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Shooting stars to sparkle this week…

If these cloudy “summer” skies clear in time, stargazers and sky-watchers in the South Lakes  – and all over the UK – will be able to enjoy a meteor shower in the night sky later this week. 

“Meteors” are better known as “shooting stars”, but they’re actually nothing to do with stars at all. Shooting stars are in fact tiny pieces of space dust, usually the size of a lentil or a coffee grain, burning up far above our heads as they streak through Earth’s atmosphere. 

Statistically, anyone going outside on any clear night can expect to see a shooting star every half hour or so, because they’re zipping across the sky all the time, but you have to be looking in the right direction at the right time to see them. But on certain nights of the year we are guaranteed to see many more shooting stars than usual. Why? Because around a dozen times each year, Earth passes through streams of dust left around the Sun by comets. When this happens, Earth encounters more dust, so we see more shooting stars. Sometimes we can see as many as a hundred every hour – and astronomers call this a “meteor shower”. 

So how do we know we will be able to see such a shower later this week? Because a) we know the positions of these dust streams very precisely, and b) we also know Earth’s orbital path around the Sun, so we can calculate when the two will cross, allowing us to know well in advance when meteor showers will occur – and the next one is due on the night of August 12th-13th. 

Like everything else in the night sky – stars, planets, galaxies etc – meteor showers have names. This week’s meteor shower is called The Perseids (“Purr-see-idds”), because the shooting stars appear to streak away from the constellation of Perseus. 

Watching this year’s Perseid meteor shower is very simple – you don’t need a telescope, or even binoculars. In fact, telescopes are absolutely USELESS for watching shooting stars, because they magnify only a tiny part of the sky, and meteor-watchers need to be able to look at the whole sky in one go. All you’ll need to watch the Perseids are your own eyes, a dark place to look at the sky from – and no clouds spoiling the view! 

When is the best time to watch? This year astronomers are predicting the best time to watch will be between 11pm on Thursday August 12th and dawn the next morning but we will be able to watch the “build up” from tonight, and meteor activity will still be higher than usual into the weekend of the 14th-15th

Here’s what you do to watch the show: just go outside after 11pm on the evening of Thursday August 12th, and find a dark place to observe. This is very important: although you’ll see at least some meteors from your garden, the further away you get from the streetlights and artificial lighting of Kendal or wherever you live in Cumbria the more shooting stars you’ll see. It’s definitely worth a late night drive out into the countryside if the sky is clear. Be sure to dress warmly though, take a flask with a hot drink in, and a radio or partner for company – you’re in for a late night!), face the east (not sure which way is east? Find the Big Dipper and then look to its right, that’s east) and then just sit back – and wait! Sooner or later you’ll see a shooting star zip across the sky! 

How bright will they be? Well, most of the shooting stars will be quite faint – you’ll see them “out of the corner of your eye” – but occasionally you’ll see a much brighter one, and if you’re lucky some may be so bright they’ll even cast shadows! You’ll see pretty colours too – Perseid meteors can be white, blue, or orange-red. This year’s Perseid shower will benefit from truly dark skies because there’ll be no bright Moon to ruin it, so given a clear sky we should see even the faintest shooting stars, and the colours will be more pronounced, too. 

As for how many shooting stars you’ll see, that’s impossible to predict, but you can increase your chances by following two golden rules: 1) the later you start looking, the more you’ll see, and 2) the longer you watch, the more you’ll see. Later is better because the sky won’t be dark enough to see much until at least 11pm, and longer is better simply because the longer you watch the more you’ll see. If you believe in making wishes on a shooting star, then you’d better write a long list beforehand, you could see hundreds if you’re lucky! And don’t worry about being pelted by meteorites as you watch the meteor shower: even though some will look like they have landed in a nearby field, none of the pieces of space dust will reach the ground, they’ll all burn up many, many miles above your head. So you won’t need an umbrella, we promise! 

Given clear skies, this week’s meteor shower could be quite a show. Good luck! 

More information from:

Stuart Atkinson

Eddington Astronomical Society