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Gerry Descoteaux
The Lawnchair Astronomer




Awesome August

Suspected and/or accused of coercion;  gentle arm twisting;  polite persuading;  proselytizing;   evangelizing?  Guilty on all counts and variations thereof.  And this month it's an even easier con.  Especially when there are predictions of potentially seeing hundreds of shooting stars per hour.  The Perseid meteor shower always guarantees that the Lawnchair will have hordes of company, all reveling about under a clear, comfortable and dark summer night sky.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with luxuriously lounging about the backyard, chewing the fat, grilling the ribs and staring up at a truly awe inspiring summer sky.  Hell, you might as well get the binoculars and the telescope out of the closet now so that they're ready for the mid month fireworks.  Best of all, all you need is a Lawnchair and/or blanket to set out under your favorite dark sky.  You don't even have to know anything about the sky, other than to look up and enjoy the tapestry of our galaxy.

While there's plenty to see in the skies during the summer, one of the most special treats comes in late July through early and mid August.  The Perseid meteor shower is typically the most active of the year.  So here's the Lawnchair's not so secret recipe for creating and enjoying an extraordinary summer gathering that I guarantee will create lifelong memories.  To this day, as I occasionally run into one of my childhood friends, we always end up reminiscing about "that evening" we sat out in a farm field being continuously inundated by innumerable streaking meteors forgivably interrupting our conversation.
 
A pair of comfortable Lawnchairs, an ice filled cooler topped off with our beverages of choice and snacks aplenty, were all we needed to cement that evening into our consciousness for the remainder of our lives.  As nostalgic as that night was, I've tried every summer since to recreate it.  Sometimes successfully, other times not so much.  There are often two spoilers that can serve to ruin the best laid plans.  First, again, there is always the weather.  Often times, rain and clouds seem to target the areas where I happen to be during the Perseid Showers.  There's not a lot you can do if the skies don't cooperate.

Of course, the other spoiler is the moon.  If it's bright and full during the event, it can ruin the shower, in that most of the dimmest meteors are made nearly invisible.  You can still see the brightest meteors, but actually miss out on the majority, most of which are of the dim variety.  That said, throughout the year, on any given evening, you can see an average of 4 meteors each hour.  That's sort of what makes the nearly monthly meteor showers a better opportunity to see a substantially more prolific number of shooting stars.

Every year about this time, several prognosticators of the astronomy ilk begin making predictions hyping up the number of meteors one might be able to see during August's Perseid Meteor Shower.  And I've yet to ever hear one of these gurus come out and say, "well, jeez, there's just not gonna be a whole lotta shooting stars this year."  So always take those predictions with a grain of salt.  You're better off just getting out there and seeing for yourself.
 
That said, the Perseid Shower is often considered "le piece de resistance" when it comes to meteor events.  Many of the annual showers produce dozens of streaks across the sky each hour.  The Perseids, however, are well documented to generate as many as a hundred meteors per hour.  Occurring during the middle of summer when the temperatures are typically warm and comfortable, as opposed to the frigid late autumn, winter and early spring climes, the Perseids are considered the most accessible meteor showers to partake in.

Not necessarily known for its absolute consistency, the Perseid shower occasionally produces as few as 50 to 60 meteors per hour.  However, as most recently as 2009, the Perseids produced as many as 170 meteors per hour in some locales.  The peak, nearer to sunrise, is when you can expect to see the most streaks per hour.  The Perseids are also known to occasionally leave behind glowing trails which can last for several seconds.

Historically, the Perseids have been recorded for over two thousand years, as have many of the recurring annual showers.  Occasionally, some of these showers can be extremely energetic, described not as showers but as meteor storms.  Eyewitness accounts of the Leonid shower of 1966, for example, claimed that as many as 40 meteors per second, that's 144,000 per hour, rained down in southwestern parts of the United States.  Many people reported that it was like an umbrella of meteors enveloping the sky.

As for when and where:  the Perseid shower begins building slowly in late July and typically runs its course by mid to late August.  The peak, where the most meteors per hour are recorded, generally occurs on the late evenings (early mornings) of August 11th through the 13th.

The comet, Swift Tuttle, is responsible for the Perseid Shower.  As in the case of all meteor showers, as the Earth circles the Sun, it regularly encounters the debris trails left behind by these ancient solar interlopers.  As the Earth rolls into these dust lanes, especially in the early, pre dawn hours, we witness the thickest parts of this debris.  Most meteors are smaller than a grain of sand, though some larger bits still exist and can occasionally, as they burn up against the friction created by our atmosphere, produce some of the more exciting and occasionally colorful streaks.

Generally, there is no danger associated with meteor showers.  But occasionally, if a large enough piece of debris is encountered, it may have enough mass to make it through the atmosphere and impact the ground.  These would be called meteorites.  They're fairly rare, but not really uncommon.  In any case, it's not really anything to worry about as you go out to enjoy the show.

Lastly, advance preparation is key for successful Lawnchairing.  Ideally, the best place to enjoy the most abundant meteor shower is well away from the light pollution of cities and towns.  Find that ideal location and ensure your stargazing adventures will be both memorable and hassle free.  For the Perseids, a hilltop field with a dark and unobstructed northeastern horizon will be the best place to set out the Lawnchairs and any attendant epicurean accouterments and/or refreshments.  BBQing is not necessarily a bad thing, especially over the course of several hours of ooos and ahhss!  A sunrise breakfast wouldn't be out of the question either.  Besides creating never forgotten memories, you may even inspire a young mind to engage in the lifelong pursuit of science and the appreciation of a well used and maintained Lawnchair!

Perseus

Binoculars or a telescope aren't absolutely necessary, but, in addition to the meteors, while you're out there you might want to take advantage of some of August's special deep sky sights.  Above the northeastern treetops, you can spot the shower's namesake constellation, Perseus, where the famous Double Cluster can be seen in a good pair of binoculars.

 
Well worth the effort, this sight, famous since antiquity, is actually two spectacular open clusters in close proximity to each other.  They are quite easy to spot, even with eyes alone in a dark sky.  Even more awe inspiring however, is the view from a small telescope or a good pair of binoculars.  You can locate them between the lazy W of Cassiopeia and their parent constellation, Perseus.

Known by the ancients who didn't have the advantage that we have today with our modern tools, this widely scattered pair of open cluster has always elicited curiosity as it lies right on the edge of naked eye visibility.  Adding any sort of optical aid to the equation will guarantee an awe inspiring experience, especially to those not initiated to the Lawnchair.  What appears, at best, as a little fuzzy spot in the sky, the view through a good pair of binoculars or the wide angle lens of a small telescope will reveal hundreds of bright stars.  In long exposure photographs, thousands of suns fill the image.

There are, in general, from Gemini just above the horizon to Cassiopeia and Andromeda high in the northeastern sky, numerous deep sky targets to peruse in between watching for meteors.  Each are wonderful under a dark sky.  There's no better time of year to take the Lawnchair out for a spin and marvel at the amazing universe we live in. 


Clear Skies!

The Lawnchair Astronomer
 
Gerry Descoteaux is the author of “The Lawnchair Astronomer,” a Dell Trades paperback. He has been writing about astronomy for more than 25 years. He also played an integral role in the development of America Online’s pioneering distance education program known as AOL’s Online Campus and served as Professor of Astronomy there for 10 years. He can be reached at TheStarMan@thelawnchairastronomer.com.



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The Lawnchair Astronomer
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