component of the human genome that, like that which causes some animals to migrate, is responsible for humankind's celestial wanderlust. Having explored and settled most every corner of our planet, perhaps this innate instinct to move onward is now driving us to consider migrating outwards from Earth to distant worlds. 


Perhaps there is some component of the human genome that, like that which causes some animals to migrate, is responsible for humankind's celestial wanderlust.


Whatever the genesis of my mother's statement, it ignited in me a burning desire and an insatiable curiosity to know more about what was "out there". It is a desire and curiosity that has lasted my whole life, and will, no doubt, remain with me until I draw my final breath. Without waxing too poetic, I like to think that, even then, some part of me will continue, as Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk states, "to explore strange new worlds" across the eternity of outer space.

My granddaughter, Scarlet, has a fascination with outer space, constantly asking me what lies beyond the planets, our solar system, and the Milky Way Galaxy. Of course, it is a curiosity that I readily and happily feed, answering her questions (in greater detail and depth as she grows older), encouraging her to read my astronomy books (and columns), to pick out her own astronomy books ("space books" as she calls them) at the library, or to go on-line and look up the information herself. 

It is both amazing and gratifying to not only watch her search for the answers by herself, but also to watch where those searches take her in terms of the array of astronomy topics she delves into. As her knowledge base expands, so does the distance she travels outward from Earth; she is currently focused on the Oort Cloud, the massive sphere of frozen ice bodies out beyond Pluto. 

Her plan (at 8 years old) is to be the first woman astronaut to walk on Mars, or, should another woman beat her to that prize, to be the first woman to pilot a spaceship to another planet in a distant star system. "Attention, this is Captain Scarlet speaking."

If you have children and/or grandchildren who show an interest in astronomy, I urge you to encourage that interest. Just as my mother's insightful statement fostered my abiding love of and curiosity about outer space, your encouragement and support (and, perhaps, shared interest) may well result in your child, grandchild or great-grandchild one day walking on another planet or moon, or travelling out into space as a crew member on a fact-finding exploration. Perhaps, he or she may even be part of my granddaughter's crew.

One of the ways to foster an interest in outer space in your children/grandchildren is to get them outside to watch a meteor shower. Children of any age love to watch for "shooting stars", and the warm summer evenings of August are just the time to afford them that opportunity. The annual Perseid meteor shower (radiant in Perseus - the Prince) peaks during the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 11 - 13. 

Though light from the Last Quarter Moon will, after it has risen, somewhat reduce the overall number of meteors observable on those dates, the Perseids are known for their large number of extremely bright meteors, many of which, in the absence of cloud cover, will still be highly visible. 

Earlier in the evening, you may see some Perseid "earthgrazers" - colourful meteors that travel slowly and horizontally across the pre-midnight sky, when the meteor shower's radiant (apparent point of origin in the sky) is just below or just above the eastern horizon. While the main peak of most meteor showers usually occurs after midnight, starting to watch for the Perseids during the mid-to-late evening period (perhaps more conducive to maintaining the interest of your young, sleepy-eyed observers), before the Moon rises, could significantly increase the total number of meteors seen. 

Go to this moonrise and moonset calculator to find your local moonrise/set times. Also, watching for Perseids on the nights/mornings after the noted peak dates might produce a large number of viewed meteors. As the week progresses, there will be less moonlight to contend with, as the Moon phase changes from Last Quarter towards a gibbous phase. Finally, the well-known variableness of meteor showers, even a famous one such as the Perseids, sometimes brings surprisingly large numbers of meteors in the days following designated peak dates; it is always worth a try, particularly if you are clouded out during the predicted peak period.

Heading towards superior conjunction with the Sun on Aug. 17, Mercury is now too close to the Sun to be observed. Venus (mag. -4.32) is that wonderfully brilliant "morning star" visible in the eastern, pre-dawn sky. Rising in the east around 2:30 a.m., Venus will be observable 31 degrees above the eastern horizon until dawn breaks around 5:45 a.m. 

Mars (mag. -1.3) is visible about 7 degrees above the eastern horizon around 11:45 p.m., reaching a height of 48 degrees above the southern horizon before fading in the dawn twilight. Jupiter and Saturn are both visible in the southeast evening sky by about 9 p.m. Jupiter (mag. -2.68) reaches its highest point (21 degrees) in the southern sky shortly after 11 p.m., remaining observable until about 2:30 a.m. when it sinks below 7 degrees above the southwest horizon. Saturn (mag. +0.2) hits its highest point in the southern sky shortly before midnight, disappearing from view around 3 a.m. when it dips below 10 degrees above the southwest horizon.

Until next week, clear skies.

Events:

  • Aug. 11 - Last Quarter Moon
  • Aug. 11-13 - Perseid meteor shower peak
  • Aug. 13 - Venus at greatest western elongation from Sun

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