From time to time there is a press release sent out about an upcoming meteor shower. We receive a lot of calls asking if we are going to observe it at the observatory. Well, sorry to say, but no. You see, the observatory is not suited for meteor shower viewing for a number of reasons as I will go into later.
What is a meteor shower? Meteors are bits of dust, rocks and ices, usually very small in size. They typically range from microscopic to not much bigger than microscopic in size. They hit the atmosphere thousands of miles an hour. As they pass through the atmosphere, about 100 miles up, they compress the air in front of it. This leads to heating the air to high enough temperatures that it becomes a plasma. The plasma will glow brightly for a brief time (usually less than a second) until either the meteorite is vaporized, or it slows down enough to drop to the ground. (We call the ones that reach the ground, meteorites.) So, meteors are those flecks of light we commonly, and incorrectly, call "shooting stars".
On any given night you will see a few meteors an hour. However on some nights it was noticed the numbers went up. Most meteor showers are only a few more meteors above the background numbers every night. A few though have significant numbers per hour. In the case of the Persieds, it is about 60 or more an hour. There is no way to predict this rate although some try and fail.
To observe them you need the following:
- Good weather - Hard to guarantee in central Ohio.
- Little or no Moon - It may look pretty up there, but it is really a big street light and will wash out most of the meteors as it is often too bright.
- Dark skies - Much darker than you can get at Perkins Observatory.
- An open field clear to the horizon - Trees block the sky. We have lots of trees at the observatory.
- Eyes - You don't need a telescope as big as a corn silo to see meteorites They move way too fast and are all over the sky. You could not even get the telescope over to it in time to see the meteor. So your eyes are really the best tool and only tool to see them.
- Comfortable chair - A reclining lawn chair works best. You will be out for hours until the wee-hours of the morning to enjoy this. Best to be comfortable.
So, Perkins just does not meet most of these requirements. That is why we don't bother. Instead we go to one of our secret observing sites (no - we will not tell you where, sorry!), and enjoy it with our families and friends. You should get your own secret observing site and enjoy. It is well worth it.