Printer Friendly

Rains of Fire: Meteor showers elicit wonder in one and all.

Guy Ottewell has quoted Manilius: Nunquam futilibus excanduit ignibus aether--"The ether never blazed with futile fires"--and Guy quite rightly added, "That is to say: all meteors mean something." I agree. Every meteor means beauty, surprise, wonder, and a stirring of thought for its fortunate observer.

Fred Schaaf, The Starry Room

You could be reading these words as early as mid-October. If so, get ready: From October 20th to 22nd, you may get the chance to see the Orionid meteor shower--flaming debris from past returns of Halley's Comet. Reading this in early November? Look for few but possibly fireball-bright Taurids as the Bull ascends in the east and southeast through the evenings, reaching its highest in the middle of the night. Or around November 17th you might spot a few meteors from the usually mild output--but at thrice-a-century intervals sky-filling downpours--of the Leonid meteor shower. What's most meteorically important of all? Don't miss December's Geminid meteor shower this year (see p. 48).

A starry sky of all radiants. Only a few of the important meteor showers occur in the first half of the year. Milton was exquisitely correct when he wrote, "Swift as a shooting star / In Autumn thwarts the night." Note, by the way, that "thwart" here doesn't just mean defeat or overcome darkness; it also means move across (as in the word "athwart").

But take a look at our December allsky map. A radiant is the location withir a constellation from which all the meteors of a particular shower appear to shoot. If we list the constellations that contain the radiants of what are arguably the 12 most important annual meteor showers we find that all of them --except Leo--are above the horizon at the time of our map.

If you're a devotee of meteor showers you'll find that the star fields you stare at while searching for meteors become engraved in your mind like none other.

The Passing of a Meteor and a Man. Although I think meteors always uplift our hearts by virtue of their wonder, they also stir other poignant feelings--or help us connect to those feelings. Even those of us who aren't superstitious can note coincidences. I hadn't been to the South Jersey Astronomy Club field at Belleplain State Forest for quite a while, and when I went back I and fellow club members had a good evening of observing with a group of my college students. One of our highlights was an unusually slow, long-lasting, and flaring meteor. The next day, we learned that one of the club's most cherished members--a man with whom we had shared the heavens for decades at that field on many a glorious night--had died. He passed away at possibly just about the same time we saw the meteor.

Meteors and human lives. Can something as brief as a meteor mean so much to us? Well, in this column I once noted that decades ago I had started trying to time meteors with a stopwatch and found I couldn't often hit the button twice in less than about one-seventh of a second. I pointed out that this was about the length of a fairly long human life in the timing of Carl Sagan's "Cosmic Calendar," in which we set the 13.8 billion-year life of the universe as equal to a single calendar year. I wrote that even one-seventh of a second could be long enough to have a sudden wonderful thought or feeling, or to get a single swift glance at something awesome.

But only recently did I suddenly think of a wondrous natural phenomenon that can indeed last as little as V7 of a second: a meteor. That's a human life in cosmic terms. Even so, the most awesome meteor I've ever seen was timed by another observer (with a stopwatch) as lasting 10.5 seconds. Such a meteor's duration would be roughly as long as all recorded human history in the Cosmic Calendar.

FRED SCHAAF observed his first meteor showers, including the Perseids first of all, when he was 8 or 9 years old.

Caption: GEMINIDS RAIN ON THE TEIDE VOLCANO The Image Is a composite of photos taken in the Canary Islands over a period of two hours during the peak of the shower in December 2013.
COPYRIGHT 2018 All rights reserved. This copyrighted material is duplicated by arrangement with Gale and may not be redistributed in any form without written permission from Sky & Telescope Media, LLC.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Under the Stars
Author:Schaaf, Fred
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Dec 1, 2018
Previous Article:Planetary Almanac.
Next Article:Conjunction Couplet: As we head into the darkest time of the year, the planets keep us busy with their nightly capers.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters