The Sky this Week, August 8-15

“The Sky This Week” appears regularly. It is written by Ian Clarke, Director of the Hatter Planetarium at Gettysburg College.  The planetarium offers regular educational presentations about the stars and the skies; there’s something for early elementary through adults. Public shows have concluded for the academic year, but we are still accepting field trip requests for the summer! The fall schedule of public shows will be available later this month.

Sorry to miss the past few weeks, but here I am back in time to talk about the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on the night of August 12-13. To get the best view, head out after midnight, let your eyes adapt to the dark, and just stare up at the night sky and watch for “shooting stars.” Meteors are not stars, of course; they are pieces of solar system debris, mostly about the size of a grain of sand. The meteors themselves are debris left by a comet. As the earth passes through the debris trail, these particles burn up in our atmosphere. Don’t expect a Hollywood event, and you may well enjoy the show. The meteors burn up in the upper atmosphere, high above any clouds, so clear skies are a must for viewing.

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In this 30-second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia.

The moon will be a waning crescent for this year’s shower, only 10% illuminated, and won’t rise until 3:30 AM on August 13, leaving dark skies for meteor watching. Prime time will be between midnight and moonrise. You can see them anywhere in the sky, but if you were to make a sketch of the meteor paths, they would all seem as if they were coming from the constellation Perseus. Also note that although August 12-13 is the peak, this meteor shower is active from July 24-September 1, so you can continue to see a few Perseids after the peak date, especially as the moon approaches New on August 16 and will be absent from the night sky entirely.

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Ian Clarke is the director of the Hatter Planetarium at Gettysburg College. In addition he has taught introductory astronomy labs and first-year writing there for over 30 years (not necessarily all at the same time). He was educated at Biglerville High School, the University of Virginia, and the University of Iowa. He lives in Gettysburg.

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