A Golden Shower from the Andromeda Spouse

I’ll do anything for attention. Yet fear not! The racy title will be explained in time. Okay, that was enough time. This August, as with every August, we are treated to a spectacular sight in the night sky courtesy of the Perseid meteor shower, an annual outer space occurrence where the Earth has a high concentration of meteors burn up in brilliant fashion near the constellation Perseus. If you know your Greek mythology, or have seen one of the renditions of Clash of the Titans, you’ll remember that Perseus is the first great hero whose notable achievements are slaying Medusa and rescuing a fair lady from the Cetus sea monster (Cetus is also the namesake of Cetacea, the order that contains whales and porpoises). That fair lady was Andromeda, whom Perseus married after saving. You should have a grasp on the meaning of the titillating title now.

Interestingly enough, the Perseid meteor shower has nothing to do with the constellation it’s named for other than its yearly appearance in that general area of the sky. The true origin of the meteors is the comet 109P, also called Swift-Tuttle. The comet makes its way around the Earth every 133 years, and last appeared in 1992, so if you were too young to view it then as I was, or were simply nonexistent at that point in time, you’re probably out of luck to bear witness to the comet itself. However, as is the case with every comet that approaches a star like our sun, little bits break off as the comet warms. As we make our year-long revolution around the sun our planet passes through the debris left by Swift-Tuttle each August. It is this debris that we see scorching across the sky in these late-summer nights – or more accurately mornings, as the prime time for viewing is usually 3 or 4 AM before the stirring of the sun and the break of dawn.

I laid out on my back deck a few nights ago to catch a glimpse of what has been one of the clearest and most impressive displays ever seen from this shower. Sandwiched inside my sleeping bag with my dog curled up at my side I drifted in and out of sleep thanks to a long, hot day at work, but I did see a few flashes cutting across the heavens in seemingly every direction simultaneously. Initially I could not determine if I was dreaming or not, but after seeing some images of this year’s shower captured by other stargazers I’m almost confidant that I was most probably awake. Maybe. I guess it just means I have to take another look tonight. If you’re at all interested in doing the same, tonight or any other, you can get a space junk shower forecast here.

Thanks for reading. Take some time to stop and stare at the sky show when you get a clear view of the stars now and any evening you feel like looking up. In case you’re confused on the distinction between meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites, then commit this to memory:

  • Meteoroids are in space
  • Meteors are in the atmosphere
  • Meteorites are in the ground

This GIF is helpful to demonstrate. A rock can be all three throughout its lifetime; it just is defined by its current location. Be sure to streak back here meteor style (not drunken college style) next week for more exciting information and entertainment.

Stay spacey, especially you Kevin,

Alex

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