Meteor Showers and Internet Rumors
By Calvin L. Chrisman
Two things happen with predictable regularity every August. The first is the Perseids meteor shower, and the second is the repetition of the Internet rumor that Mars will be the closest it has been to Earth in about 60,000 years and that it will appear to be as large as the full Moon. As far as Mars goes, the closest approach in almost 60,000 years happened in 2003 and will not happen again in the lifetime of anyone now on Earth. The size-of-the-full-Moon story is just that – a story. Apparently, there was an article in 2003 that said that Mars, when viewed through a telescope at 75x magnification, would appear the size of the naked eye Moon. The emails that pass for fact drop the telescope part and ignore the seven year gap. Oh well. If you want to see what Mars really looks like these days, keep reading.
It is not a rumor that the annual Perseids meteor shower will be active in August and will peak between midnight and dawn on the morning of August 11-12 with almost as much activity on the night of August 12-13. A waning crescent Moon will rise at 2:00 a.m. on the 12th offering some interference, but not spoiling the show. It will rise near 3:00 a.m. on the 13th and will be less of an issue. The meteors will be most visible after midnight with activity lasting until dawn. This is the time when Earth faces most directly into the on-coming meteors. Assuming clear skies, you should be able to spot a meteor or two every minute on average. It takes a little patience, but it will be worth it.
You do not need to look toward the constellation Perseus, which will rise in the northeast after midnight. The meteors will be visible across the entire sky and their tails will point in the direction of Perseus. Go out after midnight, lie back in a lawn chair with a blanket or sleeping bag and watch a dark part of the sky. By the way, that bright object you might notice in the eastern sky ahead of the Moon is the planet Jupiter.
If you have ever wondered, a meteor is the streak of light you see crossing the sky. If it survives a trip through the atmosphere and makes it to the Earth, it is then referred to as a meteorite. The light trail that you see is not the space rock (aka meteoroid) burning up; it is a trail of ionized gases caused by the shock wave of the rock passing into the atmosphere at high speed.
If you are not a late-night person, you can observe two planets and the bright star, Spica, moving fairly rapidly (in astronomical terms) during the month. Spica, Saturn and Mars (sorry, but it’s a small point of light) are all visible in the western sky about an hour after sunset. Bright Saturn will be above and to the right of red-orange Mars. Saturn will move slowly eastward while Mars will move much more quickly eastward, offering different patterns with Spica which stays fixed in the sky. The crescent Moon will move below this grouping on the evening of the 21st. It will be an eye-catching alignment.