I remember the August gleam of the night sky over Acadia Bay. Out of the corner of my eye, a dash of light streaks across the horizon. I turn my gaze toward the eastern constellations — by now, the falling star is already a mere memory of light.
But it is soon followed by another streak — and then another, till I am spinning dizzy circles in the sand, trying to see them all.
Back when I was a child, it was better than fireworks in July.
It was the Perseid meteor shower, one of the most regular, most prolific such storms known. First recorded by the Chinese almost 2,000 years ago, the Perseids earned their current name from a Belgian astronomer who noted (in 1835) that the meteors seemed to emanate from the constellation Perseus in the eastern sky, says local photographer Tim Barnwell , an active member of Starfax Asheville, an amateur astronomers’ club.
“Typically, a meteor shower features about 12 meteors an hour. But with the Perseids, it’s more like 50,” he explains.
In some years, that number runs as high as 200 meteors per hour (as happened in the mid-1990s). That’s because the Perseids are tiny bits of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits our sun about once every 120 years and last came this close to the sun in 1994, according to the folks at NASA. When a comet passes close to the sun, it heats up, resulting in a tail … and debris. Thus, when the earth enters the debris field, we see falling stars.
The meteors can provide a terrific show each year; however, Swift-Tuttle hasn’t consistently proven as spectacularly bright as Hale-Bopp was in 1997. In addition, Swift-Tuttle is hard to track accurately: It was expected to swing close in 1982, but missed its date by more than 10 years. An estimate we can really hope won’t come true gives the six-mile-wide comet a (very slim) chance of striking the earth on Aug. 14, 2126, according to Greenwich, England’s Royal Observatory.
Slim, yes, but it could happen: After all, in July of 1994, giant chunks of Comet Shoemaker-Levy blasted into Jupiter.
“That’s what whupped people into a frenzy, realizing the same thing could happen to the earth — and may already have happened, in the past,” notes Barnwell. A meteor or comet chunk striking the earth millennia ago may have wiped out the dinosaurs, in fact, and there’s also the mysterious blast that devastated remote regions of Siberia at the turn of the 20th century.
But this August, you won’t likely witness the catastrophes portrayed in such summer blockbusters as Deep Impact and Armageddon.
“Mostly what you see in a meteor shower are little chunks of ice the size of the tip of a pencil or an eraser. But it’s amazing how much light those little chunks will display as they burn up,” explains Keith Bamberger, curator of exhibits at the Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum. If you don’t believe him (maybe you watch too much X-Files), check out the meteorites now on display at the museum: “We’ve got a Martian meteorite that’s only as big as a nickel, but for Martian meteorites, that’s pretty big,” says the curator.
The hope is that those chunks will light up the sky just enough to dazzle the folks who take part in the museum’s Aug. 12 meteor-watching party, which will caravan up to Craggy Gardens for the best possible view. Bamberger promises, “We’ll have a telescope for planet and nebula viewing.”
And if the whole thing sparks an interest that lasts after the skies have quieted, check out the Starfax Astronomy Club. New member Nancy Kuykendall, who had a small hand-me-down telescope and wanted to learn how to use it, remarks, “I was afraid of going and feeling like a second-grader, but the guys are really helpful.”
More experienced members, such as Barnwell and engineer John Chappell , have proven eager to help, she reports. “Being part of [Starfax], I’ve learned about photography, tracking stars with your telescope. Still, for me it’s more of a mystical sort of thing, the mystery of the cosmos.”
For Barnwell, the mystique goes back to childhood: “The early space program piqued my interest as a kid. We were landing on the moon and everything,” he recalls. As an adult “armchair astronomer,” he read books, scoured astronomy magazines, and fiddled with a telescope. Then, four or five years ago, Barnwell looked around for a club, observing: “There’s lots of information available in books, magazines, [and on] the Internet. But there’s nothing like being able to ask somebody in person.”
He soon landed on Starfax, which has listed an Asheville address for more than a dozen years.
“The club offers [a chance] for … sharing knowledge and having stargazing partners,” he notes (“star parties,” frequently held near Mount Pisgah, are a natural outgrowth of the festive atmosphere).
“We want to encourage people who have an interest in astronomy. It doesn’t matter what your level of expertise,” adds Nancy Byers , who’s been active in the club since January.
“How did I get into it? The sky is up there, you know, and I wanted to have an understanding of the constellations, the stars, the planets.” Byers took an astronomy class at A-B Tech this winter and joined astronomy clubs in Greenville, Hendersonville and Asheville.
“I really enjoy looking for messier objects — the galaxies and nebulas and clusters,” she admits.
“Many people are nature buffs. They know the earth. But then at night, it’s the whole universe,” Barnwell reflects. He loves unveiling the mysteries of the planets: Saturn isn’t the only one with rings, for example, and Pluto — with its diminutive size and elliptical orbit — might not be a planet at all, but a mere asteroid!
And, not least of all, astronomers are now discovering planets outside our solar system, says Barnwell.
“One of the most amazing things I’ve seen the Hubble telescope do is target one of the darkest areas of the sky and photograph it in a 40-hour exposure. [Astronomers] thought it was empty sky, but it’s jammed full of galaxies,” he marvels.
But back down to earth: Unless you’re part of a well-known band of astronomers, you won’t be getting the Hubble viewpoint anytime soon. So get ready for the Perseids.
Barnwell cautions: “People need to realize [that] they [might] need to go out for a couple of nights. And it won’t be until after midnight that the earth is turned into the brunt of the storm. Pick a spot, and lie down so you don’t get a crick in your neck. I take a lounge chair.”
You’ll also need to get out beyond the fringes of our urban environment to avoid light pollution. Of course, there’s no telling the moon to bugger off — it’ll be close to full the night the Perseids are supposed to reach their peak, cautions Chappell. “This time around, the moon sets early Saturday morning, so your best views will be after 4 a.m.”
But you might still get lucky: One year, Barnwell saw the reflection of a meteor in his car window, turned to look at it directly, and saw it split into two streaks of blazing light. But he notes, “That’s rare.”