SHOOTING STARS The current Perseid meteor shower will light up our night skies for the next few days.
About 30 years ago we had a holiday in a remote location in the south-west of Ireland. The house was high on a grassy ridge on Bolus Head looking over St Finian’s Bay in Co Kerry. From this vantage point, the 350-million-year-old Skellig Rocks rose like stegosaurus plates from the Atlantic Ocean. They were 16 kilometres out to sea, but their jagged presence dominated the view to the south. It was early August, and when darkness fell the predicable blinking of a distant lighthouse was the only manmade object discernible at sea level in the blackness.
One moonless evening, the sky was crystal clear, the summer triangle was dramatically intersected by our galaxy’s river of stars, so much more touchable than the suburban view. I lay on the sun-dried grass looking for Perseids – one, two, three, four, five, six, plus several in the corner of my eye within a few minutes.
Time to take action, I went into the house and dragged out several mattresses, and encouraged (made) my family and our guests come outside, lie down and lookup. I have a vague memory of sofa cushions being shoved through windows at one point to help the nest building.
As usual, they thought I was mad, but soon they were seeing one of the year’s wonders in perhaps the darkest place on our island. We watched for satellites, and my mattress guests (two families, four adults, four children) had never seen them either, so in between meteors we looked at these metal objects orbiting about 200 miles up.
A perfect viewing spot, we watched on a slight incline toward Perseus in the northeast, but the meteors came from what seemed like every direction. We watched many, many meteors sizzling into our atmosphere in dots and dashes with long gaps and differing lengths.
The Perseids are the result of the tiny cast-off particles from Comet Swift Tuttle, shed as it passed through our solar system on its 130-year orbit of our sun. Once a year the Earth’s journey around our sun brings our atmosphere and these remnants into contact with each other. These particles hit the atmosphere at huge speeds and burn up, thereby offering the observer natural fireworks. Ancient elements revealed by their colours as they vaporise in front of our eyes.
I will never forget the perfection of the viewing, the wows, the laughter, the joy of my family seeing this shower for the first time.
Over the years since I have watched the Perseids from a deck chair in my garden, some escaping the eye under hazy lights in suburbia. It is always the most exciting shower of the year and rarely disappoints. If you are lucky to have clear skies between mid-July and mid-August, no equipment is needed, just you and your eyeballs.
If you want to fill out an observing sheet to record the colour, length, duration, direction, location, the hourly rate of your Perseids, then they are easy to find and fill.
Post midnight is the best time to view. The Earth has left the Belt of Venus long behind and has rolled toward the night were other suns populate the soft deep cloak of space. The Perseids bring nanoseconds and multi-seconds of wispy joy to all who take the time to look up from mattresses or other comfy viewing places. Apologies to holiday homes everywhere.
Where to look
This year’s Perseid meteor shower peaked last night (Monday) August 12, but any clear evening over the next few nights should produce some shooting stars (meteors by another name). Look to the northeast after midnight. Look under the big ‘W’ of Cassiopeia, and that is the location of Perseus.
Deirdre Kelleghan is an astronomer and artist living in Louisburgh.