Late at night on or around August 11th, take a moment to gaze up at the night sky and you’ll be in for a treat. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by the American Museum of Natural History.
“The middle part of August one of the best displays of shooting stars occurs — the Perseid Shower.
Joe Rao is a lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium.
“These are not stars falling out of their fixed positions in the sky. As we whiz around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, we are running, every year, into the debris left behind by a comet, the comet Swift Tuttle. That comet comes around every 130 years. We intersect the comet’s orbit in the middle part of August. But because comets are cosmic litter bugs, they leave behind this dirt, dust and grit in their wake. When we slam through that area on our trip around the sun, these little particles pierce our atmosphere at about 60 or 70 miles high, at speeds of 20, 30, 40 miles a second. They blaze up through our atmosphere, leave these incandescent streaks of light, for a few seconds, blaze up and burn out.”
Apparently, it has only been relatively recently that astronomers came to understand the true origin of this heavenly debris known as meteors.
“There were a couple of scientists who saw the fall of a meteor and actually saw the meteorite hit the ground and took that rock and brought it to Thomas Jefferson in 1796 and they showed him this rock and they said: ‘we saw this streak across the sky and fall to the ground.’ And later on Jefferson said, ‘I could much rather believe two Yankee scientists would lie than that stones can fall from Heaven!'”
Rather than falling to earth, the so-called shooting stars you’ll see tonight will most likely burn up in our atmosphere, giving us one of the best shows in the sky that you’ll see all year long.
Pulse of the Planet is presented by the American Museum of Natural History. Additional funding for this series has been provided by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.